KRISTJANNA GRIMMELT

Nuclear Reactions

Nuclear power may bring jobs and affluence to the Peace Country. It may bring disaster. A local debate is under way.

By Kristjanna Grimmelt

Council meetings in the northwestern municipal district of Peace are generally amicable affairs, as members have known one another for years—they’re neighbours who run family farms or work in the small town of Grimshaw.

But this spring, tempers flared. Donald Palmer, a two-term councillor, walked off the job. “I said, fine, go ahead, do it your way,” recalled Palmer days after his resignation from both council and the region’s aquifer board. A retired humanities teacher who built his own log house, Palmer felt other councillors didn’t respect his support for what would be Western Canada’s first nuclear power plant—to be located, literally, in ratepayers’ backyards. 

The nuclear era was ushered into Peace River by Energy Alberta, a start-up company with no background in the industry, led by its cowboy-hat-wearing, liquor magnate-cum-CEO Wayne Henuset, who brought with him a fuel bundle wrapped in a red ribbon. 

After obtaining letters of support from all area councils, Energy Alberta quickly sold out to Bruce Power in 2007.

Bruce Power, Canada’s only private nuclear power plant operator, submitted a regulatory board application in March to build up to four nuclear reactors on Lac Cardinal, mere kilometres from Grimshaw and the larger town of Peace River (pop. 6,800). The application, the first of five licences nuclear power plant operators must obtain from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, is under review. Bruce Power isn’t required to name an energy consumer, but the plant will likely fuel the province’s oil sands, which at projected production would require far more than the 4,000 MW of energy the nuclear plant is expected to produce by the time it’s finished in 2017. Ontario’s Bruce generating station, North America’s largest, currently produces 4,700 MW with six of its eight reactors operational. 

Though the MD of Peace originally submitted a letter expressing support for nuclear, fierce argumentation among council members has continued. During its spring MD meeting, council passed a motion to change their stance to “neutral” toward Bruce Power; a subsequent motion clarified that the MD “supported exploration” of nuclear energy.

It’s just one example of how heated area residents are becoming over whether to embrace or fight the arrival of nuclear power. An informal MD survey released in March showed that most respondents are against the idea: 213 “oppose” nuclear, 91 “support” it and 67 were “undecided” or “do not care.” Most of those opposed are chiefly concerned about the future of their groundwater source, the Grimshaw Gravels Aquifer, with environmental and health concerns ranked second and third. 

In 2007, the newly formed Bruce Power Alberta began a series of procedures common to nuclear operators: they held open houses, attempted to woo local business organizations, and even footed the bill for a delegation of 30 select residents to tour the Bruce plant’s Candu reactors at similarly rural Kincardine, Ontario. 

An informal survey conducted by the Municipal District of Peace last March found that residents were: 213 anti-nuke, 91 pro-nuke, 65 undecided.

So far, Scottish-born Duncan Hawthorne, CEO of Bruce Power, says he’s encouraged by the large turnouts at his presentations. He’s easy to talk to, and some residents say they like him. “This community is very open-minded, but ill-informed about nuclear energy,” he says.

Almost all residents say they want more information—yet, aside from allowing two local anti-nuclear groups’ presentations, local councils seem content to allow Bruce Power to educate the public.

Veronica Bliska, the newly elected reeve, thought the MD of Peace council’s attempt to remain “neutral” was inconsistent with their role as public servants. “We just cannot be neutral,” she insisted. “You know, most of the responses I was seeing were for more information. People saying they just wanted to know more.” Some 63 per cent of the informal survey respondents thought the MD should be responsible for hosting informational meetings.

Local media, still very relevant in the Peace region, have mixed thoughts about their responsibility. Peace River’s Record-Gazette and Grimshaw’s Mile Zero News are frequently packed with residents’ letters, and the newspapers’ staffs have quickly come up to speed on the issue. However, executives of radio station YL Country have decided against on-air debate by reporters or listeners—they’ll merely report the news as it happens.

With its brightly coloured walls lined with celebrity photos, YL Country boasts a big-city flair—and the pride of being one of Alberta’s only remaining independent radio stations. Some of their personalities, such as morning show host Dan Mody and DJ “Dono” Jennings, have been trusted by the public for years.  

But they’re giving the issue of nuclear energy a pass. “We’re in the entertainment business,” explains general manager Terry Babiy. “I mean, listener tune-out is an issue.” 

Babiy insists that the station itself doesn’t have a position, and that feedback from advertisers did not affect their decision. Rather, he says, it was a matter of “overkill”—other news items stretching to the Northwest Territories boundary needed attention. 

He describes how YL was “under siege” by the nuclear issue. “We were getting lots of calls, but it was the same 10 people all the time,” he says. “That’s not really what I would call engagement.”

