By Jim Harding
For September 2, 2011
The companies that build nuclear reactors continue to decline. France’s Areva is still in the business but its huge cost-overruns and cumulating debt make it vulnerable. And Canada’s AECL, now privatized by Harper, will have increasing trouble justifying multi-billion taxpayer subsidies to build Candus. To try to enhance their competitiveness, the U.S.’s General Electric (GE) and Japan’s Hitachi formed a global nuclear alliance in June 2007. However this was premised on Japan and the U.S. continuing to build large nuclear plants, which is highly unlikely after the Fukushima catastrophe. So GE-Hitachi is now desperate for new markets to survive. Enter Saskatchewan, stage right!
Before Fukushima the nuclear industry was regulated by the Trade Ministry, which promoted nuclear energy. Since Fukushima the Japanese government passed strong renewable energy legislation requiring utilities to buy any domestically-produced renewable energy regardless of cost. This is a green light for off-shore wind, geo-thermal plants in the earthquake-prone mountains and an expansion of photovoltaic (PV) electricity. (Japan along with China is already a world leader in PV technology.) This jump-starts the phase-out of nuclear power and puts an end to GE-Hitachi plans to build 20 more Japanese plants, so where does GE-Hitachi go? Apparently they are coming here, where the government is so irrationally-pro-nuclear that it won’t allow itself to face hard economic or ecological facts.
While other countries do a full nuclear phase-out and renewables continue to gain ground globally, our government cancels Sask Power’s net-metering program, which was just a baby step to bring more renewables onto the grid, and makes a nuclear deal with GE-Hitachi. Wall’s government seems totally out of sync with emerging trends. While Minister Norris was finalizing his Memorandums of Understanding with GE-Hitachi, Beyond Nuclear told us that that the situation at Fukushima continued to worsen. The scope of radioactive contamination widens, with high levels of long-lived radioactive cesium now found 62 miles from the plants. Japan’s monitoring agency calculates that the cesium contaminating the country is now 168 times that from the Hiroshima bomb(15,000 tera-becquerels compared to 89.) Both radioactive cesium and strontium are now in Chinese territorial waters, threatening sea life and sea food.
The Wall government not only refused to greet the 20-day walkers who came 820 km from Pinehouse to call for a provincial nuclear waste ban; it has turned its back on what’s continuing to happen to the Japanese people.
Always searching for a corporate way to “move Saskatchewan forward”, regardless of cost and risk, the Wall government ignores the role of its new partner-in-arms in building the flawed Fukushima plants. A deal with GE-Hitachi to study nuclear safety, after Fukushima being the second worst nuclear disaster in history, after Chernobyl, is simply unconscionable. There is something Orwellian when the Hitachi-GE head is reported in the August 25thStar Phoenix as saying, “our latest findings from Fukushima will greatly contribute to safety of nuclear power in Canada also”. I suppose it could also be argued that one way to study cancer is to cause more of it.
In spite of its lapse into “populism” to stop the BHP Potash takeover, the Wall government seems to fundamentally embrace the amoral worldview of corporate globalization. There seems little or no concern about GE-Hitachi’s direct involvement in Fukushima; no apparent concern that Cameco was a major supplier to the reactor company Tepco that operated these plants, or that Tepco is a partner in the troublesome Cigar lake uranium mine! As long as it’s about profitable business, apparently anything goes.
WALL’S CORPORATE PARTNER
What else has Wall’s corporate partner been up to? In 2010 GE-Hitachi signed an agreement with Savannah River Nuclear Solutions (SRNS) to do research on small modular reactors (SMR) and on new nuclear fuels. Savannah, in South Carolina, is where the U.S. nuclear industry began; it did the refining-enriching for U.S. nuclear weapons. And when Minister Norris says that Saskatchewan is moving forward with a “peaceful, responsible, robust nuclear agenda”, he isn’t going to mention that Savannah, where GE-Hitachi operates, is the only place in the U.S. where tritium continues to be produced for nuclear weapons. Savannah has also been earmarked for a mixed-oxide (MOX) plant which would recover plutonium from nuclear waste spent fuel.
In reality the so-called peaceful and military sectors of the nuclear industry remain tightly interlocked. Semantic spin is also rampant in nuclear promotions. What does GE-Hitachi actually mean by “small reactors”? Do they mean small in comparison to big reactors, which produce up to 1,600 megawatts? The IAEA defines “small” as producing under-300 mega-watts electricity (MWe), and “medium” as producing up to 700 MWe. It’s clear that by “small” GE-Hitachi means fairly big, for in April 2011 they submitted a letter of intent to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to apply for a permit for a 311 MWe “small modular reactor”. Such a reactor, however, has not yet been proposed or approved.
Why hasn’t GE-Hitachi gone to Ontario, which produces most of Canada’s nuclear waste. Why has it come to Saskatchewan? Maybe GE-Hitachi thinks it can build its 311 MWe “small reactor” here more easily than in the U.S. After all, the Wall government seems willing to throw public moneys at waning nuclear companies. Maybe GE-Hitachi thinks Ontario’s, and even the U.S.’s nuclear wastes will someday be here too.
The MOU between the Sask Party government and GE-Hitachi makes us into Savannah North. GE-Hitachi needs a place to launch its “small” reactor industry using nuclear wastes as spent fuel. And the Wall government has welcomed them with open arms. This is what the nuclear industry-dominated UDP recommended in 2008, and in spite of the public consultations showing overwhelming opposition to this toxic vision of “moving Saskatchewan forward”, the Wall government carries on. It apparently can’t take “no!” for an answer.
NUCLEAR DUMP STILL ON
So take it with a big grain of salt when Premier Wall says he’s not sure whether we should have a nuclear waste dump in the north, because it is a Saskatchewan-wide issue, and there’s not much support. (He’s right about this!) He’s only begging time. He’s operating the same as the industry-based Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) when it tries to buy its way into a northern community like Pinehouse, with the rest of us not really knowing what is happening or the implications for our future.
The University of Saskatchewan, in this regards, is a little like Pinehouse, with a few people willing to be part of the nuclear agenda, if there is something in it for them. In the north NWMO tries to piggy-back its agenda on the crisis of youth; in Saskatoon GE-Hitachi tries to do this piggy-backing nuclear medicine. In neither case are they related. Economic impoverishment has remained in the north in spite of the uranium mining “boom”; and a nuclear dump would only aggravate the situation. And research on using the U of S synchrotron for producing medical isotopes has nothing to do with “small” reactors or nuclear wastes. In fact, it would make nuclear reactors even more obsolete.
To truly move Saskatchewan forward we are going to have to cut through the growing pile of nuclear spin! We can only hope this will start to happen in the fall election.