Q&A: Arthur Porter

The man on the hot seat in the nuclear debate

October 6 1980
Q&A: Arthur Porter

The man on the hot seat in the nuclear debate

October 6 1980

The man on the hot seat in the nuclear debate

Q&A: Arthur Porter

Last spring, after an investment of five years and $5 million, the Ontario Royal Commission on Electric Power Planning issued its final report—a massively detailed nine-volume examination of Ontario Hydro and its role in that province's energy future. The commission chairman was Arthur Porter, a gregarious and grandfatherly professor emeritus of industrial engineering from the University of Toronto. If his final report had a major flaw, it was that it tried to please everyone, especially on the nuclear issue. As a result, both sides claimed they were vindicated by the report. Advocates of nuclear power pointed to Porter's conclusion that “CANDU reactors are safe within reasonable limits, "while critics noted that Ontario Hydro 's plans for nuclear expansion had been ordered to a virtual standstill — because the increased capacity wasn't needed. The report left the debate where it began, as acrimonious and bitterly argued as ever.

Recently, however, the balance has appeared to shift. Statements made by Porter in the national media last month surprised many observers, since they intimated that he has, in the past six months, become an emphatic advocate of nuclear expansion. During this interview conducted for Maclean’s, Porter was shown information on Ontario's en-

ergy resources that, he says, “shocks me to the core. ” Porter was interviewed by Paul McKay, environmental researcher for the nonprofit Ontario Public Interest Research Group and outspoken nuclear critic.

Maclean’s: In a recent interview that made national headlines, you described nuclear energy as having a minimal effect on world ecology. However, your royal commission reports emphasized that any future nuclear expansion be contingent on solving the problem of widespread contamination caused by uranium mine wastes. Are you convinced now that the uranium waste problem has been solved ?

Porter: No, I’m not. But I’m convinced that it will be solved. There’s enough worldwide effort going into the solution of that problem. Uranium mine wastes are the most serious outstanding problem in the nuclear fuel cycle. This I will reaffirm. And I certainly haven’t said that the problem has been solved. I believe it will be solved within the next 10 years. There’s a new federal task force that has been set up to examine the problem. And I just feel that, while in the past we have been negligent, containment of these wastes is going to be a resolvable problem. I just sense it—I don’t have any details. But after all, I am an industrial engineer. This issue,

however, is the aspect our commission spent the least time on.

Maclean’s: When asked about the reactor waste problem, you were quoted as saying recently: “If King Tut’s tomb could have been stored for l+,000 years without being disrupted, then we certainly can store nuclear wastes. ” Isn’t this a rather 7-eckless statement, in view of the fact that this spring your final report called for a moratorium on any further nuclear expansion if the highlevel waste problem has no clear solution within 10 years?

Porter: The reference to King Tut’s tomb was a rather flippant statement, of course. Since my report was issued, some new findings have come to light— not least in connection with the French program, where they have demonstrated the vitrification (a method of containing nuclear wastes within a dump site) of high-level wastes. So I’m really optimistic. On the other hand, I felt that the public had to be convinced that real action was in process. The key thrust of the moratorium statement was to say to the government and industry: “Look, you’d better get on with this job. The public wants some answers.”

Maclean’s: Yet Canada’s nuclear waste disposal prog7'am has come under st7'ong criticism recently from the Canadian Geoscience Council, the first independent body of scientists to evaluate the federal waste management prog7'am. In testimony before the Ontario Select Committee on Hydro Affairs they described a direct conflict of interest, and said the program was starved for proper funding. Their testimony, and even your own report, seemed to argue for deferring the nuclear option until the radioactive waste problem has a clear solution. Have you changed your mind? Porter: We did not suggest deferring the nuclear option. We just said that by 1990 maybe the nuclear option should be reconsidered in light of information at that time. And quite frankly, I’ve never heard of the Canadian Geoscience Council. [The national body that represents earth scientists such as geophysicists who have studied the federal nuclear waste management program.] Our Interim Report allowed three additional nuclear stations in Ontario by the year 2000—our final report says the maximum should be one after the Darlington station is completed (near Toronto). So there has been a change. But certainly I never said, as was reported in The Globe and Mail, that we should build large numbers of nuclear stations across Ontario and Canada. What I said was that perhaps one nuclear station dedicated to export electricity should be built in Ontario.

Maclean’s: You were quoted as saying nuclear plants should be built immedi-

ately in Canada to release the U.S. from “the fantastic amount of oil it uses.” In light of the recent Energy Board report of the Harvard Business School (which confirmed that the U.S. wastes 30 to W per cent of its energy), isn't that like treating a heroin addict with cocaine— simply substituting the addiction? Surely the point is that the U.S. must kick its own “habit” by learning to conserve.

