On Defending Black Cats, Fridays, Spiders and the Number Thirteen

August 20, 2014

By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

Many years ago I took a job with the United States government.

It was about a year and a half into the implementation of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, and my job was to continue that work.

Most of my friends and acquaintances reacted as though I’d sold my soul to Satan. And I felt like I had (but I desperately needed the job).

I was an eastern Canadian liberal born in the 1960’s. My cohort was nursed on big government and Canadian “nonAmericanism.” If there was one thing my generation knew, it was that the United States was bad.

We weren’t all that clear on why the U.S was bad. If questioned, most of us would have said something about how free trade was going to make us in to hewers of wood and drawers of water, and destroy our country’s ability to chart its own course.

Nor were we all that realistic about what we’d rather have instead of the U.S. Even though the Cold War was just ending, the alternative of what it might be like living next door to 200 million Russians never got seriously entertained. We got to live under the Americans’ security umbrella and sell Americans 80 per cent of our exports, while feeling morally superior to them and sneering at all they did.

That the U.S. was just plain bad, and it ought to either go away, or else simply be more like Canada, was something we all just knew with great moral certainty. Rather as some societies just know that if the sheep get bloat, there’s a witch in the village.

Somehow this quietly changed. Ten years later, at the end of the Clinton years, Canada was growing fat on North American free trade, selling cars, jets and telephone systems to the world. Canadian big-government nation-building was sliding out of fashion. And my employment with the U.S. government – where I stayed for 20 years – had become nearly respectable.

As more years have passed, the Canadian intelligentsia seems to have come to view the U.S. with something almost approaching understanding. It’s our troubled neighbour, an ageing but still-great power, struggling with historic challenges of military overreach, entitlement spending and accumulated treaty obligations, rather like Britain did before it.

It turns out free trade didn’t destroy Canada; rather, we did pretty handsomely out of it. If anyone’s turning us back into hewers of wood and drawers of water, it’s more likely to be the Chinese than the Americans.

And as we start to glimpse it, a world without a leading democratic power that takes on international obligations – and draws others to them – doesn’t look so good after all. These days, America is almost – dare I say it? – appreciated.

Four years ago I took a job with the nuclear industry. It was three years after the IPCC’s fourth assessment report on climate change. I could see that nuclear energy had to be an important piece of any serious strategy to fight our planet’s heating.

Like 20 years earlier, many acquaintances acted like I’d sold my soul to Satan – but a different Satan this time. If there’s one thing people know, it’s that nuclear stuff is bad.

They’re not that clear why nuclear is bad. If asked, they might mumble vaguely about “waste” (as if other energy sources don’t emit anything).

But the truth is, the less they know about nuclear stuff, the more sure they are that it’s bad.

Correlation between knowledge of nuclear power and support for it, among general Canadian population.  Source: Innovative Research 2014 Nuclear Attitudes Survey.

Correlation between knowledge of nuclear power and support for it, among general Canadian population. Source: Innovative Research 2014 Nuclear Attitudes Survey.

Nor are they all that realistic about what they’d like instead of nuclear. Nuclear, rather like an unwelcome imperial power, should just go away.

The fact that it supplies most (most, meaning 59 per cent last year in Ontario of my friends’ and neighbours’ electric power, and of the power used by nearly all of our employers and suppliers) isn’t even known, much less thought through.

The fact that the alternatives emit more and/or use more land and/or cost more and/or are less reliable than nuclear – a parallel to the idea that the Russians might be considerably less pleasant to live beside than our American friends – is even farther from their thoughts.

I expect to be in this industry for a while. Concern about climate change is already making nuclear a slightly more respectable place to be. I look forward to the day when it’s appreciated.

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