Sunday, March 27, 2011

Top 10 Myths of the Nuclear Industry

Atomic Energy of Canada LimitedImage via Wikipedia
CANDU: What is it?

CANDU stands for Canadian Deuterium Uranium reactor - playing on the North American boast of capability, "can do". The CANDU is a Pressurized Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR) using heavy water (deuterium) as both a moderator and coolant. The CANDU reactor core contains hundreds of horizontal tubes, inside which are pressure tubes containing fuel bundles. U.S. Light Water Reactors require enriched uranium fuel at about 2 to 4 percent uranium235 and use a relatively poor moderator (ordinary "light" water); whereas CANDU reactors use natural uranium at about 0.7 percent uranium235, but have a very good moderator (heavy water). Heavy water is very expensive and difficult to manufacture, making CANDU more expensive than other reactor designs.

1) Nuclear energy is clean:

The nuclear industry claims nuclear power is environmentally-friendly because it does not produce the greenhouse gases which are a result of fossil fuel plants. While this is true, it is of small comfort when compared with the inherent environmental hazards of nuclear power. The following hazards do not even include the catastrophic environmental consequences of a Chernobyl-type accident, which is a possibility in all nuclear reactors. This is particularly true of the CANDU, which shares the same pressure tube design flaw, called positive void coefficient, that is believed to have caused the Chernobyl meltdown.

CANDU reactors create three kinds of nuclear waste:

Tritium: a cancer-causing radioactive form of hydrogen created in CANDU reactors when heavy water (the reactors coolant) is exposed to radiation. Although tritium cannot pass through clothing or skin, it can be ingested through tritium-contaminated air, food or water. CANDU reactors emit tritium during normal operations and are prone to tritium leaks and spills. Chalk River nuclear laboratories has been leaking more than 4,000 litres of radioactive water into the Ottawa River for almost 20 years and the Pickering nuclear plant has been leaking tritium since 1979. The most recent spill happened in early September, 1997 at Pickering.

Low-level Radioactive Waste: see Myth 9 on uranium tailings.

High-Level Radioactive Waste: also called spent fuel, contains over 200 deadly radioactive elements, byproducts of the fission process, including uranium, plutonium, cesium, and strontium. The radioactivity of these elements is measured in half lives. A half-life is the amount of time it takes for the material to lose half of its radioactivity. Plutonium, for example, has a half-life of 24,400 years. This means that plutonium remains dangerously radioactive for more than 250,000 years. Other waste byproducts have half-lives as long as 710,000 years (uranium235) or 15.8 million years (iodine129).

The nuclear industry is proposing to bury the more than 27,457,272 kilograms of spent fuel (most recent figures are as of December 1995) somewhere in the Canadian Shield. Right now, over 65,000 bundles of nuclear fuel waste (1 300 000Kg) are being stored at Point Lepreau. Over 30,000 waste bundles are being stored in silos which have never undergone a public environmental impact assessment.

2) Nuclear energy is safe:

Even before the recent Ontario Hydro scandal, which resulted in seven of Ontario's 19 reactors being shut down for below standard safety levels, this industry claim of safety is absurd. Acknowledgement of the inherent danger of nuclear power is evident in the fact that not one single insurance company in Canada is willing to insure in case of a nuclear accident.

Ontario Hydro's estimate of the chances of an accident is one per 10,000 reactor years. A simple calculation extrapolating this result over the remaining projected lives of all existing Ontario reactors gives the odds of a Chernobyl-scale accident happening in Ontario 1 in 17 (Better than rolling snake eyes on a pair of dice). The chances of an accident being one per 10,000 reactor years are the same odds estimated by Soviet experts for their own reactors just months before the reactor core explosion at Chernobyl.

Every year there are hundreds of significant events at Canada's nuclear power plants which are reported to the Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB). In the 1996 calendar year there were 800 unusual incidents at Canada's nuclear power plants, 411 of which required reports to the Atomic Energy Control Board.

There have been an alarming number of incidents at Point Lepreau's nuclear reactor:

Heavy water leaks in the station have continued .

Feeder pipes to the reactor fuel channels were found to be thinning and deteriorating.

While repairing a heavy water leak, workers discovered a large water manifold corroded and about to collapse.

After identifying a deterioration in safety culture and practices by the operators of the reactor, Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB) officials had to intervene in a proposal start up when it appeared there was insufficient assurance of safe reactor configuration. .

The availability and response time for a number of safety systems have been questioned by the AECB within the past two years.

3) Nuclear energy is not harmful to your health:

The entire nuclear fuel cycle-from mining and milling uranium to burning the fuel to storing the waste-creates health hazards for all Canadians, particularly those downwind or downstream of nuclear facilities. The mining of uranium creates radioactive radon gas, often inhaled into the lungs of miners. The milling process results in tonnes of waste tailings which are left above ground where they continue to give off radon gas.

