Sunday, July 24, 2005

Paul Martin, in his frantic and successful efforts to win the "Belinda" vote back in May, threw dollars (actually, promises of dollars) at just about everyone who asked for them – everyone except New Brunswick premier Bernard Lord. Lord tried to trade his province’s participation in Ken Dryden's child care scheme for federal cash to refurbish the ageing Pt. Lepreau nuclear generating station. But the feds didn't go for it. And just over a week ago (July 15), the senior federal NB minister, Andy Scott, announced his government would not fork over the $400 million New Brunswick needs to extend Lepreau operating life by another 25 years.

This in spite of Lord's threat to replace Lepreau's carbon-free electricity with power from a new coal-fired plant. Two weeks ago Prime Minister Martin stood with the other G8 leaders in Scotland and reaffirmed Canada's commitment to the Kyoto Treaty. But in the wake of the Lepreau announcement you have to wonder what the reaffirmation is really worth. Lepreau cranks out around 4.9 billion kWh each year. If Lord makes good on his threat to replace Lepreau with a new coal station (and why wouldn't he, his province does need the electricity), New Brunswick's electricity-related greenhouse gas emissions will jump from 10 million tonnes to around 14 million tonnes. I.e., Canada's greenhouse emissions will increase -- exactly the situation climate scientists tell us we must avoid. And speaking of coal, let's not forget another Martin promise in the pre-Belinda pledge-fest: his assurance to Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty that Ottawa, in the name of Kyoto, will help defray the costs of closing Ontario's coal-fired generating plants. So our Liberal Prime Minister will pay McGuinty -- the (Liberal) premier of Canada's richest province – roughly half a billion dollars to phase out coal. But he won't pay Lord -- the (Conservative) premier of a have-not province – an equivalent amount to avoid coal. And then he stands with his G8 colleagues in Scotland and solemnly repeats his unswerving commitment to Kyoto.

It all sounds crazy, but there is an easy logic to it. Had Martin extended federal largesse to Lord for Lepreau, he would have risked crucial NDP support in the Belinda vote. Martin’s government is still hanging by a thread, and he cannot afford to jeopardize his ability to squeeze one-off agreements from the Bloc and NDP in the ongoing battle to ward off Stephen Harper. Going positive on nuclear would jeopardize this ability. Forget about the pro-Kyoto, pro-environment protestations of the Bloc and NDP. Posturing and lip service are paramount for those who support Kyoto; the actual route to hard emission reductions is a lesser matter. So Martin knows he can afford to postpone a decision on nuclear power.

But nuclear needs a decision, and soon. Aside from the issue of what to do with Pt. Lepreau, and Gentilly, and the six laid-up units in Ontario, we need to decide if nuclear is going to play a role in the future of our electricity supply. I for one believe it absolutely must, because it is the only large-scale generation technology that is proven, reliable, affordable, and carbon-free. So in addition to near-term decisions on what to do with our existing fleet, we have to decide whether or not to add to the fleet. In the current opinion environment, a non-decision seems the way to go.

But hold on. A federal official close to the Lepreau decision tells me the file is not closed. So I’ll make a prediction. There will be federal support for Lepreau, and for Quebec and Ontario should they decide (and they will) to refurbish their own reactors. This will come in the form of loan guarantees rather than outright subsidies – similar to the way the French government has underwritten the Finnish deal. That way the feds can entice the private sector to get involved and spin it as a public-private partnership rather than yet another subsidy for the “nuclear industry.”

Besides, a series of converging developments will bring the situation to a head. Public opinion actually favours a positive move on nuclear over inaction on climate change. Federal bureaucrats, fearing the Auditor General’s public lash, are under pressure to provide some – any – evidence of credible bang-for-the-buck potential in federal allocations to Kyoto programs and projects. The nuclear industry renaissance in Europe and the U.S. will put extra pressure on the Canadian government to either support CANDU or watch another excellent made-in-Canada technology go the way of the Avro Arrow.

I’ll deal with all of these developments in upcoming posts, so stay tuned. In the mean time, don't hesitate to add your own comments or suggestions.

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