Farley Mowat, author of some of the best young adult adventure novels ever written, passed away last week. He was 92. Most people who offered kind words on his behalf to the Canadian and international media said he left a permanent mark on this country’s cultural landscape. I totally agree: Mowat is an inukshuk on that landscape. As a boy, I devoured his classics Two Against the North and the sequel Curse of the Viking Grave. In 1987, a couple of decades later, during rare off-days from my summer job of loading and unloading airplanes on Baffin Island, I hiked the Baffin tundra. Each time, the gut-level feeling of sheer drama and splendour that Mowat wove into his arctic novels flooded back. Every time I headed into the hills beyond Iqaluit (back then it was called Frobisher Bay) I felt the same way I did as a boy when I cracked Two Against the North: pure gumption and excitement. I yearn today for that feeling, and obtain a semblance of it when I venture into Ontario’s wild places. My memories of Mowat’s books, and an actual copy of Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, a gift from my mother, were my literary accompaniment on those hikes. It was an amazing summer.
Farley Mowat lived in Port Hope, a nice little town on the Canadian shore of Lake Ontario. Port Hope is and has been since the 1930s a major uranium processing centre. Back in the 1930s, uranium was valuable only because it co-occurs with radium. Radium was, until uranium fission reactors began making cheaper substitutes, the world’s only source of useful gamma radiation to fight cancer. It was the first “medical isotope.” (There are actually 25 known isotopes of radium, which occurs naturally in the environment. Radium-226 and -228, daughter products in the uranium-238 and thorium-232 series, respectively, are the longest-lived. Others have shorter half-lives, Ra-223 and -224 for example. The latter two were in the spring of 2001 creatively used along with Ra-226 and -228 to measure inflow and mixing characteristics of water in freshwater lakes; see article.)
Fission of uranium was discovered in 1938, and military exigencies related to Adolf Hitler took immediate precedence in all of the early research into the phenomenon. In this circumstance the Port Hope radium separation facility was in the early 1940s converted to process uranium for the Chicago Pile, the world’s first successful fission reactor and the centrepiece of the plutonium arm of the Manhattan Project, the secret Allied effort to build the first atomic bombs. After the Second World War the facility continued to refine uranium. Today it converts uranium trioxide to uranium hexafluoride for export to countries using light water reactor technology, and uranium dioxide for domestic heavy water (CANDU) reactors. The latter are at this very moment producing all of the electricity in the “nuclear” fuel category in Tables 1 and 2 in the left sidebar of this blog. All of the energy that Ontario’s 18 reactors are producing right this minute comes from material that passed through Port Hope.
Port Hope, according to Cameco (formerly Eldorado Nuclear), is one of only four uranium processing centres in the world. That’s right, four. All of the nuclear reactors in the world—there are, according to the World Nuclear Association, 435 of them making electricity—made 2.5 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2011. Most of those 435 reactors used fuel that is refined in only four facilities.
By contrast, there are, according to the Italian national oil company, ENI, 558 petroleum refineries in the world. The largest one occupies over 3,000 hectares (7,500 acres). That is 30 square kilometers, nearly three times the area of Port Hope. These produce an amount of energy, expressed as tons of oil equivalent, that is only six times the amount of energy produced by those four uranium refineries; see the International Energy Agency’s “Key World Energy Statistics,” p. 37. Which is to say, for every one uranium refinery, there are 93 oil refineries. Or, each uranium refinery produces as much energy as 93 oil refineries.
I say this because Farley Mowat was anti-nuclear. He was against nuclear weapons, and by extension nuclear power. I suppose that would pit him and me as ideological opponents. But that is not right. I admired the hell out of the guy. Before he became a professional writer, he was a soldier: he joined the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment in 1940, at age nineteen, a year into the Second World War. He was in the conflict for the duration. He saw things that affected him deeply. As he told an interviewer in 1995, his experience in the war “stripped away the scales and gave me a clarity I might never have had. The raw reality of what my own species was like and could do was a black revelation.”
Perhaps the nuclear strikes on Japan, which ended the Pacific War, reinforced that revelation. Mowat was an emotional man. He was blacklisted from entering the U.S.; he claimed that that was because he told a newspaper that he had fired his rifle at U.S. airplanes carrying atomic bombs. I don’t condone that kind of thing, but I also don’t blame anyone for those kinds of emotions. Mowat had seen things during his war service that nobody should see. It is easy to understand how someone with that experience could recoil so sharply from not just the technology of war, but also the people who invented and perfected it.
In the special case of nuclear power, the technology for the weapon was conflated early on with the technology to make electricity. Both involve fission of uranium and plutonium. But that is where the similarity ends.
However, for those who opposed weapons, it was easy to also oppose energy: weapons had come first, and energy followed hard upon. The technology to make electricity came out of the U.S. navy’s nuclear propulsion program in the early years of the Cold War. To the early anti-nukes, it was all about opposing the U.S. military. I suspect it was that way for Farley Mowat too. (Rick Maltese, on his great blog Deregulate the Atom, has published a guest post of an excellent history of the anti-nuclear movement, which includes good detail on the early groups organized to oppose nuclear weapons. Thanks to the prolific and brilliant Rod Adams for linking to it. Lawrence Wittner’s The Struggle Against the Bomb is also excellent and very well researched.)
The chemical phenomenon of rapid oxidation, i.e. reaction of materials in combination with the oxygen in air, is, in contrast to the physical phenomenon of atomic fission, far more familiar to people. Perhaps this is why people appear willing to live with the often horrible effects of engineered systems that employ rapid oxidation. Chemical explosives employ rapid oxidation. And chemical explosives, including the gunpowder in firearm ammunition, killed the vast majority of people in the Second World War—many, many times more than the atomic strikes on Japan. The overwhelming majority of the people killed in all the wars currently going on in the world right this minute are killed with conventional weapons—that is, weapons that get their power from rapid oxidation.
It is a quirk of human nature that the same people who abhor war, and oppose nuclear power because they think its historical connection with nuclear weapons equates to a technological connection, have no problem getting into a car and driving somewhere—even though the chemical reactions of rapid oxidation that propel bullets toward human targets are very similar to those that propel cars toward destinations. Bullets speeding toward human targets is bad. Cars speeding to destinations can be dangerous, but they are usually not. And they are not morally bad.
Well, uranium fission is just a far more efficient analog of combustion. For those of us who care about the environment, that is a critically important fact. It is better to use a fuel that requires 93 times less infrastructure. That means it has a far, far lighter impact on the planet.
Farley Mowat saw nuclear energy as analogous to nuclear weapons. He was wrong about that. That does not make him any less of a great and noble human being. I will miss him.