When the uranium is burned it produces hundreds of radioactive substances, including plutonium. Spent fuel gives off gamma radiation so powerful that it can quickly kill any unprotected person standing near it. The gamma rays can pass through human tissue and can also cause radiation sickness, cancer, reproductive failure, and genetic deformities.

The radiation from alpha or beta emitting substances, like plutonium, cannot pass through skin. However, if these radioactive materials are inhaled or ingested, they are extremely carcinogenic. The Washington D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute notes that "less than 150 kilograms (of plutonium), proportionately spread to the lungs of the world's 5.4 billion people would be enough to cause lung cancer in every one of them.". Even low-level radiation, the kind Canadians absorb from tritium spills and leaks, uranium tailings, and radioactive emissions from normal reactor operations, can lead to abnormal cancer rates among nuclear workers and communities near reactor sites.

4) Nuclear energy is cheap:

Once upon a time, nuclear energy was considered "too cheap to meter." This claim has been proven untrue time and time again. As of 1997, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), the federal crown corporation responsible for designing and selling CANDU reactors, had received over $15 billion in federal taxpayer subsidies since 1952. If nuclear energy is so profitable then such subsidies should be unnecessary.

As well, CANDU reactors are shockingly inefficient electricity generators, and as the shut downs and problems at Point Lepreau have increased, so have our electricity bills. The average reactor in 1996 was producing only 66 percent of its potential capacity, despite a target of 80 percent. In the last few years, electricity production from Point Lepreau's reactor has fallen dramaticaly due to aging problems and lengthy shut downs for repairs. During 1995, the Point Lepreau reactor operated only 29%, and for the first half of this year it's record has been 54.9%.

5) Nuclear energy is necessary:

Despite what the nuclear industry would have us believe, nuclear energy is not an intrinsic part of our electricity sector. There are safer, cheaper and more reliable energy alternatives available. The first alternative is to promote energy efficiency and conservation. Canada currently is among the top per capita users of electricity in the world. Using new technologies such as more efficient lightbulbs, motors and insulation would cut down our electrical requirements considerably.

New Brunswick needs an energy efficency program that would create thousands of jobs in N.B., while at the same time preserving our environment. The equipment to co-generate from industrial steam and to capture waste heat would have to be manufactured and installed. Major retrofit programs in all sectors would have to be carried out. A program of energy efficient lighting including street lighting would be carried out. As well, a program for the replacement of old electric motors with new high efficiency motors would be put in place. An upgrading and efficiency program for older generating stations would be carried out. This would considerably boost the power output of several older hydro stations. There would also be incentive programs for the upgrading of existing buildings, and there would be an incentive program for homeowners to reduce their electrical consumption. An energy efficiency program has the potential to create economic activity all across this province, while setting an example for the rest of Canada to follow.

New Brunswick also needs a renewable source of energy plan. New supply projects required in N.B. should be based on renewable energy sources, and investments must be made in refining and implementing appropriate scale technologies to include small scale hydro, microhydro, biomass, solar photovoltaics, direct solar, biogass, geothermal and wind power.

A renewable energy plan with facilities phased in as new energy is required would be extremely beneficial to our New Brunswick economy over a long period of time. Many of the components, parts and equipment required could be manufactured by existing and new buisnesses in the province, thus creating new jobs and opportunities. Also, the economic and employment benefits from a renewable energy strategy would flow directly into communities all over the province rather than benefitting one area surrounding large coal or nuclear generating station. No longer would huge increased amounts of money flow out of the province to buy imported oil, coal, uranium and heavy water to fuel more large polluting power plants to produce more electricity for export.

With a renewable energy strategy based on small facilities, plants could be brought on line as required to correspond with any growth in electrical demand that may occur. We would no longer be tied to a situation where hundreds of new megawatts of electricity are brought on line all at once, thus leading to more exports. Or a situation where hundreds of millions of dollars have to be borrowed outside of the province to prebuild another large polluting energy source for some projected future need. We can start on the path to sustainability and we can make a difference.

6) CANDU reactors can not create bombs:

The dark underside of nuclear power has always been its potential for nuclear weapons proliferation, either through the production of plutonium - an inevitable byproduct of reactor operation - or through the transfer of sensitive nuclear information, technology and materials.

