“Transparent and accountable decision making”: has Greenpeace abandoned its anti-nuclear position?

Two days ago, Greenpeace’s nuclear point-man in Canada, Shawn-Patrick Stensil, told the Toronto Star he thinks creating a short-list of reactor makers will save Ontario time and money as it embarks on a new wave of nuclear generation investment.

He didn’t say Ontario should never have gone nuclear in the first place—which has been Greenpeace’s line since the group was formed thirty-seven years ago—or that Ontario should replace nuclear and coal plants with renewables and conservation.

Has Greenpeace climbed off its anti-nuclear position? Not according to an activist I spoke to yesterday. But Stensil’s comment speaks for itself. When the chief anti-nuclear group passes on an opportunity to advertise cherished dogma, you have to wonder if maybe they’ve acquired some intellectual flexibility over the past while.

It all comes down to the value you place on a tonne of carbon dioxide. Mainstream greens, almost all of them anti-nuclear, have been the loudest voice in favour of meeting Kyoto targets. Their problem is that the hated atom produced a 15 million tonne reduction in Ontario’s power-sector greenhouse gases (GHGs) between 2003 and 2006. This was the biggest reduction in any industrial sector anywhere in North America since the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997.

This has produced a policy crisis for the part of the green lobby that is active on the Ontario electricity file. Plan A, the phaseout of Ontario coal generation and its replacement with natural gas–fired generation, went down the tubes in 2003 when the price of gas went above $5 per million Btu and stayed there. Plan B, a call for renewables coupled with energy conservation and efficiency, was instantly discredited as futile and expensive. Meanwhile, Ontario’s proportional shift from coal to nuclear produced the 15 million tonne reduction—without the closure of a single proscribed coal plant. The greens must have known that sooner or later they would just have to face facts.

Have they reached that point? Stensil’s remark suggests they have.

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15 years ago

Well, I admire your optimism, and I wish it were true, but I find it difficult to imagine greenpeace doing anything that disrupts their primary revenue source. Based on the brochures that they have sent me it seems that the nuclear scare is the most important issue causing people to send in money. However, if that is changing then they might be willing to sing a new song. It all depends on what the people are willing to pay for.

Steve Aplin
15 years ago

You are right Randal, I’m being optimistic. Also pointing out a disconnect between GP’s ideology and media comments. I mean, since when did GP become fair tax advocate? Is that what their fund-raising goes to? Ideologically, their line should always be to oppose nuclear. Getting them to opine on how to run a nuclear procurement process is like getting an opponent of the Iraq War to give an opinion on whether the U.S. should invade from the north or south.

15 years ago

Well, I can see two other possibilities:

1. Stensil blathered on about how evil nuclear power is but the Star didn’t bother printing it (which, now I think about it, would also be quite an improvement).

2. GP are setting the scene for a run through the courts to get the “transparent and accountable decision making” – just on making the shortlist – challenged and re-run, like in the UK. Then do the same to each subsequent stage, wasting the maximum taxpayer dollar possible.

Steve Aplin
15 years ago

I suspect it isn’t your possibility 1, so unless I’m right maybe it is your possibility 2: GP is preparing for a court challenge.

If so, there would be a delay in commissioning new reactors (and yes, lots of wasted public money). That’s why it surprises me that I’m the only one talking about the 15 million tonnes. Delay in putting new reactors into service makes Ontario more dependent on coal and gas, which in turn delays further progress on GHG reductions and jacks up the price of our electricity. Somebody could and should make the point that GP is allied, at least informally, with the
Ontario Clean Air Alliance
, an astro-turf front for the gas industry, in calling for the replacement of coal and nuclear with gas. “They’re playing Ontario like we’re a bunch of hicks.”

15 years ago

Steve, you keep praising Ontario’s unreliable CANDU reactors for the CO2 they abated when they returned from their 7-year total shutdown! And if you banged your head against a wall, it would feel much better when you stopped! Both patterns obviously look pretty dumb from a distance. I hope your readers stop to think about it.

Many of us anti-nukes intervene in the details of nuclear power, trying to get small improvements in accountability, safety, environmental performance, regulatory independence, etc. All without hiding our overall views about the wisdom of pursuing this technology. That’s no more conflicted than when a pro-nuke argues for subsidies or risk guarantees or looser safety standards, or fires the regulator.

Guaranteeing reactors 14000MW of the Ontario grid is a mistake, but choosing openly among multiple reactor designs makes some sense.

You’ve worked pretty hard to confuse yourself and your readers into thinking there are more than the same handful of recent converts to nuclear power — especially Patrick Moore in the news every other Tuesday! But there aren’t. And public information is still the industry’s worst enemy, especially as the public becomes more environmentally conscious.

Some of us have never been religiously opposed to nuclear power, but still think that today’s reactors are unacceptable, and a distraction from a more practical path away from fossil fuels.

Finally, criticizing the Greenpeacers for being corrupted by money is kind of funny. I wish SP Stensil and his colleagues were making half as much as the overpaid “experts” at AECL who still can’t figure out why the MAPLE reactors won’t run right! At least GP is doing its job.

Steve Aplin
15 years ago

Norman, where have you been. I missed you.

We will continue to disagree about the significance of the return of the CANDUs laid up in the mid-90s. You say the layups prove the machines are unreliable, I say their return post 2003 proves nuclear power is the way to cut fossil emissions in power systems with significant fossil components. Note that I said “nuclear,” not CANDU. But since I am a Canadian boy, and cheer for team Canada whether it plays hockey, runs a bank, or makes reactors, let me just say that all post-Pickering reactors seem to be doing well.

You say anti-nuclear legal interventions are “no more conflicted than when a pro-nuke argues for subsidies or risk guarantees or looser safety standards, or fires the regulator.” Fair enough, but it’s also fair to say our reactors have operated safely under a stringent regulatory regime. It is therefore also fair to say that Fabian tactics will delay meaningful emission reductions in Ontario. By the way, I have only advocated for subsidies and risk guarantees. As for loose safety standards and firing the regulator… well, Chalk River has opened a hole that I am absolutely amazed you anti-nuke people haven’t rushed into.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking Patrick Moore is the only apostate anti-nuclear green. Don’t forget James Lovelock or Stuart Brand. Above all, watch the tortuous internal debate inside the German Social Democratic Party over Germany’s legislated nuclear phaseout. This debate rages as Germany grapples with the impossible problem of meeting its own emission reduction targets without massive imports of Russian natural gas. A former Schroeder cabinet minister recently turned pro-nuke, and while the party rallied against him the most prominent attacks were ad hominem, which usually means the attackers have run out of intellectually coherent arguments.

I didn’t say GP is corrupted by money. I said they are allied with the gas industry, which is trying to do in Ontario what Enron failed to do in the U.S. Even Bush saw through that.