>Rumblings of protest are rippling through northern Alberta since two municipal councils wrote much-needed letters of support for nuclear power projects after taking a "junket" to New Brunswick on a private jet and returning with complimentary lobsters.

Two mayors and 14 councillors took the trip as guests of Energy Alberta Corp., a newly formed company that has locked arms with Atomic Energy of Canada in hopes of getting the required approvals to build two nuclear power plants in northwestern Alberta.

"Energy Alberta requested that we would write a support letter from the municipality," said Woodlands County Mayor Jim Rennie. "That is one of the requirements of the federal application is our understanding."

The two-day trip included a tour of the Point LePreau nuclear power plant. Energy Alberta paid for the lobsters that were given to the mayors and councillors.

Rennie said he viewed the trip as a fact-finding mission.

"We're in competition with another community to receive this project and we need to open the doors so at least we get an opportunity," the mayor said in an interview. "If we don't have the letter of support in there, that opportunity won't even happen."

"I totally think that it was in our taxpayers' best interests to save them money."

Soon after the trip, the councils in Woodlands County and the town of Whitecourt wrote qualified letters of endorsement for the nuclear project. Energy Alberta says the council in Peace River and a half-dozen other northern communities have also written similar letters.

"Council has taken the time to study and evaluate all aspects of the proposed development," says the letter signed by Rennie. "After listening to feedback from local residents, council has decided to support the proposal submitted by Energy Alberta Corporation."

An Energy Alberta spokesman confirmed this week that the company requested the letters and even discussed their content with the elected councils.

"To build something of this scope, you need to make sure that you have something in writing from wherever it is that you're potentially going to build it that says, 'Yes, we are interested,' " said Guy Huntingford, who described the trip as "an educational junket."

"I mean they have to support the proposal," Huntingford said in an interview. "I don't think that there's anything untoward about any of that."

Since there's never been a nuclear power plant in Alberta, Huntingford said it was important for the civic leaders to get "a frame of reference" from a community that already has a reactor.

But this week, 55 of Woodlands County's 4,000 residents signed a letter of concern that was presented to the council asking pointed questions about why the endorsement letter was issued so quickly.

Many of those people lined up at microphones at Tuesday's council meeting to ask about the trip, the letter and why the mayor was saying council had taken the time to study and evaluate the project after touring only one nuclear plant.

"This is not a doughnut shop they want to build," said Bernard Krohn, who speaks for the group. "The main point is that many residents were not happy with the process."

"It was premature to send out a letter of support," said Krohn, who added there are others in the community who are also saying, "What's going on here and why are we jumping the gun?"

The three-page protest letter points out that the type of Candu reactor being proposed has never been built or licensed in Canada or elsewhere in the world and would require a huge artificial lake to provide water for cooling.

The letter also says local residents were not widely consulted, as was suggested in the letter signed by Rennie on behalf of Woodlands County.

Krohn said he tried to voice his concerns at the July 3 Woodlands council meeting when the endorsement letter was approved, but was told the agenda had been set and he wouldn't be given time to speak.

"I'm not trying to make allegations. I would like to work with these people. Everybody can make his own conclusion."

Krohn said the concerned residents are expecting some answers to their questions at the next council meeting in a few weeks. But the mayor said some of the questions may take months or even years to answer.

"We're trying to get that information, but I don't know about the time frame."

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