After more than a decade when virtually no new nuclear power plant was built, nuclear energy is making a comeback. Ontario and Alberta are not alone in giving it serious consideration. Dozens of new nuclear power plants are planned in Russia, China, the United States and India. Even in Europe, where opposition is most entrenched, the ground is shifting. A new plant is being built in Finland, new ones are planned by the Baltic states and Poland, and the issue is now squarely on the table in Britain. The nuclear fever is spreading beyond the small group of countries that already have nuclear power plants. Countries as diverse as Australia, Jordan, Libya, Yemen, Vietnam and Nigeria are hinting they too want to go nuclear.
Many of these plans may not come to pass. Nuclear plants require huge upfront investments, and in large parts of the world, the memory of Chernobyl is fresh enough to feed strong opposition. But with the price of oil predicted to reach the $100-a-barrel range and the urgent need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, we are likely to see a significant increase in the number of power plants around the world.
More plants mean more nuclear trade across borders, more nuclear material and know-how at risk of falling into untrustworthy hands, more nuclear waste that could end up in unwanted places.
This is happening at a time when the co-operative arrangements put in place in the early 1960s - to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons while supporting access to nuclear energy production - are now under severe strain.
The centrepiece of this co-operative system is the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Although it was unable to prevent India, Pakistan and (it is widely assumed) Israel from acquiring nuclear weapons, the treaty can be credited with discouraging the spread of nuclear weapons to many more states. Now the regime is being threatened from within, by Iran and by North Korea, which claims to have left the treaty. These developments, combined with the lack of progress in nuclear disarmament by the nuclear-weapon states, and indeed their plans for nuclear modernization, put the NPT at risk.
The Nuclear Suppliers Group, which is composed of NPT parties that are nuclear exporters , is also under strain. Members of the group pledge to restrict their export of nuclear technology to NPT parties that are under comprehensive nuclear safeguards operated by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The United States is about to seek an exemption from this rule to accommodate its recently negotiated co-operation agreement with India. This agreement, still under consideration in the legislatures of both countries, would open the way to nuclear exports to India in exchange for India putting its civilian nuclear installations under IAEA safeguards - but not its military nuclear activities.
Weapons proliferation is not the only concern. Over the years, many international conventions have been added to the basic NPT regime. They set international standards in every aspect of nuclear energy exploitation, from the safe transport of nuclear goods to rules governing the disposition of nuclear material. However, many of these are not legally binding and monitoring and enforcement mechanisms are weak or non-existent. The IAEA suffers from a chronic shortage of resources to carry out all its responsibilities under the NPT and related conventions. It can barely cope with its inspection and technical assistance workload as it is and would be hard-pressed to meet the needs arising from a nuclear renaissance.
Nuclear issues should rank very high on the list of Canada's foreign-policy priorities. As a responsible member of the international community, we have every interest in ensuring the world does not end up with a NPT in tatters and with nothing to replace it. As the largest supplier of uranium and an exporter of nuclear technology, we have an added responsibility to ensure we have in place as effective an international governance system as possible.
Canada has considerable expertise in the safe and secure management of nuclear power plants. Generations of Canadian diplomats have, with great skill and creativity, promoted nuclear non-proliferation, a goal endorsed by every federal government from the very beginning of the nuclear age. The world is in dire need of fresh thinking on these matters. If there is one issue worthy of reviving our "helpful fixer" tradition, surely this is it.