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Oil and water: Another missed opportunity

CRAIG MCINNES, Vancouver Sun, June 9, 2010

Three Mile Island didn't slow nuclear industry and BP's Gulf debacle won't alter our dependency on cheap power

The timing of the catastrophic 1979 accident at Three Mile Island couldn't have been better for opponents of nuclear power.

The cascading series of events that started with a stuck valve and led to a partial meltdown of the core of the reactor burst into the headlines 12 days after the release of the The China Syndrome, a movie starring Jane Fonda that was a fictional account of an accident at a nuclear plant.

In the movie, Fonda played a television reporter trying to find the truth about a greedy power company that was covering up a design flaw that had the potential of leading to a runaway nuclear reaction and the explosive release of clouds of deadly radiation.

The real-life accident at Three Mile Island didn't completely kill the nuclear industry in the United States -- not even the much-worse meltdown in Chernobyl seven years later could do that -- but it put an exclamation point on the forces that already were making further expansion problematic. Regulations were stiffened and local opposition grew stronger. Plants already on the drawing board were stalled or cancelled and potential investors lost their nerve.

Within days of the of the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig that started crude oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, talk started about the incident becoming the petroleum industry's Three Mile Island, a game-changing event for both the industry and the rest of us that use petroleum products in our daily lives.

The trouble with turning points is that many are offered but few are taken.

The nuclear industry has undergone a cleansing in the minds of many with the emergence of another risk to weigh it against, the risk of climate change, which science tells us is being fuelled by some of the conventional competitors of nuclear power for the production of electricity, most notably coal and natural gas.

The climate change equation also puts a different perspective on the oily slime now making its way to the beaches and salt marshes of the Gulf coast. Climate-change models predict that the oil flowing into the Gulf would still pose a threat to life in the ocean if it had made it to shore and been burned in our cars, homes or by industry.

So even before the visible catastrophe, there were solid reasons to be looking for alternatives to developing new offshore oilfields.

What we've seen in the past six weeks is that the assurances that safeguards against catastrophic blowouts are "fail safe," should be viewed with caution. And if we can't have confidence in such assurances, it should challenge our acceptance of the trade-off that has made nuclear power and other potentially hazardous ventures palatable.

That is the notion that even though the consequences of an accident are devastating, the probability of one occurring is extremely low.

As The Sun's energy reporter Scott Simpson reported on Saturday, Enbridge has estimated that the chance of a major spill from one of the large oil tankers it wants to see operating out of Kitimat as part of its Northern Gateway pipeline project is just once in 1,500 years near the terminal or once in 15,000 years in the waters beyond. What could go wrong?

If Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams is any indication of the response of politicians -- and like most Canadians if faced with losing the benefits of relatively cheap energy, I'm still not willing to give up my car -- the spill in the Gulf of Mexico won't be much of a turning point.

Williams said this week forcing exploration companies to have a spare rig on standby when drilling deep wells offshore would make it too expensive for them to continue, killing the golden goose that is paying for social benefits and programs.

That's a risk, he said, he's not prepared to take.

So as with nuclear power following Three Mile Island, the focus after the Gulf blowout will be reducing the risk of accidents. Learning to live with less will continue to be the road not taken.

cmcinnes@vancouversun.com

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