Nuclear meltdown: Why are environmentalist groups blowing up over a cheap and clean energy source for Ontario?

The Western Standard
Monday 13 Jun 2005
Page: 66
Byline: Cyril Doll

Greenpeace Canada is not the type of organization to let an opportunity for a public relations stunt pass by. So, on April 26, the environmental activists donned grim reaper outfits and presented a coffin to Ontario Power Generation, the province's nuclear power operator. The stunt was to mark the nineteenth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, and to warn Ontario's government not to proceed with plans to build five new reactors. "Chernobyl is a lesson that we can't afford to learn twice," says Shawn-Patrick Stensil, energy campaigner for Greenpeace. "Phasing out nuclear power will ensure that an accident like Chernobyl will never happen in Ontario." The problem, says Stensil, is that the tubes used throughout the 17 nuclear reactors in Canada--all manufactured by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.--are made out of "really crazy" material that hasn't aged well and are, in fact, starting to droop. "There's no need to get into techie stuff," starts Stensil, "but those pipes break and that's when you get a Chernobyl, right?"

Well, most experts will tell you that the Chernobyl disaster was the result of poor Soviet design, coupled with poorly trained staff. "It was a direct consequence of Cold War isolation and the resulting lack of any safety culture," reports the Australian-based Uranium Information Centre in their 2004 study of the incident. Chernobyl's reactor, located 100 miles north of Kiev, blew when a power surge prevented the operator from shutting down the reactor. Thirty people died directly from the explosion. The exact number of people affected from the radiation is unknown--although 28 additional fatalities occurred from radiation exposure to the members of the rescue team.

While the radiation released from Chernobyl was a worst-case scenario, Canadians are exposed to entirely safe levels of the stuff every day, says Jeremy Whitlock, past president of the Canadian Nuclear Society. "Radiation is a natural part of the environment," he says. "It's in our cells, it's in the rocks. The amount of radiation given off from a plant is negligible."

As far as "crazy" pipes breaking, Whitlock concedes that, like any other piece of machinery, the materials in Ontario's power plants (of which there are currently two, providing 40 per cent of the province's power) have to be changed from time to time, and security systems safeguard against any meltdowns. "You've got safety system upon safety system heaped on these things," says Whitlock. In fact, for a meltdown to occur at an AECL reactor, first the cooling pumps would have to fail and then all the backup pumps would also have to fail too--all at exactly the same time. If the uranium overheated and started to attract all the metallic components around it, it could trigger a meltdown. Except that, in AECL reactors, there are no metallic compounds around the uranium--it's surrounded by heavy water (D2O), and that would absorb the heat.

Given that nuclear power plants are arguably the cleanest large-scale energy sources for densely populated areas, producing highly compact and storable waste while emitting no air pollution, you'd think the environmentally conscious gang at Greenpeace would be a lot more gung-ho about Ontario's proposals to build more (never mind that plants combusting fossil fuels aren't without their safety risks as well). One way or another, the booming province is going to have to get its power somewhere. Dwight Duncan, Ontario's energy minister, estimates that by 2020, the province will be short 25,000 megawatts of generating capacity. Its hydroelectric capacity has been maximized, the price of natural gas continues to rise, and wind and solar power just can't supply that kind of power efficiently. The government has agreed to shut down their five coal-fired plants (one of the cheapest energy sources) by 2007, partly in response to concerns from environmental groups. For Ontario, going nuclear only makes sense.