A Western Nuclear Strategy


Saskatchewan and Alberta are western Canadian prairie provinces both of which are currently run by conservative political parties; both have economies largely dependent on agriculture and hydrocarbons; and, both governments claim responsibility for electrical power generation and distribution in their jurisdictions.

The Liberal and New Democratic parties [NDP] are respectively the careerist and idealogue wings of Canada's progressives and both federal iterations have long relied on taxing western Canadian resources to advance social programs in vote rich central Canada. The current federal government is progressive, has embraced green ideology as a weapon against populists in prairie provinces, and is now trying to use federal green legislation along with its control of the media and the provincial NDP to shut down the production, use, and export of hydrocarbons in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Since both provinces rely at least in part on coal fired electrical generation coal is, for now, the focal point for the progressive attack on the two provinces.

In part because Saskatchewan has one of the world's largest high grade uranium ore deposits and Saskatoon-based Cameco owns 49% of reactor-builder Westinghouse, its response has been to ennunicate a long term policy direction under which the government appears to acknowledge that the success of green advocacy against hydrocarbons is inevitable, but plans to replace coal in power generation with modular nuclear reactors instead of windmills, solar panels, transmission lines, and batteries - and it looks as if Alberta will soon recognize that appealing to the federally appointed Supreme Court for relief from federal policy is pointless and so choose to partner with Saskatchewan in developing an export industry around fully fueled and maintained modular nuclear reactors.

Since all of this is relatively new the progressive opposition to the provincial policies involved has yet to fully materialize but will have the full throated support of the media, the federal government, dozens of NGOs with access to virtually unlimited funding, local progressives, and a majority of Canadians in high density jurisdictions like Montreal and Toronto when it does get going. How that opposition will manifest is, of course, unknown, but their past successes against nuclear have largely come from misrepresenting what happened in a few high profile incidents, shouting down factual arguments, and recasting the public discussion as a personality contest between good guys and bad guys.

This strategy generally defeats conservatives and will certainly weaken public support for nuclear here; but most of the people in the two provinces are suspicious of the federal government, not excessively credulous with respect to the media, and have jobs in, or sufficiently close to, primary production to understand the importance of hydrocarbons for export and use. The contest may therefore be more likely to end in a draw here than in any other area in Canada or the United States - and a draw against all out progressive opposition is a win for nuclear.

The political strategy currently adopted in both provinces is the traditional conservative one: argue on the facts while showing sticks, carrots, and common enemies - thus the governing parties in the two provinces are:

  1. emphasizing the reality that relying on renewables will lead to much higher energy costs, rolling blackouts, and so ultimately catastrophic reductions in the quality of life here;
  2. pointing people at the NDP/green coalition and the federal government as the enemy;
  3. directing public attention to provincial efforts to protect the public from predatory federal taxation; and,
  4. trying to avoid offending against the public's general acceptance of the climate bogeyman and green solutions by focusing public discussion on the replacement of coal fired generation while loudly saluting the desirability of emissions reductions through the electrification of all things.

In principle the problem with this strategy is that it lets progressives define the battlefield on the basis of three fundamental falsehoods: in reality CO2 has no discernible effect on climate; the world is not about to run out of recoverable hydrocarbons; and renewables are neither renewable nor environmentally desirable. In practice, however, the Achilles heel in the strategy arises out of a lie by omission: the magical vision being sold to the public in which cheap and clean nuclear generation replaces existing coal fired plants while the rest of the system continues to evolve toward renewables, is nonsensical. In reality it takes standby power to make renewables work at all; and because nuclear is a 24 x 7 solution that works best when run at 90% or more of nameplate capacity it cannot be used effectively for standby generation, but naturally replaces the entire renewables chain - including standby gas plants, batteries, transmission lines, windmills, and solar panels.

The bottom line issue here is that every consumer dollar now directed to renewables support is somebody's revenue dollar - and because those somebodies are deeply embedded in the decision making process, have both personal and organizational incentives to keep those revenues flowing, and have extensive media and political support for what they're doing, they could easily tip the balance by choosing to slow walk everything nuclear while silently co-operating on a work to rule plan with green advocates and federal agencies intent on stopping western Canadian nuclearization.

This is not a minor concern: the people involved have their careers and real money on the line along with real power to affect outcomes:

  • if local nuclear could be sold without pricing in sunk costs on permitting and renewables - delay, studies, hearings, windmills, solar farms, batteries, transmission lines, and standby gas plants - it would cost around $0.055/KWH all-in or over $0.17/KWH less than Albertans are paying now - and every one of those dollars has several claimants: all well dug in, and all with their hands out looking for an extra nickel here or dime there; and,
  • NuScale, in the United States, just froze a modular nuclear generation project they had spent six years and over a billion dollars getting permits for, over the delay and other cost effects caused by continuing regulatory obstruction while Canada's own Transmountain pipeline project, originally announced in 2012 as a three year, $2.9 billion dollar investment, may reach commissioning in 2024 at an estimated $33 billion.

