The mayor of Sarnia, anxious perhaps to divert public attention from the molecular-level particle interactions that provide so many of his constituents with such well-paying employment, loudly proclaimed in 2011 his opposition to sub-atomic-level interactions apropos of Bruce Power’s plan to ship old nuclear steam generators to Sweden via the Great Lakes. The route would have taken the generators past Sarnia, which in 2011 was reported to have the worst air quality in Canada. That terrible report card was due mostly to pollution drifting in from the U.S. But industrial-scale molecular-level interactions in Sarnia—i.e. the chemical industry for which the city is famous—also played a major role.
It is likely that the Sarnia mayor focused so closely on the steam generator shipment, which would have contained laughably minuscule amounts of radioactivity and posed no threat at all to anybody or anything, because of his town’s bad environmental reputation. For a number of pop culture reasons that do not jibe with the real world, nuclear is an easy target, and the mayor had all sorts of fellow opponents in the self-styled environmental movement. It must have been a pleasant experience, actually being on the “greens’” side for once—even if the campaign against the steam generators was a lamentable farce in terms of actual facts. Sarnia’s chemical industries dump huge amounts of pollution into the air each year. Comparing that to even the entire inventory of used nuclear fuel in Canada, from half a century of continuous 24/7 operation powering Canada’s most populous province and mightiest industrial economy, is like comparing a large asteroid with a grain of sand.
More to the point on air quality and Sarnia’s awful 2011 report card, the sub-atomic-level particle interactions—a.k.a. nuclear fission—that power Ontario’s nuclear generating fleet produced absolutely none of the criteria air contaminants that led to the awful report card. Those CACs came from the industrial-scale molecular-level interactions that have brought so much wealth to Sarnia.
So, from the long-term economic perspective, the mayor’s antinuclear snowjob was an incredibly short-sighted and possibly destructive move. Nova Chemicals, a major Sarnia employer, is publicly mulling over whether it should expand polyethylene manufacturing operations in Sarnia or on the U.S. gulf coast. Polyethylene manufacturing is highly electricity intensive. Nova, like every other electricity user, wants a rate that is as low as it would get on the gulf coast. The mayor, with a straight face, is demanding the provincial government give Nova a low rate.
Well, Ontario could likely out-do any Gulf Coast U.S. state except perhaps Louisiana in the low-cost-power sweepstakes. That is because most of our electricity comes from the very nuclear plants the mayor opposes (see Tables 1 and 2 in the left-hand sidebar for today’s generation mix). The nuclear plants provide cheap bulk power—with none of the air emissions that gave Sarnia its bottom-of-the-barrel air quality ranking in 2011.
However, because of facile opposition from people like Sarnia’s mayor, nuclear has a very ill-deserved bad reputation among the general public. That could lead to an erosion in nuclear’s contribution to Ontario’s electricity mix. That will certainly cause power prices to go up.
Nova Chemicals may read these tea leaves, and the public utterances of Sarnia’s fork-tongued mayor, and decided to locate the new polyethylene plant down south, where power prices are likely to stay low.
Ontario’s loss will be the gulf coast’s gain.