Earlier this summer, I was asked to speak on the nuclear industry at the National Farmer Union’s (NFU) Saskatchewan annual meeting. I have spoken on the pitfalls of nuclear energy so often that I worried I might be redundant. But what you say in a talk or article depends mostly on the questions you ask; this sets the direction of your research and analysis. So this was an opportunity for me to consider questions that I previously might have downplayed.
Sometimes we don’t want to ask new questions about old topics for fear of what we might find. This is true at a personal as well as at a political level. This year we enthusiastically ask questions about Medicare as part of celebrating its 50th anniversary. But we still don’t ask the hard questions about Saskatchewan’s longer nuclear heritage; this might be too revealing and impossible to celebrate.
I decided to prepare my NFU talk by asking two overlooked, interrelated questions: first, what role have the different provincial parties played in developing the nuclear industry here?; and second, how has the opposition to the nuclear industry unfolded over the different political regimes? I will address #1 here and leave #2 for next week’s column.
ALL PARTIES INVOLVED
All political parties of the so-called left and right have contributed to Saskatchewan’s nuclear heritage. The first CCF government under Tommy Douglas developed the town of Uranium City to mine and export uranium to the U.S. military. This started at Beaverlodge in 1953 and went on in secret at other sites until the late 1960s. I once asked then Premier Douglas to speak at a nuclear disarmament rally at the Legislature in the late 1950s, where he shared the stage with Farley Mowat. There was irony in Tommy speaking of the dangers of nuclear warfare while uranium was being shipped secretly from the north to build up the U.S.’s nuclear arsenal.
Tommy left Saskatchewan to head up the newly formed NDP. In 1964, after the political polarization of the Medicare struggle, the Thatcher Liberals replaced the NDP, led by Woodrow Lloyd. The Liberals didn’t dare touch Medicare, which now had national support. But, in 1965, unbeknownst to many to this day, Ross Thatcher made the first attempt to expand the nuclear industry in Saskatchewan beyond uranium mining. Using federal Liberal party connections, he tried to get a heavy water plant built near Estevan. The CANDU reactors, which require heavy water, were being built in Ontario and Quebec, so this was a non-starter.
The Blakeney NDP came to power in 1971. Motivated to diversify resource revenues and holding to an uncritical belief that nuclear power would replace oil after the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries or OPEC’s price increases, NDP technocrats embarked on the first, but not last, attempt at a full-scale expansion of the nuclear fuel system in the province. Blakeney used crown corporations for this purpose. After forming the Saskatchewan Mining and Development Corporation (SMDC) in 1974, his government formed a joint-venture with the French state corporation Amok/Cogema, now called Areva, to mine uranium at Cluff Lake. It then started another joint-venture at the then largest uranium mine in the world, Key Lake.
After being re-elected for a third term in 1978, Blakeney’s NDP government attempted to get a uranium refinery built at Warman, outside of Saskatoon. But this backfired, contributing to the NDP’s defeat by the Grant Devine Tories in 1982. We now know from Blakeney’s archives that the next plan, to build nuclear power plants, was shelved because public support for the nuclear industry declined sharply after the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in 1979.
The Devine government carried on with a pro-nuclear plan, twice trying to introduce nuclear power. It tried first, in 1989, through a party-connected private consortium, Western Project Development Associates (WPDA), which may have been a trial balloon on privatizing electrical production. It tried again in 1991 signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd or AECL to develop a smaller-sized 400 mega-watt (MW) Candu reactor to compete with coal plants here and abroad.
The Romano NDP came to power to “save public utilities”. He inherited a huge public debt. There was no promotion of nuclear power; in fact, Romanow was the first Saskatchewan Premier to talk about the importance of energy conservation, though the Saskatchewan Energy Conservation and Development Institute was short-lived. Under Romanow however, the party reversed its policy, when in opposition, to phase-out uranium mining. Romanow also broke with his promise to heed the findings of the Joint Federal Provincial Panel (JFPP), which recommended that the Midwest uranium mine not go ahead and that the one proposed at McLean Lake be postponed. In 1994, as in 1974 under Blakeney, uranium mine expansion got the green light.
The promotion of a uranium refinery returned under Calvert’s NDP government. The Calvert NDP was the first Saskatchewan government to construct small-scale wind power, but showed no interest in expanding renewable energy towards a phase-out of coal, in spite of Saskatchewan having the highest per capita carbon footprint in all Canada.
FULL SPEED AGAIN
After decades of NDP promotion of the uranium industry, in 2007 Brad Wall’s newly elected Sask Party government began aggressively promoting the full nuclear industry. In 2009 he appointed an industry-dominated Uranium Development Partnership (UDP) which predictably recommended an expansion of the nuclear fuel system, from uranium mining to nuclear power to a nuclear waste dump in the north. This plan was almost identical to one outlined in a 1991 AECL report commissioned near the end of the Devine government.
The blatant industry bias of the UDP reignited grass-roots non-nuclear sentiment; the thousands attending public hearings were overwhelmingly opposed to the proposed nuclear expansion. Bruce Power’s proposal to build nuclear plants on the North Saskatchewan River was staunchly opposed by farmers, First Nations and environmentalists alike, and it was ultimately rejected by the Sask Party government.
Though the Sask Party government has now backed away from its very high profile promotion of the nuclear industry, and like the Calvert NDP embraced so-called “clean coal” and carbon capture, it hasn’t abandoned its nuclear agenda. It now works “through the back door” – through a joint-venture with GE-Hitatchi and the University of Saskatchewan’s Canadian Centre for Nuclear Innovation, researching “small reactors” for potential use in the tar sands and on the provincial grid, and researching the use nuclear wastes as nuclear reactor fuel.
Over the decades there have been many rationales justifying the huge public subsidies keeping the nuclear industry afloat. First there was nuclear deterrence, then the peaceful atom and cheap energy and now, with the climate crisis, “clean energy”. All have been discredited. But, like all political parties before them, the Sask Party tries to legitimize nuclear expansion by piggy-backing on nuclear medicine in the province.
Will this manipulative strategy be any more effective in convincing an ever-more skeptical public to embrace the nuclear industry, especially since the Fukushima nuclear melt-down and global contamination? Or, can we now begin to imagine a future Saskatchewan government following on the growing trend to phase-out the nuclear industry?