Hope even for Chernobyl

When the accident happened at Chernobyl’s #4 reactor in April 1986, it changed how people viewed nuclear power forever. Of course, there had already been the accident at the Three Mile Island power plant in the United States. But that was not the same as the meltdown that created a 4,000 square mile exclusion zone across the borders of what are now Belarus and Ukraine. The meltdown has become such a trope in popular culture that there is now even a horror movie about what has happened there in the aftermath. …

Fracking and Canada’s Oil Sands

Syncrude Mildred Lake Plant. “This is a picture of Syncrude’s base mine. The yellow structures are the bases of pyramids made of sulphur – it is not economical for Syncrude to sell the sulphur so it stockpiles it instead. Behind that is the tailings pond, held in by what is recognized as the largest dam in the world. The extraction plant is just to the right of this photograph and most of the mine is to the left.” By TastyCakes is the photographer, Jamitzky subsequently equalized the colour. (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In 2003 I wrote an article, “Canada’s New Role in North American Energy Security,” which examined Canada’s growing importance to U.S. energy security. This paper was written in the context of 9/11, and looking back I wish that I had talked much more about the environmental costs of this resource. In the years since, so much has changed. Canada’s oil has become a stranded resource. Indeed, Alberta is so unhappy with the opposition to an oil pipeline by its provincial neighbor, British Columbia, that it briefly banned the sale of B.C. wine.

The fundamental issue, however, for the oil sands is not the pipeline policy of BC, but rather the underlying economics. The fracking revolution has remade the finances of oil. It’s true that Canada remains the top oil exporter to the United States. Still, the financial value of its exports fell 47.5% between 2016 and 2017 (this is the dollar value, not the number of barrels shipped). Indeed, the drops in the value of petroleum sales were even larger for other major oil suppliers to the United States. Venezuela, the third largest oil exporter to the United States, saw it’s sales fall a staggering 71.8% during the same period, while Mexico’s fell 79.3%, according the website “worldstopexports.” The truth is that focusing on pipelines to the Pacific is rather like improving buggies to compete with Ford as the auto industry developed, which no less true for being a meme.

The Tyee is an online newspaper with good coverage of West Coast politics and society in Canada from a left-wing perspective. Mitchell Anderson has a wonderful article titled “Only Fantasies, Desperation and Wishful Thinking Keep Pipeline Plans Alive.” While Anderson’s article reflects the paper’s ideological leanings, the overall analysis shows the folly of trying to rely on this resource, at a time that global energy markets are undergoing a massive change, and coastal regions are trying to plan for sea level rise. With the rise of electric cars, the falling costs of utility scale batteries, and the growth of fracking, the energy landscape has change dramatically from 2003. No ban on BC wine is going to undo the dramatic changes in U.S. oil demand, and the United States will remain Canada’s main energy market internationally. While Albertans must rethink and diversify, they are only one player amongst many, which are struggling to adapt to new global realities.

Shawn Smallman, 2018

Hope, Fusion and the Future

“This image shows the Sun as viewed by the Soft X-Ray Telescope (SXT) onboard the orbiting Yohkoh satellite.” By NASA Goddard Laboratory for Atmospheres and Yohkoh Legacy data Archive [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
As a kid growing up in Southern Ontario in the early 80s, I enjoyed listening to a science program called “Quirks and Quarks,” on CBC radio. Imagine my surprise to find that -thanks to the wonders of podcasts- I could still listen to this program, which is as good as it ever was. One recent episode, “Let there be Light,” compares two different approaches to fusion. In France, ITER is a $20 billion project which has entailed 35 years of cooperation amongst multiple nations. The reason why this investment makes sense is that fusion would create a virtually limitless supply of energy, without the danger of either nuclear meltdowns or the long-term storage of nuclear waste. In contrast, a Canadian start-up has a radically different and smaller plan. What’s most interesting to me about this brief podcast (14:08 minutes) is the scientists discussion of the level of resources required to develop fusion. They contrast this amount with the $200 billion that Qatar may spend to host the World Cup. There is hope for a radically different energy system, if we as a civilization are prepared to make the required investments.

