What’s it like discussing nuclear energy with some climate activists?

October 31, 2014

By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

Imagine you’re a freshman math student, and you’re meeting the head of your university’s mathematics department.

You ask him to set a tough problem for you.

“Well,” he says, “we’re in great need of a number to put between twelve and fourteen. It has to be the sum of ten and three, and it also has to be half of twenty-six.”


You pause before replying, wondering where the trick is. “Um. Wouldn’t that be thirteen?”

“Don’t say that.”


“What you just said.”



“Why not?”

“It’s bad.”


“Always been. Inherently dangerous number. Killed thousands. Toxic legacy. That question’s settled. Now back to our problem.”

“Okay,” you say. “Where do we stand so far?”`

“I’d like you to take a look at four and a half. There’s a big constituency for four and a half around here. Always has been. We think it can be the solution… just needs a bit of work.”

“What kind of work?”

“We think some help from eight will be enough.”

“Four and a half with help from eight?  Isn’t that twelve and a half?”

“We don’t put it that way.”


“That would be almost you-know-what, and we’re just not going there. Anyway, now we’re getting a subsidy for eight, so we really want to keep eight in the picture.”

“Do you really think four and a half with help from eight is going to satisfy the specifications of the problem?”

“It’s between twelve and fourteen.”

“Well, yes, but it’s two numbers, not one. It’s not equal to ten plus three, and it’s not half of twenty-six.”

“I understand your point, but there are bound to be a few gaps. We think users of the number system are ready for change. With education, lots of them will accept four and a half.”

“What if they don’t? What if they only care whether it works? They’ll expect it to equal ten plus three. They’ll expect it to be half of twenty-six.”

“What would you suggest, then, smart guy?”

“I suggested thirteen a while ago.”

find x“SSSHHH!  You trying to get us both in trouble? Listen, maybe you have a point. But we need to keep this department working as a team. This you-know-what, it’s too divisive. We can’t shake them up like that.”

“How about you let me work on you-know-what, as long as I don’t say it?”

“No need. A bunch of us are already working on it.”


“SSSSHHHH! Yeah, that. We’ve got an action team. Anytime anyone mentions it, we tell them it’s bad.”

“Are they developing mathematical proofs that show it’s not between twelve and fourteen? Or that it’s not equal to ten plus three, or that it’s not half of twenty-six? You said something about it killing thousands, something about a toxic legacy – how about a straight-up factual comparison between you-know-what and four and a half?”

“We could, but we don’t need much of that.”

“Why not?”

“People have been hearing it’s bad all their lives. We’re mathematicians. They’ll take our word for it.”

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