Looking for Imagination in Energy Policy (Part 2) - "Do No Significant Harm"

[Author's collection]

“Do No Significant Harm” – and nuclear energy doesn’t

In 1708 a letter from a mysterious Admiral de Fonte appeared in an English periodical. In it, he describes his “discovery” in 1640 of the Northwest Passage via the northwest coast of America. At first this account was largely ignored. But in the 1740s and 1750s it gained attention as proof that a navigable passage from Pacific to Atlantic existed.

Mapmakers didn’t know what to do. Some rejected the story out of hand as a fabrication. Others, however, thought there could be a grain or two of truth to it – and began to “translate” the Admiral’s journey and discoveries into their maps of the Pacific Northwest.

Among the mapmakers who entirely bought the de Fonte story was J.N. De Lisle, a Frenchman who returned to France after twenty years at the Imperial Academy in St. Petersburg, Russia. He was accused of purloining information from the First and Second Kamchatka Expeditions of Vitus Bering, which had reached the west coast of America from Russia.

In 1750, he startled the French scientific establishment by presenting a map to the Royal Academy that integrated the Russian cartographical data with his own interpretation of the de Fonte “discoveries”.

The resulting cartography (originally published in 1752) is shown above in Robert Vaugondy's Carte Generale des Découvertes de l’Admiral de Fonte (1774). It launched a controversy that raged for decades, with geographers and mapmakers in France and far beyond weighing in on one side or the other. Many scoffed. Nonetheless, the de Fonte fabrication took hold among mapmakers, even reputable ones.

As sailors and merchants and Royal Navy explorers increasingly probed the Pacific west coast, their maps often showed de Fonte’s tracks, adorned with other long-held speculations about the region – such as the “Mer de L’Ouest” (shown on the map where Oregon should be).

Very little was known at that time about the Pacific coast north of Spanish California. Any concept of Alaska or the Aleutian Islands is absent. Mountains like the Rockies don’t exist. Northeast Asia, Siberia and Kamchatka are equally peculiar in many places, though informed at least by the Bering expedition’s real discoveries.

The French cartographer, Robert Vaugondy, faithfully reproduced De Lisle’s original 1752 map. De Lisle's cartography is supplemented by an insert (top left) from another de Fonte adherent, Theodore Swaine Drage, showing his concept of the west coast between 50˚- 65˚ latitudes. (Swaine Drage was convinced of the “great probability” of a Northwest passage and served on British voyages trying to find the passage – unsuccessfully – via Hudson’s Bay!)  

This De Lisle cartography shows what happens when the imagination yields to obsession. Imagination should work interactively (dialectically) with practical experience. You imagine a possibility; then proceed to seek it, test, record, and evaluate empirically.

But when fixation sets in – and belief preferences (ideology) take over – no alternatives are considered, no fresh ways of thinking, no new data received. Let’s not forget that the Admiral de Fonte fable compromised the independent thinking, and indeed the very reputations, of some of the leading cartographers of the 18th century – as the concept, the features, the place names all infected mariner’s maps and their expectations of what they’d find in exploring the Pacific Northwest of America.

How on earth (so to speak) does this get us to imagination and energy policy?

Let’s look first for fixations with respect to nuclear energy, for sometimes it seems that Admiral de Fonte is alive and well among this technology’s detractors.

The fixation is with the risk of radiological harm coming from the civil or commercial use of this technology. Of course, radiological sources can pose risk to human health and the environment if unregulated and unmitigated. Such sources can only promote human health through medical isotopes, cancer treatment, and great quantities of reliable emissions-free energy.

In the European Union, a fight is going on between those who wish to ban nuclear energy entirely and those who want to obtain its many benefits. One of the conflict points is whether nuclear energy is “sustainable” from the point of view of human health and environmental protection.

What is sustainable? How is it measured or calculated? Put in other words: when it comes to nuclear energy production, how do we evaluate radiological risk to humans and the environment?

The commonly agreed yardstick for evaluating energy production risk (not just for radioactive sources) is Do No Significant Harm (DNSH).

Why is this important? DNSH is used – by the European Commission, for example – as a key criterion in deciding whether an energy technology is sustainable (or “green”) and therefore eligible for sustainable financing and investment.

Several EU countries want to exclude nuclear energy based on the DNSH criterion. But let’s look at this by using imagination, based on actual performance and practices.

The best – and most incisive – argument against excluding nuclear technology on the DNSH criterion is by Lucid Catalyst. Assessment of the Sustainability of Nuclear Power | LucidCatalyst

All commercial nuclear activities in the EU are already regulated to Do No Significant Harm standards. That includes the complete nuclear energy lifecycle from uranium mining to waste storage. Nuclear energy production is thus enveloped in robust environmental and safety legislation and regulations, which are further supported through international reporting, guidelines and inspections.

On the basis of this performance evidence, Lucid Catalyst concludes: “The best available evidence shows clearly that under current treaties, guidelines, regulations and legislation, the nuclear energy lifecycle does not and will not cause significant harm to [non-climate-related] sustainability objectives.” 

A modicum of imagination allow us to see the strength of this argument and look past fixations on radiological energy generation as inherently harmful and evil.

If, as Lucid Catalyst points out, “All commercial nuclear activities in the EU are already regulated to a ‘Do No Harm’ standard through the Laws, Regulations and Procedures of the EU and the Member States.” -- then how can one say that civil nuclear power does “significant harm”?

Of all the different sources of energy generation – fossil fuel and renewable – nuclear is in fact the one most thoroughly regulated and prevented from “doing significant harm” to citizens.

On the DNSH criterion alone, nuclear energy has the best track record of all because of its governance of potentially harmful effects. Wish that other sources could emulate that.

Lucid Catalyst concludes with a simple plea: “The evaluation of all forms of low-carbon electricity generation should be made on equal grounds.”

Surely the same reasoning applies in Canada with its strong regulations and laws governing civil nuclear energy?

Or will our climate and energy policymakers continue to follow Admiral de Fonte?