More than three-quarters of Canadians see climate change as a serious issue, 57% say it has affected them or their loved ones, and 86% want the federal government to invest in clean energy technology to help address the crisis, according to an Abacus Data report released this week by the Canadian Nuclear Association.
While the survey results contribute to mounting momentum for a green recovery, the release is amplifying concerns about the CNA’s definition of nuclear power as “clean” energy.
“Despite the unprecedented economic and employment turbulence Canada faces due to the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change or global warming ranks as the number one extremely serious issue Canada currently faces by one in three Canadians (31%),” the CNA states in a release. That puts the climate crisis ahead of issues like government deficits and debt, unemployment and economic growth, wealth and income inequality, racism, and access to affordable, nutritious foods.
“88% of Canadians report being personally impacted by climate change, 57% report being significantly impacted,” and 78% “are very concerned about the negative impact of climate change on future generations,” the release adds.
“The fact that we are living through a global pandemic that has literally rocked the stability of the world we know, and yet climate change is currently cited as the number 1 extreme issue of concern, is very profound,” said CNA CEO and President John Gorman. “Despite the severity of other economic and social issues we currently face, the data shows that Canadians want decisive action taken to address climate change, including 86% who believe the government should invest in clean technology.”
And, Gorman added, “as one of the lowest carbon-emitting energy sources, nuclear must play a critical role in Canada’s energy mix to help meet our emission reduction goals.”
The 105-page survey report from Abacus, based on online panels conducted in August, found that serious, very serious, or extremely serious concern about the climate crisis ranged from 68 to 87% across different age groups, from 76 to 79% across all but one province, and 65% in Alberta. Among potential voters for the three leading federal parties, serious to extremely serious concern stood at 66% among accessible Conservative voters, 86% among Liberals and New Democrats.
The research also probed respondents’ knowledge of nuclear energy, with 35% saying they had “at least a pretty good understanding” of the technology—and half of those reporting “that their knowledge comes from what they remember reading or hearing about it many years ago.” After they were told that nuclear is the second-largest source of low-carbon electricity, Abacus reported, 55% were open to supporting its wider use, compared to 10% who opposed or strongly opposed it.
Among the 1,500 respondents, 96% said it was at least somewhat important to increase the use of renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and hydropower, 98% wanted industries to adopt cleaner energy technologies, 97% supported a transition to clean energy, 94% wanted fossil fuel use reduced, 93% looked to governments to “implement the necessary policies to change energy consumption behaviours of consumers and industry”, and 88% were prepared to see increased reliance on nuclear as clean energy, Abacus found. When Canadians were asked to pick their top three climate solutions, renewables and adoption of cleaner energy technologies by industry came first and second, at 57 and 48%. Nuclear placed second-last in a field of nine options, with 21% support.
In an interview Thursday afternoon, Gorman said he made the transition to the CNA after 20 years working primarily as a solar advocate out of concern for the “potential catastrophe we’re trying to head off” by addressing the climate emergency. “Thank goodness we’ve got affordable, cost-competitive wind and solar now that have been deployed very aggressively globally, because goodness knows we need it,” he told The Mix. But “despite the remarkable growth of wind and solar, globally we have not made any progress on decarbonizing the world’s electricity grids,” with only 36% of the global grid decarbonized and countries “treading water”.
“I can’t see any pathway to a decarbonized future on the electricity front, let alone electrifying other sectors of our economy, without seeing significant amounts of conventional nuclear and new nuclear,” he said.
Gorman characterized nuclear as a clean electricity source based on its small physical volume of waste compared to coal and its low life cycle greenhouse gas emissions compared to solar and hydro. He said the industry “actually accounts for every aspect of the waste it produces in a safe and responsible fashion,” while pre-paying for the “safe and responsible management and disposal of its waste”.
Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, scoffed at the idea that nuclear is a clean energy source. “Anybody with any scientific knowledge knows nuclear energy produces the most toxic waste of any industry ever conceived on Earth,” he said. “We wouldn’t be planning to spend $23 billion to bury these wastes in the Canadian Shield if it were clean energy. Nor would we have accidents that cause hundreds of billions of dollars in repair and cleanup and decontamination.”
Nuclear waste disposal has been a contentious issue for decades—most recently along the shore of Lake Huron, where Ontario Hydro recently cancelled a multi-billion-dollar effort to store hazardous nuclear waste in underground vaults at the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station in Kincardine. But even when nuclear waste gets into a storage facility, Edwards said that isn’t always the end of the story.
“In Germany, they are spending the equivalent of approximately C$5.7 billion to remove radioactive waste from an underground repository to get it back onto the surface,” he told The Mix. “It’s contaminating groundwater and finding its way into surface water, and it’s been doing so for 20 years. And these are the clean leftovers from nuclear energy.”
Susan O’Donnell, an adjunct professor of sociology at the University of New Brunswick and former senior researcher with the National Research Council in Fredericton, recalled a recent conversation with the CEO of one of the companies now calling for introduction of small, modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) in her province.
After O’Donnell and colleagues pointed out that there is no nuclear waste repository in New Brunswick, and the plan for a storage facility in Ontario had recently fallen through, “he looks at us like we’re complete idiots and says, ‘well, there’s going to be one. There has to be one,’” she recounted. “And this is the thing that is just becoming so clear to me: These guys, and they’re mostly guys, they see the challenge of building these things, they love the challenge, and they want to make this happen. But they think it’s someone else’s job to clean up their mess. They don’t see that as their job.”