Contrary to the spin being perpetuated by the nuclear industry, nuclear power remains one of the dirtiest, most dangerous, costliest energy sources on earth. While Premier McGuinty’s government claims to have made public consultations about Ontario’s energy options, the unsafe and unsustainable nuclear industry has been consistently favoured over more sustainable and economic alternatives. Below we try to debunk the seven most common myths used to justify our continued reliance on this archaic technology.
Jeopardizing Public Safety
Historically, Canada maintains the most lax standards of western countries when it comes to radioactive emissions and health. In July, 1997, Ontario Hydro revealed that it had failed to report tritium contamination of ground water on the Pickering site for the previous twenty years. Tritum is a known human carcinogen, mutagen, and teratogen. The results of these processes can result in cancers, miscarriages, birth defects, sterility and hypothyroidism.
Additionally, in May 1999 it was revealed that Ontario Hydro had dumped more than 1000 tones of copper, zinc and other metals in Lake Ontario. There have been major spills of radioactive materials, inside and outside reactor stations. Thousands of litres of radioactive water spilled at the Bruce plant in 1990 and 1991, some discharged into Lake Huron. One quarter of Canadians depend on the Great Lakes for their drinking water, water that is contaminated by radioactive emissions.
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission failed to admit the truth about radon danger, which has been linked to a 31 – 40 per cent increase in cancer in the Elliott Lake uranium mining area. The European Committee on Radiation Risk and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) have found that there are no safe levels of radiation. A 700-page NAS report found the risk of getting cancer from radiation released into the environment by nuclear reactors is approximately 35 per cent higher than current U.S. Government risk estimates.
It also found a causal relationship between radiation exposure and non-cancer health effects such as heart disease and stroke. The Ontario Ministry of the Environment states that the ingestion of radionuclides in drinking water may cause cancer in individuals exposed and hereditary damage in children.
A Cause of Human Rights Violations
Uranium miners at Elliott Lake, Ontario were not informed that they were endangering their health or the health of their offspring, through exposure to highly radioactive material. Greenpeace reports that over 200 miners in Northern Ontario have died from lung diseases contracted from working in uranium mines. The land and lakes will remain unusable for generations.
In general, the federal government protects mining companies from liability. The Martin government rejected an all-party recommendation by the Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade that Canadian mining companies be held legally accountable for human rights and environmental violations overseas. The Nuclear Liability Act restricts the nuclear industry’s liability to just $75 million in case of a nuclear accident. In comparison, American reactors are liable for up to $13 billion. Moreover, governments have often tried to dispose of radioactive waste in aboriginal territory.
Dangerous Reactor Liasons
Since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, there have been at least 22 major accidents at nuclear power stations around the world, of which 15 involved radiation release and two of them came dangerously close to meltdown.
"The industry is mired in incompetence and disregard for safety at every stage from uranium mining to the still unresolved waster problem … the Chernobyl catastrophe was 400 times more potent than the Hiroshima bomb," according to The New Internationalist.
The containment systems at both the Bruce and Pickering Ontario nuclear stations were found to be defective on several occasions. The main output transformers exploded twice at the Darlington Station. Emergency safety shutdown systems have been found defective or unavailable on many occasions at all three stations, including the dust-off rods, emergency coolant injection and gas injection systems.
In 1990 there was a runaway fission incident at Pickering and damaged fuel bundles were found at Darlington. The standby generators to provide emergency power to the reactor have been impaired and unavailable at the Pickering, Bruce and Darlington stations. Over the past decade there have been numerous incidents of leaked radioactive tritium, cobalt, boric acid, nuclear and radioactive waste at nuclear power plants around the world.
Nuclear Reactors Enable Nuclear War
Despite recent concerns about the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear arms capabilities, it is rarely acknowledged that the United States and its military allies have already staged four nuclear wars, using dirty bombs and dirty weapons created from the use of nuclear materials.
At the exact time that western countries feign concern about expanding poorer country’s nuclear weapons capabilities, these sa,e governments are pushing the expansion of nuclear power on developing countries. Canada already has 45,000 metric tones of spent fuel bundles that need disposal. Currently, Prime Minister Harper and Australian PM John Howard are considering arrangements by which Canada and Australia take back and dispose of nuclear waste generated by exported Canadian reactors.