A more balanced picture of the pros and cons of nuclear power is beginning to form as neighbours inform themselves one conversation at a time. 

Dr. John Andreiuk, chief of medical staff at the Fairview hospital and one of the only physicians serving the entire area, criticizes Bruce Power’s marketing gimmicks. “I’d like to see them pass around a bundle that’s radioactive,” he says. “I think they take us for a bunch of fools.” 

Small amounts of radioactive materials are released into the air and water near a nuclear plant. The industry maintains they are not dangerous, though danger of leakage always exists. Some studies have linked even low levels of radiation to leukemia rates in nearby communities. “The thing is, the more radiation, the more problems,” says Andreiuk. “The public’s going to have to decide what they will tolerate.”

Another physician in Peace River says that, health risks aside, the community can’t handle the growth. Currently, 10 doctors service the immediate Peace River area. 

“We’re headed for a tremendous collapse,” says Peace River physician Dr. Dave Willox. He was on the Kincardine tour and says he’d favour nuclear energy if he thought medical infrastructure wasn’t already stretched too thin. “[But] the docs are struggling to keep up, and we’re not getting any breaks.” 

Support for or opposition to the proposed nuclear reactor had a major impact on recent elections across the region. Councillors who oppose the plant were elected in several municipalities, and five mayor and reeve positions went to women. In this northern region, many women are mothers and homemakers first; such a political shift may indicate that the public wanted leaders who embodied “motherly” characteristics: to protect, to nurture, to care for their young. 

In Peace River, a record voter turnout finished the old-boys club: long-time mayor Lorne Mann, a youthful lawyer well known for extolling the region’s natural beauty (yet perceived as overly pro-business and often too busy to attend municipal events), was defeated by councillor Iris Callioux. 

A former Justice of the Peace, Callioux decided to run three months before the fall 2007 election. She promised transparency and more cooperation with residents, some of whom she’d seen fight urban expansion in large numbers at public hearings. Her clear, dark eyes, relaxed demeanour and willingness to listen may be what compels many residents to trust her, even given her personal support for the nuclear plant. She would back a plebiscite on the project if, after all the studies came out, most residents still opposed it. 

Clad in a pink fleece vest emblazoned with a local bison producer’s logo, she listens as a group of volunteers talk about how they are “unsure” about the plant. Some are fearful. Some praise Bruce Power CEO Duncan Hawthorne’s frank way of answering questions. She adds: “Just gather all the information you can. Keep learning.” 

The group has gathered in council chambers to sign a declaration for Palliative Care Week. Once the women have left, the mayor explains she’s merely being realistic about the demand for energy in the province, which she wants the region to meet. “People just aren’t going to buy using less energy,” she says. “I really don’t see that.” She also favours the view that nuclear, despite hefty emissions during construction and uranium mining, is greenhouse gas emission-free once the plant is operating. 

Callioux knocked on Kincardine-area residents’ doors and came away reassured that locals were comfortable with their plant. She is impressed by Bruce Power as a corporate citizen and she believes their track record for safety and giving back to communities in Canada is good. 

“I think if there’s any industry that the government has to be forthright and careful on, it’s the nuclear industry,” she says. “We keep knives in our household. We put them up high or we put sleeves on them, and we teach our children that knives are sharp.”

Not all the residents who toured Kincardine have good things to say. Diane Plowman, a public-health professional and long-time resident, was frightened by the on-site storage facilities for nuclear waste. “I can’t believe we haven’t come any farther than burying the [nuclear] waste in the ground,” she says. “I don’t think our community needs that kind of risk.” 

A soft-spoken woman whose husband is vice principal of Peace River’s Catholic high school, Plowman is not someone immediately mistaken for an activist. But last year, she and her neighbours protested the use of a rural road as a direct route to the Shell in situ plant. Despite securing an important health inspector’s support, Plowman and her neighbours lost their battle. “As an Albertan for my entire life, I’m getting more and more skeptical about how much say citizens actually have,” she says wearily. “I realize how much industry runs the province.”

Denis Sauvageau, a farmer from the eastern francophone town of Falher, fought for years on air quality interest groups after an industrial hog farm moved in, yet he has only recently seen improvements. Through his struggle, he’s become jaded with industry. “If a valve opens up and [the output] lands on my vegetable garden, who’s going to care about that?” he asks.

An oil and gas map of the Peace region is patterned like camouflage: navy splotches for the oil sands extending eastward to Fort McMurray; ripples of crude oil (grey-blue) throughout, and—a grey so soft it’s easy to miss—natural gas underlying the whole region. 

A nuclear plant—and all the infrastructure that comes with it—thus raises the question of whether more exploration will be done in the region on potential oil extraction sites. Bruce Power is looking for major customers, and Duncan Hawthorne agrees oil and gas companies are potential buyers. 

