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How safe is nuclear power?

By Mike Hick (a member of the Cobourg Daily Star Community Editorial Board

A 'Viewpoint' article published in the Cobourg Daily Star, October 13, 2006

With the recent announcement from Ontario's Minister of Energy that nuclear power will be part of the mix for Ontario's future electrical power needs, you can expect to hear the usual howls of protests from the anti-nuclear lobby.

Nuclear power is the only practical method of generating the huge quantities of electrical power essential to sustaining Ontario's society without contributing to the very real danger of global warming. But how safe is it?

Several years ago, we spent a weekend with friends at their country house on the Bruce peninsula. It was a great weekend with good food, liberal quantities of wine, great conversation and laughter. The thing I remember most, though, was a conversation we had one evening. Our host talked about the anxiety she felt because they were living about 20 miles from the Bruce nuclear power station. An incongruous part of the conversation was, while she was talking about her concerns, she was happily puffing on her sixtieth cigarette of the day. Her cigarette habit may well kill her, while the danger from the nuclear power plant is so infinitesimal as to be almost non-existent.

It is difficult to put up a rational argument in the face of irrational fear, but here goes.

There is an organization in Switzerland called the Paul Scherrer Institute. This is a huge, well-respected centre that specializes in conducting research in the natural sciences. In 2001, it published a report that compared the mortality figures associated with various methods of generating electricity. It was a monumental study, compiling and analyzing data from nearly every country in the world to compile mortality rates from using coal, natural gas, hydro or nuclear to generate electricity. They examined the whole supply chain. For coal, they compiled mortality rates for mining, transportation, handling, and power production to find out how many people were killed. They did the same for hydro, nuclear and natural gas.

In the case of coal, people get killed in mining and coal handling at the power plant. In the case of hydro, dams collapse and whole villages get wiped out downstream. In the case of nuclear, who can forget Chernobyl?

The results are really surprising.

After compiling and grinding through the analysis, they found the deaths per terawatt years (a terawatt year is a million million watts of electricity used continuously over one year) of electrical power were 885 for hdro, 342 for coal, 85 for natural gas and eight for nuclear (quoted from James Lovelock's book The Revenge of Gaia). The figures are not even close! Coal and hydro are most dangerous, primarily because of the deaths associated with the mining of coal or from dams collapsing. Nuclear is by far the safest method of generating electrical power.

The report also illustrated a significant factor in determining safety is how well the facilities are engineered and built. For instance, dams in developing countries tend to collapse far more frequently than in developed countries because they tend to be poorly designed and jerry-built. Similarly, the worst nuclear accident occurred in Chernobyl in the Soviet Union. The Russian reactor design was inherently unsafe, the reactor was poorly buit and operated by people who were inadequately trained and broke all the rules.

I have worked in Russia and have seen at first-hand Russian "quality". I remember a drive to Moscow's regional airport during a snowfall and seeing over half a dozen Ladas broken down at the side of the road -- each driver had his own tool kit and was working to fix his or her vehicle.

Nuclear facilities are safe because they are engineered to be safe (with the exception of Russia). They are engineered to be safe because the designers and regulators are aware of the public concern so they build in layer upon layer of safety systems and procedures.

The Canadian CANDU system is "fail-safe" because, if the moderator (heavy water) leaks, the reactor shuts down. There are layers of duplicate safety systems and, as a last resort, there are huge reinforced concrete vacuum chambers to suck up all the debris in the almost impossible event of an accident. These have never been used in an emergency situation.

Many things contribute to safety. Operator training is one of them. Operators have a tedious job and cannot learn how to handle emergencies from experience because emergencies rarely occur. So they are trained the same way airline pilots are trained. Operators are trained and tested on simulators where they are called on to deal with simulated emergencies. And, if they don't pass, they don't get their operating certificate.

The transportation of spent nuclear fuel is another factor. Spent fuel transportation systems have been crash-tested by running a locomotive into them with no spillage. Compare this to the dangers from the transportation of other hazardous materials, such as propane and chlorine.

We were evacuated during the memorable Mississauga rail disaster. I can still see in my mind the flames roaring into the sky and being blissfully unaware the inferno was also taking tank loads of chlorine with it. The chlorine from this rail crash came perilously close to killing hundreds of people living in the Credit Valley. There is simply no comparison bvetween the risk for transporting conventional hazardous materials and the risk from transporting spent nuclear fuel.

Where nuclear really winds out is in the impact on the environment. The spent fuel from a large nuclear station can fit into a large-sized swimming pool prior to long-term storage in vaults deep in the Canadian Shield, whereas a big coal-fired station will, over its lifetime, pump tens of thousands of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (along with small quantities of uranium, thorium, radon and other impurities) to heat up our planet.

Unfortunaely, rational argument and hard facts often fail to overcome emotional angst. This is a pity because our lives are dependent on electrical power. And, nuclear is the only way Ontario has of meeting these needs without contributing to the frightening reality of climate change.

Reproduced here with the kind permission of:
Mike Hick (the author), and
The Cobourg Daily Star (Osprey Media LP)

This excellent article prompted me, in turn, to send a congratulatory Letter to the Editor. We need more people speaking out like this!

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http://www.rodmer.com/SwallowHill/LookgInto/HickArticle2.html -- Revised Oct 22, 2006
Copyright © 2006 Merike Lugus and Rod Anderson