Expanding the use of nuclear power on a global scale has directly contributed to the rise of nuclear weapons derived from the process of fission reactors. US nuclear weapons geoscientist, Lauren Moret notes in The Journal of International Issues that depleted uranium (DU) is the Trojan Horse of nuclear war. Depleted uranium meets the US Government’s own definition of a Weapon of Mass Destruction. Using depleted uranium weaponry is illegal under all international treaties, conventions and agreements.
Warnings of the detrimental effects of DU on human health go far back. In 1990, a United Kingdom Atomic Authority (ULAEA) Report warned the UK government that they estimated, "if 50 tones of residual DU dust remained ‘in the region’ there could be half a million extra cancers by the end of the century."
Since the United States first provided DU to Israel in the 1973 Sinai war, the US has tested, manufactured, and sold DU weapons systems to 29 countries.Moret has noted over 165 serious illnesses afflicting those exposed to even remote traces of DU. The half-life of DU is 4.5 billion years, which is the age of the earth. As it decays it releases more radiation at each step. "Global radioactive contamination from atmospheric testing was the equivalent of 40,000 Hiroshima bombs," according to Moret.
Depleted uranium has been cited as a key factor in the nearly 240,000 of the 700,000 American Gulf War Veterans who are on permanent medical disability, while over 11,000 are dead. A U.S. Government study on post-Gulf War babies born to veterans found 67 per cent of the babies were reported to have serious illnesses or birth defects. They were born without eyes, ears, had missing organs, fused fingers, thyroid and other malfunctions. Canadian soldiers are currently being exposed to the impacts of DU through their exposure to American DU bombs.
Scientific bodies estimated that 900 tones of DU were used in the few weeks of the 1991 Gulf War. In 2001, it is estimated that 800 to 1000 tones of DU were dropped on Afghanistan. In the 2003 Gulf War, an estimated 3000 tones of DU were used, causing about 22 million new cancer cases in all regions affected by the bombings. Discussing the U.S. desire to maintain its nuclear weapons stockpile, Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba stated, "It is incumbent upon the rest of the world … to stand up now and tell all of our military leaders that we refuse to be threatened or protected by nuclear weapons. We refuse to live in a world of continually recycled fear and hatred."
Ed Burt of Serpent River First Nations has noted, uranium mining is producing so much uranium, arsenic, heavy metal cadmium, copper and nickel that earth is starting to resemble the pre-Cambrian era. An era which, "had nothing green, nothing crawling, nothing swimming, nothing laughing, nothing walking." The average nuclear power plant produces between 20 and 30 tones of depleted nuclear fuel each year. Numerous governments have dumped radioactive sludge into the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans, of which 53 sites are known and many more suspected.
There are over 200 million tones of radioactive tailings left behind from mining uranium ore in Northern Ontario, Northern Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories. These sand-like mill residues contain 85 per cent of the radioactivity that was present in the original ore. They remain dangerously radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years.
No country in the world had devised an acceptable solution to long-term management of high level radioactive waste. According to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, "radioactive leaks could be expected for up to a million years," and, "the risk would be greatest about 300,000 years from now."
No Solution to Climate Change
Recent assertions that nuclear energy is a necessary, albeit undesirable solution to climate change are false. According to Worldwatch (July/August 2006), doubling the world’s current nuclear energy output would reduce global carbon emissions by just 1/7 of the amount required to avoid the worst impacts of global warming.
MIT researchers note that achieving even this inadequate result would require siting a permanent repository the size of Yucca Mountain every 3 to 4 years to deal with the additional waste. Moreover, uranium is not a viable long term energy source, as it is non-renewable. The global reserves of extractable uranium will be depleted within the next 40 years, even if the number of nuclear power plants were not increased.
As a result of the breakdown of nuclear reactors in Ontario, coal plants had to be increased by 120 per cent over the past decade. Nuclear power plants release unknown quantities of greenhouse gases such as ozone-depleting chloro- and hydro fluorocarbons and sulphur hexafluoride.
An Economist’s Nightmare
The Ontario government has signed a "sweetheart" refurbishing deal with the private company, Bruce Power. The provincial government failed to disclose that taxpayers are on the hook for up to 50 per cent on any cost overruns and that Bruce Power is to be paid at a price that is far higher (by 40 per cent) than publicly owned Ontario Power Generation.
In addition, the Ontario government has agreed to fully cover any increases in the price of uranium fuel for 29 years. Ontario projections of reactor costs do not include decommissioning or waste disposal. In the U.K. the cost of decommissioning reactors is estimated to be at least $70 billion Euros.
