Nuc Eng

Reference Info

The Societal Context of Outreach
  1. All Together Now...
    • Public perception is a central issue right now.  Something as big, complex, and important as nuclear power or medical isotopes needs to have provincial and federal backing just as education and  health care do.  That backing can take many forms and does not preclude that parts of the business cannot be given to the marketplace.  But it is important enough that its stability be guaranteed.  Politicians follow the almighty voter so if the public mood is sour on nuclear you can predict which way the federal and provincial governments are going to move, especially in times of fiscal deficits.  The issues are not technical in that we have proven that we can design, construct, operate and decommission plants safely, on budget and on schedule.  We also know how to take care of spent fuel technically.  Of course there are technical problems from time to time but we can deal, and have dealt, with that. 
    • Not that industry is entirely blameless, but most of the large time and cost overruns have been caused by political waffling, intervener interference from anti-nuclear groups whose goal is to block new builds, high interest rates in the past coupled with fiscal procedures that hobble, etc.  Again, once the politicians sense the public mood (votes) are not in favour of nuclear then funding is reduced on existing projects (AECL's NRU and MAPLE reactors, Ontario's operating fleet, etc.), maintenance gets the short shift and - lo and behold - management and technical staff don't have the where-with-all to do a proper job and technical performance drops.  That is what happened leading up to the mid-1990s when poor (literally) AECL and Ontario Hydro were blamed for dropping the ball [ref: Costs].  Duh!  Ontario decided to go the nuclear route years ago and that was a solid decision that has provided reliable, clean and safe power and saved many lives via cleaner air and the availability of cheap medical isotopes.  But by not staying the course and not following through with continued support, permitting fringe groups to question and delay implementation without being held accountable, etc., I feel we, as a Canadian society, are paying a big price.  Due process, yes by all means.  But I firmly believe that one should not have rights without responsibilities.  And one cannot correctly assign a responsibility to someone to do a task without giving that person the authority and the means to carry out that task.  It seems to me that industry has the responsibilities but insufficient means, while those opposed to nuclear have the right but are not held responsible.  The governments have the right, the responsibility, and (if the public deems it so) the means.  Again, it comes back to the public.
    • Any activity involves some risk.  Nuclear is no exception.  We have calculated the risk to be small and it has proven to be so.  A lot of the reason why nuclear costs have been high can be traced back to the public perception of risk associated with small amounts of radiation.  Many people are terrified of what is a very small, if not zero, risk.  Consequently, at every turn, implementation of nuclear is impeded to the point that we get mired down.  It is very sad really because the replacement power has to come from coal, oil and gas.  The increase in pollution from fossil fuels kills thousands each year, mainly those with respiratory problems if you can trust the medical stats.  Maybe those people would have died anyway but you can explain that to their loved ones, not me.  And the added cost of getting mired down in implementing nuclear because of irresponsible intervener actions and having to pursue alternate means, ie the added cost of inefficiently and half-heartily following a path, has the direct effect of having less resources to spend on other things - like improved health care. 
    • Either we are in the game or not.  Half measures are a dangerous (literally) waste of time and money.  Lobbying can work to a degree but if the public is not behind nuclear then it just won't happen.  So public outreach is the key issue.  I am not in favour of sales pitches and sales tactics.  What we nuclear folks need to do is engage in conversations to help people think about the issues correctly.  If the public in the end chooses to reject nuclear then so be it.  If they are properly informed and have correctly weighed the pros and cons, then that is the right decision to make as a society.  My wife was a social worker dealing with pregnant teenagers.  She wisely insisted on the girl taking responsibility for the decision to abort, keep or give up for adoption.  My wife made sure the girl had all the facts for each option and supported her in her choice irrespective of her choice.  The public deserves no less.  The onus is now on us all to pull together through outreach activities to engage the public as they make decisions about how society is to proceed.
  2. How should we organize ourselves?
    • So what does this mean for the Canadian Nuclear Enterprise which includes, industry, universities, societies, the regulator, governments, the public, etc.? What respective role does each stakeholder play? What challenges and opportunities?  Universities tend to be the trusted source of unbiased knowledge. They are a good balance between being arms-length but close enough to be informed. Societies like the Canadian Nuclear Society (CNS) are an invaluable voice of the individual professional and are also more or less arms-length. The regulator is a trustworthy source but they must tread carefully to maintain their neutrality. Industry and industry associations can provide the facts (subject to verification by independent review of course) and they have the most resources on tap. But they of course have a vested interest so are suspect in the eyes of the public.
    • I think the Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA) can be the mother hen that looks at the whole industry and takes ownership of the role of stewardship, of supporting a nuclear journal, of supporting CANTEACH ( ), UNENE ( ) (yes, I have a slight bias here), of supporting professional development, etc.  But the more central and critical issue for the CNA to address is government / society commitment to nuclear.  If there is no game, the rest is moot.  The CNA does not necessarily need to do the work themselves but they need to make sure that balls are not being dropped.  The CNA represents the big central players in the game.  No other group has the resources or the continuity or the authority to be the mother hen now that AECL is being broken up and OH was broken up.  The CNA is not alone in Canada's nuclear enterprise of course.  It doesn't represent the voice of the public, the universities, the societies (notably the Canadian Nuclear Society - ) and the many individuals out there that constitute the mix.  I am very pleased to see the CNA ramp up their outreach activities.  But they can't do it alone.