With debate over the development of nuclear power beginning to heat up, Saskatchewan seems on the brink of a nuclear war of words.
The issue came to centre stage last year when the Canadian nuclear power company Bruce Power indicated it was investigating the prospects for developing a commercial-size nuclear reactor in northwestern Saskatchewan. In fall 2008, the Saskatchewan Party established the Uranium Development Partnership, a 12 person panel created to advise the government on potential strategies for developing the uranium industry in Saskatchewan.
Saskatchewan currently produces approximately 30 per cent of the world’s uranium supply. The UDP argues that this gives the province a comparative advantage in entering some other areas of the uranium industry.
The UDP is composed of representatives of First Nations, the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Regina, urban and rural municipalities, and the uranium industry. It is led by Dr. Richard Florizone, a nuclear physicist and vice-president of finances at the U of S. The UDP released its report, containing a set of 20 recommendations, on April 3.
Recommendations include: partnering with the federal government to build a research reactor and pursuing medical isotope production, eventually pursuing a larger-scale reactor for commercial use; creating a centre for nuclear research and training; partnering with developers of laser-enrichment technology, a new, high-tech enrichment process; quickly establishing and defining parameters for consultation with MÃ©tis and First Nations in the development of infrastructure in the North; and establishing Saskatchewan as a nuclear waste deposit site because of its geological suitability.
The UDP believes its 20 recommendations could increase the province’s gross domestic product by an estimated $50 billion and create 6,500 construction jobs and 5,500 long-term jobs.
The report does not, however, recommend pursuing the development of facilities to fabricate nuclear fuel or recycle spent fuel, given current market conditions. According to Florizone, there are existing facilities around the world that have a major competitive advantage in these fields.
The province currently uses 3,600 megawatts of electricity annually. The UDP report says it will need to produce an additional 1,200 to 1,750 megawatts by 2020: “Initial examination suggests that up to approximately 3,000 MW of nuclear capacity could be constructed to meet Saskatchewan’s power needs and capture export opportunities.”
The UDP identified Alberta as a potential buyer of exported energy, advising the development of an interprovincial energy partnership.
Now that the report is released, the Saskatchewan Ministry of Enterprise and Innovation (Enterprise Saskatchewan) will be undertaking a series of nine community consultation meetings across the province from May 19 to June 5.
Sandra Morin, the environment critic for the provincial NDP, accuses the UDP of being one-sided.
“The UDP was a very biased panel. Everyone on it, for the most part, has some connection to uranium mining or the promotion of nuclear. Even their so-called environmentalist who used to be with Greenpeace is an advocate of nuclear energy,” she said.
“As a colleague of mine likes to say, if I ask a Ford dealer what brand of car I should buy, it’s obvious what they’re going to suggest.”
The NDP have proposed an alternative to the UDP, the Energy Development Partnership, that Morin says would involve a more comprehensive consultation process with a broader range of experts and more extensive public discussions.
“We’ve had far more comprehensive consultations over things that had much less potential impact,” she said.
Morin is skeptical the nine public consultation dates will be enough to fully inform the public of the pros and cons of expanding the uranium industry. Morin said she would be surprised if there really was someone who “thinks that over a million people have a fair chance to share their views over the course of nine days.”
The public and stakeholder consultation process, run by the Enterprise Saskatchewan, will end with a report to be released on Aug. 31. This will be considered by cabinet as part of their decision making process, along with the UDP report.
Chris Dekker, a representative for Enterprise Saskatchewan, indicated there are multi-party discussions that will come of the consultations. He said any issues emerging from these consultations concerning nuclear power will be brought to a multi-party committee.
He felt this was the issue of the greatest public interest, judging from the opinions being expressed in the media.
“I think there’s a wide variety of thoughts and issues out there… what you get are probably some opinions that are entrenched, either pro or con, and then there’s a large group that are in-between.” He says the government hopes to reach these undecided residents with the consultation processes.