But more oil and gas exploration may not be welcomed by everyone. Wiebo Ludwig, whose sabotage of oil and gas wells earned him national newspaper headlines, a sensational trial and an eventual jail sentence, has accused the industry of poisoning his family by building a toxic sour-gas well near his Peace region home. Andrew Nikiforuk, who profiled Ludwig in his award-winning book Saboteurs, predicts a rapid industrialization of the entire landscape, with agricultural and forested land being ruined or debased for expanded oil and gas projects.

“They’re essentially looking for a naive community in which to do this,” he says of Bruce Power. “For a few high-paying jobs, most of which will be taken by people from outside, they’ll get a legacy of waste, water abuse and air pollution.”

Diane Plowman, a public health professional and long-time resident, was frightened by Bruce Power’s on-site storage facilities for nuclear waste. “I can’t believe we haven’t come any further than burying the waste in the ground.”

Leslie Ayre-Jaschke, a newly elected Town of Peace River councillor, thinks Peace River should develop a more sustainable local economy in all sectors rather than extract—and export—energy, whether oil and gas or nuclear. “I’m convinced [nuclear] is old technology,” she says. “It doesn’t look at the environment as a system.” 

Ayre-Jaschke is putting her philosophy of municipal planning to work: she recently secured initial funding for a public-housing complex. In the recent boom years, the town vacancy rate has plummeted, with similar effects being felt across the region.

Brenda Brochu, president of the anti-nuclear Peace River Environmental Society, is also keenly aware of the correlation between growth pressures and the region’s most vulnerable people. “There’s no question that this is the hotbed of opposition,” she said in an interview at the frequently packed women’s shelter she runs. “With such rapid development going on, citizen groups are springing up all over the place.”

Brochu, who wears her hair in a silvery blunt-cut bob and rarely removes her anti-nuclear pin, has a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the nuclear and oil sands industries. PRES, as well as its Grimshaw sister group Citizens Against Nuclear Development, has at least 60 members across the region. Both groups oppose nuclear energy in principle and are demanding a moratorium on oil sands development.

“We can’t get people to work at jobs,” Brochu says. “We can’t get housing, we can’t get doctors. Fort McMurray comes to mind. Is this really what we need?” 

PRES recently hosted Eugene Bourgeois, a Kincardine-area farmer who blamed the heavy-water plant for his health problems and losses from his sheep herd, largely due to hydrogen sulphide exposure.

Brochu said PRES is trying to counter Bruce Power’s extensive advertising and promotion campaign in Peace River. “We are people with jobs and families and pets, and we don’t have the resources to launch the PR campaign that Bruce Power has,” she says. “But we’re doing our best.”

Most of those who opposed the plant in Kincardine and other plants in other parts of Canada have long since left—a concern echoed by some in Peace River. 

Third-generation farmer Joe Jaschke calls Candu reactors “stinking” for the comparative amount of spent uranium fuel they produce. They seem to be the option favoured by Bruce Power, which has used the Canadian Crown corporation technology in its other facilities.

 Jaschke says he’ll move away if the plant comes in. “I’ve lived here all my life. I thought I was going to die here.” He wipes his hands on a red coverall embroidered with his first name in white cursive. Now retired from farming, he fixes oil patch machinery from a shop adjacent to his home. He and his wife, Ellie, also worry for the safety of their drinking water. “There’s 135 feet of gravel here and all the water you can pump,” Jaschke says with pride, gesturing to the land around his farm. 

Bruce Power predicts the plant’s northeast corner could fall atop the central lobe of the Grimshaw Gravels Aquifer, which supplies over 7,000 homes with water. It’s unclear to many residents why the plant would be located there in the first place, though Hawthorne says Bruce Power will address the issue, possibly by moving the site, and will not use any groundwater to run the plant. 

“Water from our aquifer is worth more than a nuclear plant,” Ellie adds, her hands folded on the kitchen table. Such simple logic is gaining ground. River flows are declining across Alberta, and the Peace River is one of Alberta’s only remaining plentiful water sources. A nuclear reactor would take approximately 1 per cent of the Peace River’s flow—to say nothing of the increasing amounts of water required for crude oil extraction. 

It’s also unclear what will become of the Lac Cardinal area, an ecologically and historically rich spot near Queen Elizabeth Provincial Park. A popular campsite borders the lake, once a recreation centre for pioneering families. While highly oxidized, the lake remains an important waterfowl habitat.  

“One year we can’t keep up and the next year we’re laying people off,” says Albert Cooper, local liasion for Bruce Power, about businesses in the Peace Region. “[Economic] stability is the one thing we all need.”

