For those who believe that conservatives are always in favor of nuclear energy while liberals are always opposed, here is a story from Canada. Steven Harper’s Conservative Government, claiming that it is a “sinkhole” that has only been a drain on public finances has decided that Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), a crown corporation that has been in the business of atomic energy development since there was such a thing, is going to be split apart and privatized. It may give up on its long established history of providing isotopes for medical and industrial uses.
The proximate cause of this decision is the oh-so-surprising fact that a fifty year old machine needs some TLC (tender loving care) now and again in order to prevent it from getting a little rusty and leaky. Like many conservative politicians, it apparently frustrates Harper to think that you have to keep investing some of the returns that you obtain from operation and product sales into the facilities that make the product possible. (Take it from one who has fought in the trenches of budget battles in support of maintenance and training efforts in “fiscally conservative” organizations for the past 7 years.)
Of course, there is also the fact that AECL’s product line, when successfully implemented with appropriate investments, poses a strong competitive threat to the politically influential Canadian oil, coal, gas and hydro industries. Making it seem like atomic energy is a losing bet is a positive step in the agenda of maintaining the prosperity and influence of that key industry.
Here is the comment I left on The Economist article titled Ending a dream, or nightmare: The government opts not to pour more money down the nuclear “sinkhole” (Aside: I have never found the The Economist, which tends to orient in support of establishment enterprises, to be terribly favorable to atomic energy development. You can see from their headline that it retains that slant.)
It may be a benefit for the future of nuclear technology in Canada if AECL and its engineers, technicians and scientists can find an owner that is willing to invest in order to compete in the world’s most important and lucrative market – the one for clean, reliable, affordable energy.
I think a big reason that government dominated decision making in Canada and the US has been detrimental to atomic energy advancement can be explained by looking at the difference in the political power of the “natural resources” industries of those countries compared to the same industries in France, where the government has been quite supportive of atomic energy development.
As the French frequently say when asked why they support nuclear, “No coal, no oil, no gas, no choice.” That also means that their natural resources industries are historically focused on finding supplies from outside of the country and have far less political influence.
In Canada and the US, the oil, coal and gas industries are clearly influential enough in politics to place innumerable roadblocks in the development of a competitive industry, especially if its development is dependent on government investments and decision making processes. They are also clever enough to keep their influence behind closed doors – where it matters most – while they financially enable the efforts of more vocal anti-nuclear activists.
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Host and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast
Update: Posted on June 19, 2009 at 0440 – There is a fascinating and well referenced post on the medical isotope production situation in Canada and the efforts of the conservative Harper government to rid itself of the challenge of reliably supplying a useful, life extending product over at We Support Lee. That blog had been dark for several months (from September 2008 through April 2009) due to some difficulties with Blogger and a persistent, irritating anonymous commenter. Glad to see it is back and providing thoughtful, detailed commentary.