Why the nuclear industry should be worried about that ‘everything’s okay’ alarm

OPINION: Nuclear accidents can trigger hasty and ill-advised reactions from governments. What about false alarms?
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jan 14, 2020
Ontario issued an emergency alert on January 12 about an unspecified incident at the Pickering power plant. Ontario Power Generation later sent a message saying the alert “was sent in error." (Robert Gillies/AP/CP)

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Probably the single biggest advantage the Ontario nuclear industry has is that, 90 per cent of the time, people forget it exists. If we think about it at all, we tend to dramatically underestimate nuclear’s contribution to the electricity that lights our homes — and charges the phones that the government uses to scare us about nuclear power.

It would be unfair for people to use last Sunday morning’s accidental emergency alert to reassess their opinions of nuclear power, but sometimes voters get to be unfair, so we shouldn’t discount the possibility that this massive goof will produce some serious, tangible political effects. Sending a big, loud, alarming message to everyone’s cellphone is nobody’s idea of sound political communication.

Ontario has committed billions of dollars over the coming decades to keeping the majority of our electricity coming from nuclear reactors, but it’s hardly unheard of for this province to change its mind, even after contracts are signed. (Say hello, Hamilton light rail; how do you do, Oakville natural gas plant.) It’s not unthinkable that this government could reverse course and try to phase out nuclear power.

(For now, the opposition at Queen’s Park isn’t going there: NDP energy critic Peter Tabuns wants a comprehensive investigation into the failure of Ontario’s emergency-messaging system but avoided questions about the future of nuclear energy when speaking with reporters on Monday.)

It has happened elsewhere, however, and the results have been unambiguously disastrous. In Germany, Angela Merkel’s government reacted to the Fukushima meltdown in 2011 by swinging hard against nuclear and shutting down operating reactors. The resulting electricity shortfall, according to a recent working paper, was largely offset by increased coal production. “Put another way, the phase-out resulted in more than 1,100 additional deaths per year” from associated air pollution, the paper concludes. As a bonus, Germany’s greenhouse-gas emissions have also increased.

Meanwhile, Japan had to deal with the direct consequences of the Fukushima disaster, and it shut down many of its nuclear reactors. Less attention has been paid to the fact that it’s slowly reopening them, as it implements tough new anti-disaster preparations (including high seawalls to keep out tsunamis). Tragically, the consequences of the Fukushima evacuation might have ended up being more devastating than the nuclear accident itself. Families have struggled, suffered job losses, and dealt with increased rates of addiction and suicide.

What both Germany’s turn against nuclear power and the Fukushima evacuation suggest, then, is that overreactions after the disaster have been more damaging to human health and the environment than the actual disaster itself was. Indeed, in terms of human lives lost, the Fukushima nuclear plant ought to be remembered as a small footnote to the earthquake and tsunami, which killed nearly 16,000 people, but that’s not how human memory works.

Which isn’t to say that nuclear power is risk-free or that people are silly for worrying about it. What is silly and potentially very harmful is when the government sends out a totally unnecessary alarm early on a Sunday telling people there’s been an unspecified “incident” at a nuclear power plant in the eastern GTA. It’s the government’s job to know that panics over nuclear power often trigger hasty decisions — so the best plan is not to panic people.

Energy technology is changing rapidly. The cost of solar power has fallen substantially in the past decade or so, and the cost of energy-storage technologies could very well follow. There is, unquestionably, a reasonable policy argument to be had about whether or how much nuclear power needs to play a role in the future. Sadly, Ontario’s experience with green energy has been so politically toxic that we probably won’t have that debate for a generation.

If we do ever get back to seriously considering our energy mix, we’ll need to have a debate about the real facts and issues  — not one fuelled by anxiety because the government decided to yell at us through our phone screens one morning.

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