There is a lot of speculating and scenario-gaming going on in the Canadian nuclear industry, and many other industries, about the upshot of this weekend’s Liberal leadership competition. That is all interesting, and even seems important: after all, this weekend’s winner will become premier, and will gain, in theory at least, the power to set the industry’s future. But in my view, the only real consideration is the nature of the interaction between public opinion and the provincial government on the matter of how or whether to proceed with the great nuclear projects that are needed and that have been planned. One of these factors is the dog, and the other is the tail. I think the government is the tail. And for reasons entirely related to electoral politics in this province, it matters hugely what voters in the 416 (downtown Toronto) area think of nuclear power.
The mighty 416, Canada’s richest voting region. For two of the Ontario provincial political parties, this is the promised land. It is vital for both to capture as many 416 seats as possible. A third party, very strong outside 416, could win provincial power without any 416 seats; that would require that neither of the first two gets too big a share.
As I have pointed out, those voters, when the issue of energy comes up, are generally anti-nuclear.
Therefore, the industry needs to settle on a geographical advocacy strategy that puts nuclear in a new and more positive light in the minds of these voters.
Rhetorically, there are numerous tacks that could change their minds. Nuclear power is a friend to anybody who cares about the usual left-of-centre issues like social housing, urban sprawl, mass transit, union jobs, and affordable health care.
Expensive electricity, which is what we will get if we put more allegedly “green” sources like wind and solar into the grid, is detrimental to all of these causes.
Expensive electricity is why there will be a party leadership vote this coming weekend. Recall that the soon-to-be-former premier was forced back in October to prorogue the legislature because of intense heat over how the government had handled the siting of two gas-fired power plants. Recall also that that heat was a consideration only because the governing party did not hold a strong position in the legislature. The Liberals held a bare minority, and because of that did not control the legislative committees that could have really delved into the power plant issues.
And why did the Liberals hold only a minority advantage in the legislature? Because they had lost their majority in the provincial general election of October 2011. They lost their majority because of… expensive electricity. Don’t forget the role that wind power played in the 2011 election campaign.
As I have emphasized in this blog, wind power is gas power. So wind power cost the government its majority; gas power cost the premier his career and job.
This illustrates how difficult it is in this day and age to expand power generation capacity. It is no longer possible to just snap your fingers and make it so. Local communities can thwart your plans.
Well, there are no local communities that are more welcoming of new power generation than communities that already host nuclear plants. Ontario could literally double the generating capacity of at least two of its nuclear plants, with no appreciable local opposition and lots of local support.