Shawn Smallman, 2017

The new energy reality

“A petrochemical refinery in Grangemouth, Scotland, UK.” User:John from wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
When Kim and I reworked our textbook for the second edition, the energy chapter perhaps underwent the greatest change. In 2011 the peak oil movement was receiving a lot of media attention, and websites such as the Oil Drum were a powerful force. Matthew Simmons, Twilight in the Desert, received a great deal of media attention, with its warning that the Saudi oil fields were entering into an irrevocable decline.

In 2013 the Oil Drum closed, North Dakota was booming, and the United States was moving towards energy self-sufficiency. Fracking had changed the global energy landscape. By 2016 oil prices were in a steep decline, that they have only recently begun to recover from. Coal was waning because of the low cost of gas,

In 2017 Toshiba’s Westinghouse has entered bankruptcy because of the high cost of building new nuclear reactors in the American South. It’s not at all clear that it is technically possible to stop the radioactive contamination of water in Fukushima, at any cost or within any timeframe. There are grave doubts that the Japanese government is being forthright about this challenge. With the exception of China and France (and to a much lesser extent, Great Britain) the nuclear industry is in decline.

Tesla is now worth more than GM (although critics say that its valuation is a bubble), and the company is diversifying into batteries. The price of wind power is now competitive with many other sources, and the offshore wind industry has finally begun to produce power in the United States. Perhaps even more important, the price of solar energy is falling at a staggering rate. In the long term, technology breakthroughs are promising to create solar panels that are far more efficient than the current technology, which is approaching its theoretical limit. If solar follows the same economic trajectory as wind power, the changes within our energy infrastructure will be profound. …

Fort McMurray and the Canadian Oil Sands

Years ago I toured the Fort McKay and an Oil Sands production facility. I was struck by the sheer scale of all aspects of the facility: the trucks the size of a small house; the tailings of sulphur, which formed a bright yellow block the size of an apartment building, and the pit, which seemed to stretch to the horizon. The oil company took my group to view some reclaimed tailings, which had been replanted with vegetation, and now had a small band of buffalo. If I remember correctly, the buffalo were cared for by the local aboriginal people.

What the company’s tour guide did not discuss was the issue of water, and the huge pools of contaminated water that no technology can currently clean. While most attention with the oil sands has focused on the issue of carbon, the issue of local environmental destruction is also pressing, and the impact that this industrial scale development has on regional communities. Amongst these communities are the indigenous peoples of the region. Much as is the case with fracking from North Dakota to Texas, how people view environmental issues is often influenced by their economic interests. For this reasons, many aboriginal communities have been divided not only by the Oil Sands, but also by issues of pipelines or mining.

I am teaching an online “Introduction to International Studies” course this quarter, and the most popular course materials have not been articles, podcasts or videos, but rather storyboards. Students love the interactive aspect of these media, which are often also beautiful. The Guardian has an excellent story board on the tar sands, which examines both the environmental and human questions raised by this development, which I highly recommend.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University.

Nuclear Sabotage in Europe

"Nuclear" by luigi diamanti at
“Nuclear” by luigi diamanti at

In a previous article, I discussed how the French government has sought to suppress evidence regarding the massive costs that a nuclear accident would entail. But an accident is not the only danger facing nuclear reactors as a recent incident at Belgium’s Doel 4 nuclear reactor makes clear. Some person -most likely an employee at the plant- deliberately damaged an oil drainage system from a turbine, which caused so much damage that the plant will be closed until after the New Year. Now Belgium may face blackouts if winter demand for electricity is particularly high. The Doel 4 incident is particularly worrying because the plant is located in a heavily populated part of Europe.

