Canada contemplates nuclear solution to quell climate change

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Canada contemplates nuclear solution to quell climate change

Randy Boswell
CanWest News Service

Friday, August 31, 2007

Canada is poised to join an elite club of “advanced nuclear nations” that — led by U.S. President George W. Bush — plans to promote nuclear energy as a key solution to global warming and to control the international movement of enriched uranium and radioactive waste, CanWest News Service has learned.

Canada’s membership in the controversial Global Nuclear Energy Partnership would open a new battlefront in the already divisive national debate over what this country should do to help avert a planetary climate change crisis.

And joining the partnership — initiated by the Bush administration last year, and now counting Russia, China, Japan and France as members — could raise thorny questions about the costs and benefits to Canada, including potential impacts on the country’s thriving uranium export industry, its CANDU reactor sales and its capacity to dispose of nuclear waste.

Responding to a CanWest News Service request about Canada’s possible involvement in GNEP, a Foreign Affairs spokeswoman said: “Canada has been invited to join the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership and to participate in the next meeting scheduled to take place on September 16 in Vienna.”

The statement added: “Canada is reviewing the proposed GNEP Statement of Principles and a decision on Canadian participation will be made shortly.”

One of the key components of the partnership is its push for the development of “fast-cycle reactors” – not yet proven to work commercially — that would produce less nuclear waste, but could compete internationally with the CANDU.

The cornerstone commitment of the partnership is its “cradle-to-grave” plan to have all spent fuel from the world’s reactors shipped back to GNEP uranium-supplier nations for secure disposal at nuclear waste sites.

But the GNEP initiative has two other goals: to reduce the chances of nuclear power spawning the development of nuclear weapons by rogue states or terrorists; and to create a more secure international regime for the disposal of radioactive waste.

Experts in the U.S., though, are divided over whether GNEP will accomplish those goals or — because the partnership is predicated on promoting more nuclear power — stoke global security risks.

The GNEP initiative came to light in Canada in May 2006 when Prime Minister John Howard of Australia — like Canada, a major world supplier of uranium – visited Ottawa and voiced interest in the U.S. proposal, but also concerns about its possible effect on the mining and export industries.

At the time, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said: “Australia and Canada, as the two major uranium producers in the world, have considerable interest in whatever the United States and the international community have in mind in terms of future uranium development, production and marketing.”

He added that he and Howard had “agreed we’re going to collaborate very closely together to make sure Australian and Canadian interests are closely protected while the Americans and others discuss the future of that industry.”

A Greenpeace spokesman argued then that joining GNEP would make Canada “an international waste dump.”

Howard now appears determined to join the U.S.-led consortium, igniting a debate in Australia – which does not have nuclear power plants – over whether GNEP will contribute to a safer, cleaner world, force Australia to become a nuclear waste repository, distract nations from cutting greenhouse gases, or put the U.S. and its partners at odds with other countries eager to develop nuclear energy.

The Australian debate has also fired speculation about Canada’s possible role within GNEP.

Dennis Spurgeon, assistant secretary for nuclear power at the U.S. Department of Energy, told The Australian newspaper last year that the U.S. might consider inviting Australia and Canada to join the partnership.

“I think Australia, and Canada for that matter, play a special role in world nuclear affairs,” Spurgeon said at the time, “because obviously you are two countries that have the majority of economically recoverable uranium resources.”

Nuclear energy’s role in fighting climate change is being hotly debated in Australia and elsewhere in advance of next week’s APEC summit of Asia-Pacific countries, including Canada and the U.S., which begins in Sydney on Sept. 8.

A draft version of the planned APEC leaders’ declaration on the environment, leaked last week in Australia, touted the merits of nuclear energy as a non-polluting alternative to fossil fuels and proposed – controversially – a vague, unenforceable “aspirational” goal for cutting greenhouse gases in the Asia-Pacific region.

Environment Minister John Baird dismissed criticism in Canada as premature, saying the APEC declaration had not yet been finalized.

Harper is scheduled to address the Australian parliament days after the APEC summit, a speech that’s expected to highlight the convergence of Canadian and Australian interests on the world stage – particularly on energy issues and in designing a post-Kyoto strategy for tackling climate change.

Howard – who shares with Harper a broadly conservative political agenda and a generally supportive stance toward the Bush administration – is expected to get a boost from Harper’s speech on the brink of an Australian election this fall.

“Anything called a Global Nuclear Energy Partnership that is U.S.-led is the wrong way to go,” Green party Leader Elizabeth May told CanWest News Service this week. “The way to go in monitoring and controlling nuclear power is to stay with the international agencies that were formed for this purpose, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency.”

The IAEA, along with Britain, participated as an observer at a GNEP meeting earlier this year. Next month’s GNEP meeting in Austria is taking place on the sidelines of the IAEA general assembly.

May insisted that even a rapid international increase in nuclear power production won’t “make a dent” in the effort to curb global greenhouse gas emissions.

And the “self-serving” U.S.-led promotion of nuclear power will come with “a huge risk of more uranium activity around the world. It’s going to become a major political item on the agenda. There’s already an unprecedented pressure for new uranium mining in Canada.”

The federal NDP’s environment critic Nathan Cullen Wednesday denounced “Harper’s secrecy” in exploring what he called the “Bush-Howard scheme” to promote nuclear energy around the world.

“The debate has been muted, but it’s getting on the radar,” Cullen said. “We need to expose this to Canadians, to get these negotiations out into the light of day.”
© CanWest News Service 2007

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