Have you ever looked at advertisements for nuclear power and wondered how organizations such as the Power Workers' Union can call nuclear reactors "emission free?" We see similar phrases all the time in print media, on the web, and in statements by elected officials. The problem is, it just isn't accurate to say that nuclear power is "emission free." Nuclear reactors emit all kinds of foul things into the environment, and industry and government know it.
Advertising Standards Canada has just posted a decision to its website declaring that it is inaccurate and unsupportable to call CANDU reactors “emission free.”
Earlier this year, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper staff and a group of law students from Queen's University filed a complaint about this with Advertising Standards Canada. The national not-for-profit body self-regulates the advertising industry in Canada. If an ad is misleading, deceptive, or makes claims that are unsupportable, Advertising Standards Canada can request that the advertiser remove the ad.
We complained about a specific Power Workers' Union ad that ran in The Globe and Mail. The ad labels CANDU reactors "emission free." We provided supporting documentation that shows CANDU reactors at nuclear plants such as the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station emit many different contaminants: 2-propenoic acid, ammonia, aromatic hydrocarbon resin, benzene, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrazine, morpholine, nitrogen oxides, phosphoric acid, quarterly ammonium compounds, sulphur dioxide, suspended particulate matter, total hydrocarbons, as well as tritium.
Advertising Standards Canada has just posted a decision to its website declaring that it is inaccurate and unsupportable to call CANDU reactors “emission free.” In its commentary, Advertising Standards Canada states emphatically: "... it is misleading ... for an advertiser to categorically promise one thing when, by its own admission, it can only deliver something that is significantly less."
The Union is now expected to remove all ads containing the "emission free" statement and to qualify any future claims. Any other spokespeople or advertisers or politicians who liked to make the same claim should look for other, more accurate language as well.
This is a huge victory for everyone who is tired of reading false claims about "emission free" nuclear power. Before this, we could only grit our teeth over the morning newspaper and long for the days when the Ontario Energy Board or the Environmental Assessment Board would have silenced the spin doctors.
Unfortunately, those independent decision-making processes are being side-stepped: The Ontario Energy Board hearing for Ontario's energy plan is on hold indefinitely. That same plan was exempted from environmental assessment. Likewise, a provincial assessment for the Darlington Nuclear Power Plant just is not happening - no word of explanation or justification. Those hearings were the one place that industry had to prove its claims, where scientists and experts could be questioned and tested until the best possible conclusions emerged.
Without these hearings, our only source of information about energy policy seems to come from paid advertisements, press releases, and editorials. We can't ask advertisers questions, and we can't test their claims. That means truth in advertising is more important today than ever before. Advertising Standards Canada's decision is good for public policy, good for the advertising industry, and good for the environment.
Here's the Power Workers Union ad:
Here's Waterkeeper's Submission to Advertising Standards Canada:
Here are the Exhibits that go with the Submission:
Advertising Standards Canada's Decision
To Council, the general impression conveyed by the term “emission-free” was that CANDU reactors did not emit any emissions of any kind – neither greenhouse gas emissions nor any other type. According to the uncontroverted information cited by the complainant taken from OPG’s 2009 application for renewal of its Basic Comprehensive Certificate of Approval for the Darlington nuclear generating facility, numerous different contaminants are emitted into the atmosphere at the four CANDU generating sites in Ontario. Council, therefore, concluded that the unqualified emission-free claim in this advertisement was inaccurate and unsupported.
Special thanks to Pro Bono Students Canada and the team of student volunteers who worked on the complaint: Patrick Stratton, Ali Pawson, Martha Monterrosa, and Steve Ronan.