Remarkably two other reactors are also offline in Belgium, because cracks were found in reactor casings, which means that Belgium has lost more than half of its nuclear capacity. While people often argue that renewable power is too intermittent to be relied upon, events in Belgium again make the point that there are also major risks in relying on nuclear power. In this particular case, we know very little about the sabotage. Was it carried out by an isolated individual? If so, what was their motivation? Clearly threats to to the integrity of nuclear reactors do not always come from outside the plant. Currently the case in Belgium is being investigated by the Belgian police. Do these forces have the expertise to investigate nuclear crimes? The Belgian case also should make security experts and plant owners question their practices. How carefully are plant employees screened, and what monitoring systems are in place? …

A Book Review of Mark Willacy’s Fukushima

"Mt. Fuji, Japan" by Worakit Sirijinda
“Mt. Fuji, Japan” by Worakit Sirijinda

The Fukushima nuclear disaster is so recent that it’s been difficult to have a nuanced and thorough perspective on this event. Mark Willacy’s history attempts to tell the story of Fukushima through the stories of not only the people who lived in the area, but also the senior government officials who dealt with the crisis. Willacy has a deep knowledge of Japan, and had visited the area hit by the tsunami a year before the disaster. One of the strengths of the work is the extensive interviews Willacy undertook to build a detailed image of complex events. By using the techniques of narrative non-fiction, his book conveys information largely by showing the reader through scenes, which helps to show why data matters. With his deep knowledge of contemporary Japan, and his detailed interviews, Willacy creates a beautifully written and detailed account of this disaster. …

North America’s Energy Boom

"Panorama Scene Of Refinery Industry Plant" by khunaspix
“Panorama Scene Of Refinery Industry Plant” by khunaspix

I’ve blogged before about Canada’s oil sands, and the political battles and environmental issues that they have spawned. What is clear, however, is that despite the environmental and safety issues that new energy supplies raise in North America, economic changes are reshaping the energy industry with stunning speed. While the Canadian Oil Sands are the main focus of attention, it may be that discoveries of massive supplies of natural gas near Ft. St. John in northern British Columbia are also of global significance. As this article by Brent Jang in the Globe and Mail describes, it is enough supply to support a century’s worth of production. For Canada’s native peoples, in particular the Gitga’at people, potential exports are both a danger and an opportunity. But the discovery has implications that stretch far beyond the region. For Japan this find is so large that it has strategic implications as the nation turns to liquified natural gas (LNG) to replace the electricity production lost with Fukushima. Canada is a logical energy partner, and a large supply of Canadian natural gas will increase the competition for the Japanese market, which should make this energy transition easier. …

The Dangers of Nuclear Energy: Japan, France and the US

"Nuclear Power" by xedos4 at
“Nuclear Power” by xedos4 at

There have been some intriguing articles recently about nuclear energy, which demonstrate the challenges entailed with obtaining power from this resource. An article in Reuters described how homeless people are being recruited to work in the nuclear cleanup in Fukushima, Japan, because few other people are willing to take on such a dangerous task for minimum wage. The people recruited for this work are not the highly trained and motivated, but rather the most vulnerable. Sadly, major criminal syndicates appear to be involved in the recruitment process, which has meant that there are serious failures in oversight and record keeping. Another article has described how the farmer Masami Yoshizawa illegally entered the forbidden zone around the nuclear power plant to save cattle abandoned when people were forced to flee in the aftermath of the disaster. He described a horrible scene of neglect, in which cattle died with their mouths in their feeding troughs, as they waited for their farmers to return and care for them. The government does not know what to do with Masami, and so he is not officially recognized as living there, even though (my favorite detail) he still has his electricity and his telephone turned on. The nuclear disaster continues to have a major economic impact on the country; for example, South Korea still refuses to buy Japanese seafood. …

Energy Reform in Mexico and Brazil

"The Offshore Drilling Oil Rig And Supply Boat Side View" by num_skyman at
“The Offshore Drilling Oil Rig And Supply Boat Side View” by num_skyman at

I’ve just returned from three weeks in southern Mexico, where the biggest political issue in the news has been the President’s energy reform plan. In 1938 Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas nationalized the petroleum industry. This measure attracted popular acclaim in Mexico, and fury in the United States. While President Roosevelt was pressured to act, he knew that World War Two was coming, and had little interest in alienating a key neighbor. The state oil company PEMEX is now Mexico’s largest economic organization, and a source of national pride. When you travel in Mexico, all of the gas stations have the green stripe and red eagle of PEMEX. But now the company faces massive challenges. …

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