The province was once politically anti-nuclear, with a series of provincial governments denouncing the possibility of nuclear power in Saskatchewan, but a tipping point has been reached. Both major provincial parties have officially endorsed the possibility of nuclear power for Saskatchewan, though the Saskatchewan Party took a fervently supportive position by establishing the UDP.
With the NDP currently undergoing a leadership race, that tentatively pro-nuclear stance could change, especially given the rhetoric of two candidates, Ryan Meili and Yens Pederson. Throughout the campaign, they have been critical of nuclear development in the province, accusing the Saskatchewan Party of trying to make nuclear power a foregone conclusion. In a March 31 press release, Meili questioned whether nuclear power was actually cost effective.
“A nuclear reactor is a very expensive undertaking and the people of Saskatchewan will pay for it on their electricity bills for a long time to come,” he said.
“Whether its Bruce Power or SaskPower, no one will build a nuclear reactor in Saskatchewan for less than 20 cents per kilowatt hour — double the current price…. When compared to wind power at 11 cents per kilowatt hour and electricity conservation at less than 6 cents per kilowatt hour, nuclear power’s economics make no sense.”
Coupled with the tendency for reactors to run billions of dollars over-budget, he says nuclear should not be an option. Meili charges that the wait for a finished reactor would be as much as 20 years and the current projections suggest Saskatchewan’s supply of uranium will be exhausted well within a century, making nuclear power unfeasible in the short and long term.
Morin, the NDP environment critic, urges people to take those statements with a grain of salt. She said it is much easier for candidates to take strong positions during a leadership race.
Morin said the provincial NDP’s position on nuclear energy has “always been” the same: for a nuclear reactor to be pursued, it must not only have a good business case but also meet stringent social and environmental standards.
“It clearly has not yet met that test,” she said. “We’ve so far seen no public involvement. The social concerns have not been met by a mile.”
“We’ve so far seen no public involvement. The social concerns have not been met by a mile.”
—Sandra Morin, NDP environment critic
In regards to environmental standards, Morin points to the provincial government’s 2009-10 working plan for the Ministry of the Environment. As a key action to pursue for the coming year, it has listed the need to minimize provincial regulation of nuclear activity under the Nuclear Safety and Control Act in order to develop infrastructure faster.
The Saskatchewan Party has not responded to criticism about this move from the opposition in the legislature.
Considering the UDP’s recommendations could result in the construction of a small reactor on the U of S campus and the expansion of classes targeted at the uranium industry, this is an issue that has captured the attention of many students. There have been two debates on nuclear energy on campus over the past year, a telling sign this issue is engaging students.
The nuclear debate has even found its way onto Facebook. There are a slew of groups about the Saskatchewan nuclear issue, both for and against. The largest of these is anti-nuclear and contains over 1,500 members.
Still, the UDP’s report may just be enough to convince many Saskatchewan residents.
Typical of many in the province, U of S student Stefan Kopchynski is still undecided on the issue. He supports the uranium mining industry in the province and is interested in nuclear power; though he is concerned the costs of building and later decommissioning a reactor are too much for the province to bear.
“I just don’t know if it’s economically feasible,” he said.
Kopchynski is not as concerned about the environmental or health issues. As long as great care is taken with the disposal of nuclear waste, he feels the environmental issues are manageable, “as long as it doesn’t end up in the water.”
As for radiation in the workplace, Kopchynski says the level of radiation most employees in a nuclear power plant would encounter is minimal.
He was recently hired as a summer student at the Canadian Light Source. In a health and safety course required for the position, he said he was told the highest “legally allowable level of manmade radiation in the workplace is half of the average naturally occurring radiation; that’s just what’s coming from the earth.”
Overall, Kopchynski remains hopeful about nuclear development.
“I think it could be good for the province; it would create high-tech jobs,” he said. “My biggest concern is spending all the money.”
While unsure of the economic feasibility of nuclear development in Saskatchewan, Kopchynski is certain that taking a strong stance against nuclear power could have negative economic consequences.
“If we decide nuclear power is bad then uranium is useless to us,” he said. “What else are we going to do with all those rocks?”
graphic Danni Siemens