Members of Duncan’s First Nation, the closest reserve to the proposed site at a distance of about 15 km, use the area around Lac Cardinal for cultural gatherings, a youth/elder camp and berry picking. Councillor Virginia Gladue says the Chief and staff found out about the plant through an Edmonton Sun article. The First Nation wants to hire its own experts to analyze the impact of the plant on the land and, while denying they’re taking a position, are openly critical. 

“We haven’t been consulted. We have had no consultation,” Gladue says, pointing to the forestry, oil and gas projects around the area that are already disrupting traditional hunting and fishing. “It’s very difficult to talk about jobs when you don’t know what the impact will be.”

Dixie Kohut, another Aboriginal leader who coordinates Peace River’s Sagitawa Friendship Centre, supports the nuclear plant and feels there could be job opportunities for First Nations people there. Bruce Power has promised to create at least 2,000 temporary jobs during construction and 1,000 full-time skilled technical jobs when the plant is up and running. Those permanent jobs may be a boon to a region struggling to retain its young people and attract educated newcomers—though, as some critics warn, there may end up being far fewer jobs than Bruce Power currently projects. 

Fairview-born Toni Antonietti, a regal woman with wispy blond hair, runs the new Belle Petroleum Centre and hopes to use its vast space for start-up administrative services and conferences. She has two teenagers of her own. “I’d like to see training for the employees they’ll need, work that will keep our kids here,” she says. 

Some residents argue that nuclear could offer an alternative to the region’s resource-based economy, which is prone to fluctuations. Albert Cooper, the Conservative MP for Peace River from 1980 to 1993, recently became a local liaison for Bruce Power. He draws his water from the aquifer, which he calls “beautiful,” and points out that the region could benefit from a socio-economic impact study. “Right now, we don’t know where the aquifer begins and ends,” he says. “At the end, we’ll know.” 

Peace Air, Cooper’s family-run commercial airline, folded in 2007 due to market pressures, leaving many businesspeople without air service during icy winter months. “One year we can’t keep up and the next year we’re laying people off,” says Cooper. “Stability is the one thing we all need.” 

Brian Reading, the Peace River Chamber of Commerce president, hopes bringing a nuclear power plant in might put the community higher on the government’s list for infrastructure projects such as twinning the bottlenecked Peace River bridge, where traffic slows to a crawl when one lane closes down due to an accident or frequent repairs.

“It’s kind of like ‘if you build it, they will come,’ ” he says, tilting back in a leather chair in an office overlooking his hardware franchise. “Me, personally, growing up in Ontario, I’m pro-nuclear,” he continues. “[Living near the Pickering plant] was something I never thought about that much, to be honest.” 

Development is proceeding at breakneck speed on Peace River’s west hill, an area that flanks Highway 2 to Grimshaw and remains safe from spring breakup flooding. What was once farmland and fields has quickly become car dealerships, big-box stores such as Reading’s and gas stations.

Ken Reid, a local shop foreman, says his brother has worked for decades at the Point Lepreau Candu reactor in New Brunswick. As a security guard, Reid’s brother has had a steady income with solid benefits for over 20 years. The plant has contributed substantially to the economy of the province, even during the Maritimes’ economic slump. 

“There were people for it and against it just like there are here,” he remembers. “But overall, with the number of jobs it was creating, people just went with it.” 

The Peace region’s history dates back to Alexander Mackenzie’s 18th-century voyage across the Continental Divide in a birchbark canoe. To this day, residents have eclectic backgrounds, and all of them care deeply about their region’s future. 

Laura Gloor, the local museum director, speaks passionately about how citizens rally around an issue “in the same way we gather around the dike to watch the river.” Now, she grows tearful as she describes the powerlessness she feels—the proposed site nearly rubs up against her home.

According to residents on both sides of the nuclear issue, the Peace River area has never received its due, never been recognized for the quality of life it offers. Many think, perhaps idealistically, that the tight-knit, established community would deal better with development than its neighbours—even that it would come of age. 

“My wife has waited 30 years to see an arts facility and still nothing,” says Donald Palmer, the former MD councillor, whose wife runs a mushroom spore print studio. “You can bet we’d get it if Bruce came in.” 

Toni Antonietti, the businesswoman, muses that Peace River could become “a Cochrane/Okotoks type of concept, with nearby bedroom communities,” and hopes for more entertainment options. 

But Nikiforuk warns that the kind of growth Peace River seems to want may actually obliterate the community people are so proud of. “Are we going to destroy this place just for the money?” he asks. “Maybe that’s what the people of Peace River want. But maybe the world needs more quiet places like Peace River.” 

Peace River’s mayor insists she keeps the community’s best interests at the forefront. 

“I love the Peace Country,” says Iris Callioux. “[I] wouldn’t promote something that would eventually cause harm to this area. I think about that regularly.”

Kristjanna Grimmelt is a writer, journalist and translator. She grew up in northern Alberta and, until 2007, worked as the community reporter at the Peace River Record-Gazette.

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