The nuclear industry's denial that CANDUs make bombs is undercut by the fact that in 1974, India detonated a nuclear bomb using plutonium manufactured in a reactor given to them by Canada. The CANDU reactor can aid proliferation in several ways. CANDUs possess on-line refueling capability - the reactor continues to operate while fuel is being removed and inserted. This makes it much more difficult to determine if spent fuel is being removed to make plutonium for nuclear weapons. Because CANDU uses natural uranium, fuel enrichment is not required. Since uranium enrichment is difficult and expensive, this can make it easier for a CANDU owner to build a bomb.

Despite Canadian and international non-proliferation agreements, CANDU sales carry an inherent risk of proliferation. Purchasers can simply ignore their commitments, as India did. All of our past CANDU customers (India, Pakistan, Taiwan, Romania, Argentina and South Korea) have at one time or another pursued a nuclear weapons program.

In recent years, without any public discussion or parliamentary debate, Canada has allowed its non-proliferation policy to be erode. Since 1989, Canada's nuclear boycott of India and Pakistan has been abrogated by quietly allowing AECL and other Canadian companies to provide nuclear assistance to both countries.

Because China has given aid to 'threshold' nuclear weapons states like Pakistan, the United States government will not allow its privately owned nuclear companies to sell reactors to China. The Canadian government has no ethical compunctions about selling reactors to China-it is eager and willing to take advantage of the absence of American competition.

7) CANDU exports are good for the economy

Since no new nuclear reactors have been ordered in North America for a couple decades, AECL justifies its billions in government subsidies by touting its foreign sales. One argument against the economic benefits of CANDU exports is the continued subsidies. If we examine the "opportunity cost" (what the subsidies would have been worth if the government had invested in more cost-competitive ventures), the accumulated subsidies to AECL, up to March 31, 1997, is $161.2 billion.

Another problem with the exports is that the number of nuclear power reactors under construction around the world is at its lowest level in 25 years and installed nuclear capacity worldwide has remained relatively flat throughout the 1990s. Given the intense competition for reactor sales, the scarcity of sales opportunities, and the domination of the existing world market by other reactor types, AECL is trapped in a buyer's market. The recent sale of CANDU reactors to China only went through after the Canadian government agreed to change its environmental assessment laws and give China a $1.5 billion loan, the largest in Canadian history. AECL's newest prospective client, Turkey, is demanding 100 percent financing on a project which could cost up to $8 billion. With the Canadian government securing unprecedented loans to foreign states to purchase CANDUs, every reactor sale actually increases the burden on Canadian taxpayers.

8) The nuclear industry does not need government subsidies:

As mentioned above, AECL has received $15.2 billion in government subsidies since 1952 (in real 1997 dollars and as of March 1997). While direct government funding has been nominally reduced to $132 million in 1997-98, the disguised subsidies and loans for the nuclear industry that were revealed in the past year add up to a staggering $2.8 billion. This includes $23.1 million at Whiteshell; an estimated $150 million for two MAPLE reactors; $500 million for the IRF reactor; $19 million for fusion research; $1.5 billion loan for CANDUs to China; and the transfer of heavy water worth $583.4 million to AECL. Public financial support has actually increased dramatically in the past year. Every one of these decisions has been made with little or no public consultation. In every case, detailed terms of agreements have been kept secret.

9) Uranium mining is not harmful:

Uranium mines in the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Saskatchewan have left a deadly legacy of over 200 million tonnes of radioactive and acidic tailings. The tailings, often left in open pits near the mills, release the hazardous radioactive substances radium and radon (a gas). Radioactive wastes are also created by the uranium refining and conversion processes. These substances, if inhaled or ingested through contaminated food or water, can cause cancer.

10) Burning plutonium in CANDU reactors turns swords into ploughshares

The nuclear industry is claiming that a U.S. proposal to burn weapons plutonium from dismantled US and Russian nuclear warheads in CANDU reactors is a chance to promote world peace. However, this initiative does nothing to increase global security and merely helps to prop up a dying industry. AECL's plan risks promoting wide-spread use of plutonium as a nuclear fuel. Not only will this lead to serious environmental, health and safety hazards, there are also global security risks. Plutonium is simply too dangerous to be transported across the globe to light our homes and run our television sets. Even the United Nations Development Program admits that "it is difficult to imagine human institutions capable of safeguarding these plutonium flows against occasional diversions of significant quantities to nuclear weapons."

If the nuclear industry truly wants to contribute to world peace and protect our environment, plutonium should be treated as a hazardous waste and security risk. It should be eliminated by ending all plutonium production and isolating and guarding what's already been created to the best of our ability.

If you want to support our efforts or join the group, please let us know. We are working for the population of New Brunswick so they have a safer future. You can find very interesting information at these web sites:

Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility
Campaign for Nuclear phaseout
Energy Probe
Action Group on Nuclear Issues
R.R,#4, Sussex, N.B.
E0E 1P0
phone: (506) 433-6101

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