Country in dark on nuclear talks

The Hamilton Spectator: September 05, 2007 - - Opinion: Robert Howard

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper considers putting Canada into a nuclear-energy partnership driven by U.S. President George Bush, with little publicity and even less public discussion, there's cause for concern.

The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), sparked by the Bush administration last year, has been described as a club of "advanced nuclear nations" with a mandate to promote nuclear power as a way of lessening carbon emissions that contribute to global warming, and also control the movement of reactor-grade uranium and radioactive waste.

GNEP now also includes Russia, China, Japan and France. Canada has been invited to join and attend a meeting in Vienna on Sept. 16.

None of this is, in itself, sinister.

What is of concern is that Harper and the Prime Minister's Office apparently have no interest in telling Canadians much about this before the government makes a decision -- "shortly" in a spokesperson's words -- on Canadian participation. Freedom of Information requests have revealed the bare bones of Canada's investigation of GNEP membership; official statements from Foreign Affairs have been evasive and opaque.

But, according to a CanWest News Service story last week, there are two components of the partnership that could have major effects on Canada and that deserve public discussion before Ottawa signs up:

* GNEP is pushing for the development of "fast-cycle" reactors that would produce less nuclear waste but are not proven to work commercially and may be in competition with Canada's Candu reactors.

* A "cornerstone commitment" of the partnership is that all spent nuclear fuel from reactors around the world would be shipped back to the GNEP nations that supplied it, for safe disposal there.

That regulation would have some global benefits -- a stricter control regime for radioactive waste and less chance of it falling into the hands of rogue regimes or terrorists. But since Canada is the world's largest uranium producer, the net effect could be that the United States, France, Japan and so forth would feel safer, while Canada becomes a global repository for dangerous waste from reactors all over the world. Many Canadians might think, from a strictly selfish point of view, that if France buys Canadian uranium for its reactors, France should get to keep it.

There's a huge debate now in Australia (also a uranium-producing nation) about GNEP membership and what it might mean.

But most Canadians know little, if anything, about the pros and cons of GNEP participation because the government isn't talking about it. Why are Canadians not being informed of the stakes and issues at play here?

Ottawa may have legitimate concerns that Canada should not be on the outside looking in while major nations talk. But that's just a guess, because Ottawa isn't talking.

When it comes to reaching international agreements on nuclear power, technology or waste, the Canadian government should be defaulting to openness, transparency and public discussion.

Unlike Elvis Presley, we'd like a little more conversation, please.

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