If the Ontario Power Authority’s proposals occur, they could add an additional $100 billion in operation and maintenance expenses to the $40 billion Ontario already spends. The Pembina Institute estimates the cost of refurbishing Ontario Nuclear facilities will range between $14.2 and $19.2 billion. It is still estimated that Ontario has a $20 billion nuclear debt from many of the plants built in the seventies that often caused four times as much to build as the government had estimated.
The hefty cost of nuclear power has been highly subsidized by the provincial and federal governments, with $2.3 billion being transferred to Atomic Energy Canada Limited for clean-up costs. This was in addition to the tax breaks, research and development grants, write-offs and liability insurance the industry already enjoys.
Disregarding Cheaper Conservation & Renewable Energy Sources
According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, in 2004 alone, small scale renewables added about six times as much net generating capacity as nuclear power. By 2010, renewable energy is projected to outstrip nuclear power’s energy output by 43 per cent globally.
Spain, Germany and Sweden have pledged to phase out nuclear power altogether. In light of the fast-developing technology in conservation and renewable, nuclear reactors represent a Luddite step backwards. Ontario only makes symbolic investments in renewable energy and conservation. The province spends 64 times more on energy supply than on conservation. In 2004, the Ontario government received proposals for 4,400 Mega Watts (MG) of green energy, but accepted only 395 MW. In 2003, Germany alone installed 2,645 MW of wind turbines.
It is estimated that it will take 10 years and $40 billion to support 14,000 MW of baseload nuclear power in Ontario. The OPA is effectively ignoring large-scale efforts towards conservation that would make mass-power generation unnecessary. For example, if five million Ontarians were to change just four of their current 60 watt bulbs to 10 watt compact fluorescents, this would save the equivalent of two Pickering nuclear reactor units.
The 2005 federal budget gave AECL a $99 million subsidy, six times the $17 million provided for wind power. While our government continues to invest billions in unsafe, environmentally hazardous energies, feasible renewable techniques like wind, biomass, geothermal and solar energy and conservation are largely ignored.
While wind is the fastest growing energy in the world, Ontario lags far behind with a mere 350 MW installed. The technically achievable wind resource in Southern Ontario would accommodate 58 per cent of current provincial consumption. California and Manitoba spend about 30 times more per capita on conservation than Ontario according to Howard Hampton. However, on a local level, East Gwillimbury recently became the first municipality in Ontario to require homebuilders to construct energy efficient homes. While in Toronto, a smart meter pilot project in apartment complexes produced immediate reductions in energy of between 10 and 35 per cent.
Ontario also has the capacity to follow inspiring energy projects being implimented in the United States. In California’s conservation program saves electricity equal to two nuclear reactors, saving the state $2.7 billion and they have approved $3 billion in subsidies to promote solar power. New York has reduced 90 per cent of the energy used in traffic lights by switching to light-emitting diodes.
Flawed Political Process
The Ontario Power Authority is not an arms’ length agency equipped to provide unbiased recommendations. The appointees are highly political.
The OPA’s CEO is Jan Carr, a senior engineer with three decades experience with energy consulting firms, the Ontario Energy Board and the Toronto Board of Trade electricity task force. He is a Liberal fundraiser and co-hosted a $350/plate energy sector reception for Premier McGuinty. Murray Elston, a former Ontario Liberal MPP and cabinet minister, is now president of the Canadian Nuclear Association. David MacNaughton, McGuinty’s former principal secretary, lobbies for Atomic Energy of Canada. Bob Lopinski, Premier McGuinty’s ex-director of legislative affairs, is a paid lobbyist for Bruce Power. Finally, John Beck, chair of the OPS’s governance committee, is CEO of Econ Group, Canada’s largest publicly traded construction and infrastructure company.
The Ontario government created the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) with board members comprised solely of nuclear industry representatives. Despite promises of public consultation, the Ontario government only allowed three hours each in 12 Ontario communities for public input. And this came after considerable public pressure.
The Ontario government has sidestepped the requirement of a stringent provincial environmental assessment by opting for federal environmental assessment standards which are very lax.
Judy Deutch is a psychiatric social worker and is a Coordinator of the Toronto Chapter of the Council of Canadians. Rebecca Granovsky-Larsen is an editor and Co-Chair of ACT for the Earth Toronto. Both organizations are members of the Climate Chaos Coalition and are active with Energy Vision.