Nuclear Energy – Warning From Japan

Posted: March 16, 2011 in Current Events, Environment

During my university years I had a lot of involvement in the Anti-Nuclear movement.  Our concern was two-fold.

The primary concern was that nuclear power plants were high risk no matter how much assurance there was of safety measures.  Even if safety measures were superb (which they weren’t) the disastrous consequences should they ever be breached was not worth any risk.  The current situation in Japan is a tragic case in point.  Constructed to withstand any foreseeable disaster, they have fallen to an unforeseen disaster.  That was always our point.  You can never foresee all possibilities, and the one that arises to overcome your preparation will have potential consequences that are just unacceptable.  In Japan, currently the situation is not yet stable and there are already concerns about drinking water contamination, along with escaping radiation.  A full scale meltdown is being  just barely avoided.  Such a meltdown would be disastrous, resulting in a major explosion which would spread radiation over a large area and render the land around the nuclear plant unusable for generations.  Check out Chernobyl.

People say that these concerns do not apply to Ontario reactors because we will never be the victims of the kind of disaster which has hit Japan.  Few people know that the Pickering power plant is built on a fault line, -but, yes, we are not likely to experience an earthquake or tsunami unless we get a freak quake or a large meteor strikes Lake Ontario.  However, the key word in the above paragraph is “unforeseen”.  If we could foresee the possible risk, we could plan for it.  What about a terrorist bomb, or a powerful tornado?  The bottom line has always been that when potential consequences are too serious, the amount of tolerable risk has to be zero.

Canadian nuclear reactors are the safest in the world.  My understanding is that the situation which has developed in Japan would not have been possible with a CANDU reactor as, in our design, the loss of heavy water coolant would automatically shut down the system instead of triggering a potential runaway reaction.  Still, unforeseen situations may result in unforeseen consequences and Ontario’s reactors have far from a perfect safety record.

Our second concern was that the entire nuclear industry was unsafe.  The risk of reactor malfunction is only the tip of the iceberg.  Each step involved in the mining and processing of uranium fuel has its own risks and problems.  The town of Elliot Lake in northern Ontario was a mining community.  During the height of mining activity there was considerable concern over both living and working conditions.  Radioactive radon gas was often found leaking in to residence basement, requiring special ventilation.  Low level radiation exposure was a serious concern.  (Elliot Lake is now advertised on highway bulletin boards as the ideal retirement community because of the cheapness of the houses.)  Problems with processing uranium fuel led to radiation contamination in the town of Port Hope, Ontario, which is still a serious concern today, in spite of the fact that the processing plant was closed decades ago.

Finally, there is the whole problem of what to do with spent nuclear fuel once it is used.  Unused nuclear fuel is relatively safe.  I’ve actually put a piece in my mouth.  Once it has been used in a reactor it becomes deadly radioactive.  Exposure to an unshielded, spent nuclear rod for a few minutes would likely be fatal.  What do we do with this material once it is no longer useful in the reactor?  Right now, to the best of my knowledge (and I admit that I have been out of touch with this information for about a decade), the spent rods are stored in a deep swimming pool like structure on the grounds of the plant.  I once looked into that pool, to see the rods eerily glowing at the bottom.  They are too risky to transport, so if they have been moved, that would explain why I haven’t heard about it; they wouldn’t want anyone to know.

There are people who currently want to resurrect nuclear power in North America as a major alternative to other carbon producing energy generation.  I agree that something has to be done to solve our complex energy problems and that the choices are not going to be easy.  The current situation in Japan, though, is a clear warning that nuclear power cannot be taken lightly and comes with considerable risks and implications that many supporters will try to sweep under the rug.  Perhaps there are new developments in technology which reduce the risk.  (The new developments in mini-nukes that I’ve read about look interesting because they are small units.)  Everybody has to press for full disclosure on this important issue, which is damned difficult when you’re talking about multi-billion dollar contracts.

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