Education And Outreach: Vital To Creating Objective Conversation Around Nuclear
Development and Innovation Canada was an early world leader in nuclear innovation, and our technologies and expertise have been exported worldwide.
We are also the world’s second largest producer and exporter of uranium, which is used across the globe to fuel nuclear reactors. In fact, in many parts of the world, when you bring up Canada, nuclear power is one of the first things people think of, just after maple syrup, hockey, and Mounties.
“Fear and seduction come into decision making much more than is appropriate,”
And yet, within Canada, something has changed in the last fifty years. Fewer Canadians are identifying the nuclear industry as an important part of Canadian identity, and public support for nuclear power is at a low. If that doesn’t change, it bodes ill for Canada’s economic future.
Fear and seduction
“Fear and seduction come into decision making much more than is appropriate,” says Neil Alexander, Executive Director of the Sylvia Fedoruk Canadian Centre for Nuclear Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan. “With some of the challenges the world has to face, we’ve got to start removing the fear from that equation. We need people to support technologies based on rational, factual, and contextually-relevant arguments.”
No member of the public has ever been harmed by a nuclear incident in the long history of the nuclear industry in Canada. But, as we work to eliminate the irrational fear of nuclear power, we must also work to temper the optimistic seductiveness of new technologies. People are drawn to renewables because of their promise to provide cheap clean power, supposedly devoid of drawbacks.
The reality is quite a bit different. “People are being led to believe that certain things can be achieved with renewables that are just unrealistic,” says Alexander. “With the technologies that we have available to us, and that we anticipate having available to us in the foreseeable future, options like wind and solar cannot provide the input that’s needed to operate our electricity system in a way that allows us to keep our houses lit and our businesses operating.”
Solar and wind are incredible technologies that can contribute strongly to the grid, but they remain intermittent and location dependent, meaning that other power sources must provide the bulk of our base load demand. Rather than replacing existing technologies, the role for renewables is to coexist with nuclear and natural gas to keep our power mix robust and flexible.
In Ontario particularly, nuclear has long been the go to answer for baseload generation. “In Ontario nuclear provides roughly 60 percent of our power supply,” says Heather Kleb, President of Women in Nuclear and Past President of the Canadian Nuclear Association.
“It’s a clean, reliable, low carbon power source that turns the lights on when you need them.” And with the advent of new technologies like small modular reactors, we are seeing the possibility of a future where small-scale nuclear can add clean, safe, and reliable energy to the mix even in Canada’s smallest and most remote communities.
Canada is a nuclear economy built on nuclear jobs
The contribution of the nuclear industry in Canada goes well beyond just energy generation, however. It is a vital part of our economy and a massive employer, which is more important now than ever before.
If young Canadians and traditionally underrepresented groups like women consider a career in the nuclear industry, not only will they have incredible employment opportunities, but they will also get to help shape the direction of the industry and conversations surrounding it in the future.
“The nuclear industry offers highly-skilled, well-paying jobs, and it’s important that we draw the attention of women and young people to the opportunities that are becoming available, especially with the aging workforce and existing gap in the skilled trades,” says Kleb. “And given that women are an underrepresented group, they serve as a particularly opportune pool of potential workers for these great jobs.”
And these aren’t just technical jobs. In an industry this large, support roles are a huge segment of the overall work force. “We do try to promote an interest in engineering, science, technology, and the trades,” says Kleb. “At the same time there are a whole series of other disciplines that support this industry, from legal to administrative and beyond.”
A future where Canada is nuclear and proud
For all these reasons, organizations like Women in Nuclear and the Fedoruk Centre are working to change the public perception of nuclear power in Canada. Education is at the heart of this initiative, as the better people understand nuclear power, the more supportive of it they become. It’s all about washing away the fear and uncertainty with knowledge and involvement.
“With greater involvement, you get greater awareness and support for the industry,” says Kleb. “If you look at the communities where nuclear facilities are operating, you find greater support for the industry locally.”
The Fedoruk Centre particularly is working to provide balanced, fact-based information about nuclear power and issues such as radiation, with the goal of empowering people to make their own informed decisions. At the same time, the Fedoruk Centre is also supporting social sciences research about how to best communicate about complex technical issues like nuclear power.
“There is a lot of opportunity for innovation in the nuclear sector – not just in terms of technology but in how the industry communicates with people,” says Alexander. “Canada could lead the way in this area.”
The truth is that the nuclear industry has deeply and positively impacted the lives of everyone in this country. It not just energy and jobs; the technological evidence is all around us. The smoke detectors in our homes work through the use of nuclear byproducts.
The buildings we work in are made safe through radiographic nuclear structural imaging. And our hospitals are filled every day with more nuclear medical technology to help us image, assess, and treat our illnesses.
The Canada of today is one that was built in no small part on the nuclear industry, and the brightest vision for the Canada of the future relies on that industry remaining strong and able to continue providing us with electricity, jobs, and new technological advancements. It is past time for Canadians, especially young Canadians, to re-embrace Canada’s nuclear legacy as a source of national pride.