Reason, not fear, must be basis of Port Hope nuclear debate

The recent debate within Port Hope ignited by Dr. Helen Caldicott has galvanized extreme views in many corners driven mainly by fear and those seeking to capitalize on it.

Caldicott’s presentation in Oshawa on Nov. 16, 2010 created a firestorm within the community as part of an initiative by several local organizations, including Families Against Radioactive Exposure (FARE), Lake Ontario Waterkeepers and Friends of the Port Hope Clean-up.

The fallout is clearly fallen into two camps: those who argue The Australian physician’s concerns about the nuclear industry are a warning to be heeded and those who condemn her point of view as sensationalism hurting the historic town.

The debate has raged in the letters to newspapers and over the Internet. Mayor Linda Thompson has revamped the town’s communications strategy, as only one example of the reaction. A Solidarity Walk was held on the weekend as a demonstrated of support for the town.

Meanwhile, the other side is scrambling to maintain its voice as viable critics, arguing mainly about the state of denial over the dangers of nuclear waste in the community. All this in the face of personal threats and a tidal wave anger.

But, this is a pattern in modern politics: the use of fear and extremism driving a debate over an issue. It was most apparent in the United States as the Tea Party movement gained power through its opposition to change and its rhetoric over the loss of American ideals. Leveraging the fear created by an ongoing war, a bad economy and an agenda of reforms, it was able to mobilize certain voters and create a very polarized debate.

While there was some electoral success for the Tea Party, it was able to gain enough momentum to become a disproportionate voice within public debate. A similar phenomenon was demonstrated during the recent Toronto municipal elections and the current divisive style of politics at the federal level.

Caldicott’s statements caught national media’s attention through its over the top rhetoric giving her and her supporters a big voice within the current debate. Despite her questionable comments (an there will be plenty who will argue she makes her case based on facts), the result is an attempt at fearmongering.

But those reacting to the other side are equally to blame. Local businesses, real estate companies, politicians emerge as prophets of doom, saying sales are down, business deals collapse and the Port Hope economy is left in a shambles. All this is done without scrutiny or specific facts and figures. The posturing creates an “us against them” division based on a distorted loyalty to the community.

The result is a fanaticism that serves no ones best interests. It only paralyzes the town while the most extreme voices ring out. Meanwhile, those who seek a more moderate, reasonable approach are left underrepresented within any debate.

Port Hope has faced this problem head on since the 1970s. The town has experienced good times and bad over the past 40 years. It will face the same again in the future. But, if it hopes to move forward it cannot be overwhelmed by either side; nor can it allow fear, anger and distrust to cloud debate or silence reason. There a many facts on both sides need to be heard. Strength will not come by one side overpowering or beating down the other. And, leadership will not come from bullies or those who can yell the loudest.