What's needed to beat this is an all out strategy that works quickly enough to overwhelm progressive opposition, provides incentives for power system insiders to support it, and gets the foundations for a radical transformation in power generation and distribution in place before the next provincial elections - perhaps something like this:

  1. focus political advocacy on the economy - on the importance of cheap and reliable power; on jobs in turbine and reactor manufacturing and support; and on the stablizing influence of high tech industry in a balanced economy;
  2. focus legislative action on clearing the decks: creating expedited approval processes for new nuclear generation and a legal framework to protect the nuclear industry in the two provinces from arbitrary legal or political action;
  3. given the inevitability that the federal courts will eventually rule in favor of progressives on environmental or rule based actions against nuclear development in the west, some consideration should be given to supporting law-fare by non governmental entities against existing and planned nuclear generation in central Canada with a view to setting useful precedents by forcing federal courts to cite reasons for dismissing those actions;
  4. fund centers of theoretical and engineering excellence in fission/steam power generation in at least one major university and one technical institute in each province;

    The university centers would co-ordinate work across the entire institution: funding, for example, industry specific programs in physics, mathematics, and civil law along with one or more private sector partnerships with engineering faculties to develop and test technologies aimed at one or more of the major elements making up the power chain.

    The technical institutes would be funded to implement programs leading to certification in support roles - from transportation security to reactor operation and turbine maintenance.

  5. provide loan guarantees for at least three competing design and engineering teams to put working, fission based, power plants into co-locates on existing industrial sites (two in Alberta, one in Saskatchewan) where plant and office space is available; yard facilities with unused space and high voltage line access are in place; the site operator both contracts for the waste heat and certifies the design; and, the primary contractor is based in Alberta or Saskatchewan;

    In the short term this means looking at sites like the Syncrude plant, refinery row in Fort Saskatchewan, or larger food processing plants where natural gas is now used to provide process heat. In the longer term, however, the incentives favor co-development of power production and facilities using the waste heat - for example carbon fiber production from oil sands bitumen requires significantly more heat than electrical energy.

  6. separately fund all public degree granting institutions in each province to provide a full semester required course for all non science program students introducing basic ideas from the philosophy of science and their application to civil engineering and decision making; and,
  7. create an independent authority supervised by a board made up from elected members of the two legislatures whose role it is to protect stakeholders in the power generation and distribution system as it exists today while selling off wind, solar, battery, and transmission assets made redundant by the implementation of customer-adjacent nuclear power.

Divestment is a major component of the strategy because maintaining investors and job holders whole throughout the process reduces both their willingness and their ability to actively support program opponents. It is made possible by three factors:

  • almost all of the physical assets (transmission towers, cables, turbines, blades, panels, transformers; etc) are in both short supply and high demand - meaning that these are far more valuable on a truck than in the field;
  • every watt of wind or solar now produced in either province has a matching watt in available, usually gas fired, standby power. This means we can cut the renewables out of the loop to reduce net costs per generated KWH well before nuclear becomes available simply by recognizing that the standby plants are the primary producers; and,
  • total cash flows to existing stakeholders can be kept relatively constant despite the elimination of the major cost sinks associated with renewables by initially reducing the payout period for nuclear generation and then gradually increasing total power sales while cutting consumer pricing per KWH.

What makes this strategy better than the present one is that it directly takes on the key issues; offers the opportunity to bring both the public and those charged with making nuclear work on side from the beginning; and can start to show results before the next provincial elections in either province. Furthermore, it is a relatively easy sell because:

  1. post secondary education in both provinces is desperate for both money and legitimacy - and this strategy helps them on both counts;
  2. the people who made money putting in transmission lines, turbines, and panels will make money taking them out while the MLA panel entrusted with holding investors and other stakeholders whole will reduce the incentives those people feel to sabotage the nuclear effort;
  3. giving current stakeholders priveliged opportunities to invest time, positions, and money in nuclear gives them incentives to support the change;
  4. telling power consumers what's going on and why lets both governments promise cleaner, lower cost, and higher reliability, power while forcing the greens to support dirtier, higher cost, and less reliable power; and,
  5. the communications component opens a path away from the dark side for those few within the environmental movement who really are concerned about the environment to oppose political and financial control of their movement by progressives and so weaken it.


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