Porter: That’s a very good question. I believe the U.S. is learning to conserve—they’ve cut their oil consumption by 10 per cent in one year. The conservation ethic, I agree, is going to make a marked impact. Even so, the U.S. is going to consume oil to generate elec-

tricity. One plant in Canada could reduce that U.S. oil consumption, and that oil could be sent to the developing countries where the need is desperate, and where nuclear power is going to be the key answer. So I don’t advocate building many nuclear plants dedicated to export electricity, because in many respects the U.S. has excess capacity there. So it couldn’t be exported. On the other hand, one plant could help a little. It’s the psychological impact I had in mind more than the physical impact. Saving a litre of oil anywhere is an important thing to do.

Maclean’s: According to your final report, Hydro's increasing surplus of electricity will “create a real risk of having excess nuclear capacity in off-peak periods in the late 1980s and 1990s. ” This may require “throttling back”some nuclear units at nights and on weekends. With this obvious and expensive surplus, it seems incredible to suggest we build even more.

Porter: What I’m saying now is that there will be export markets in the U.S. They are going to fill electricity defi-

ciencies, for instance, caused by the Three Mile Island accident. So it’s factors of that kind which have changed quite a bit since the final report was written.

Maclean’s: Do you think the public will stand for nuclear plants being built in Ontario to replace electricity lost from a nuclear accident in Pennsylvania? Porter: I don’t know. That’s a rhetorical question. I don’t know whether they will stand for it, but very clearly, if one looks at this world in 40 to 50 years and one sees the existing real threats to the world’s life-support systems, then petty little problems of that kind are not going to carry very much weight. The key thing is to pull together. I am thinking

on a global scale, and I recognize that unless something serious is done we’ve had it. Within 50 years.

Maclean’s: You recently said you were “convinced ... of the central role nuclear energy must play in the world's— and Canada's—future.” Yet, in your final report you refused to endorse nuclear electricity as a substitute for oil heating in homes, for economic and energy - efficiency reasons. Why the switch?

Porter: There has been no switch. Electric space heating was advocated in our report only as a hybrid method. The commission suggested that using electricity in low-demand hours of the day, and oil heating during peak demand, would be the optimum arrangement. Maclean’s: So is it your position that the expansion of nuclear power can be justified as a substitute for home heating oil?

Porter: Absolutely. Even on an economic basis, let alone an environmental basis. Maclean’s: It has long been assumed that

Ontario has exhausted its hydroelectric generating capacity. In fact, though, its total undeveloped potential is about U,000 peak megawatts. By contrast, the Pickering station generates 2,000 megawatts. Wouldn't pursuing this potential be a cheaper, more energy-efficient route to follow than nuclear power? Porter: I don’t believe that. Fourteen thousand additional megawatts? Maclean’s: I have the [relevant Ontario Hydro] report right here. It includes small-scale hydro, large-scale hydro and pumped storage capacity.

Porter: (Looking at report.) This shocks me to the core. Fourteen thousand megawatts, including pumped storage. Do you know, I never saw this report? It’s quite specific. I’m fascinated. This is just incredible information! . . . There are environmental things I’m very concerned about [regarding hydro power]—essentially the social impact on native peoples. But I advocate this to the nth degree. I would go down fighting in support of hydroelectric power.

Maclean’s: Do you find it shocking that a report of this magnitude wasn't submitted to the royal commission?

Porter: Well, let’s put it this way: I’m surprised it wasn’t handed over. There’s no question—it came through loud and clear—that we were extremely interested in hydroelectric power.

Maclean’s: The Globe and Mail article referred to the concerns you expressed about the environmental effects of acid rain—the threat it represents to numerous biological species. Yet Ontario Hydro's coal generating stations continue to be the second-worst source of acid rain pollution in the province, and your commission specifically recommended against the installation of anti pollution “scrubbers” on any of their plants. Porter: Yes. The point we made was this: if Ontario burns efficiently low sulphur coal, and meets the ministry of environment standards, then we did not see the use for “scrubbers.” I’m convinced that most of the acid rain damage comes from the United States.

Maclean’s: I don't.think there's much question that about 50 per cent of it comes from the U.S. Still, Ontario Hydro stations are responsible for about 25 per cent, so it 's difficult to see....

Porter: But again, this is very difficult. The basic information is not there at the present time, really. It’s like this problem of cancer and smoking. It’s extremely difficult to isolate the cause. Maclean’s: Finally,Mr. Porter, nuclear energy provides about two per cent of Canada 's total energy needs. What percentage do you think it can realistically provide by the year 2000?

Porter: That’s a very good question. A very good question. To be realistic, I would think three per cent,