Energy

NUCLEAR POWER: DEBATE FOR THE'80s

Warren Gerard August 20 1979
Energy

NUCLEAR POWER: DEBATE FOR THE'80s

Warren Gerard August 20 1979

NUCLEAR POWER: DEBATE FOR THE'80s

Energy

Warren Gerard

It was an uncanny, unwanted and permanently unforgettable case of life imitating art. One grey day in March a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania suddenly lost its cooling water and the world gasped at the prospect of a major nuclear disaster. The Hollywood version, The China Syndrome, had been playing in theatres for just 11 days. In Toronto, anti-nuclear protesters milled under cinema marquees, handing their literature to stunned audiences and drawing close parallels between the fictionalized account on the screen and the emerging disaster south of the border. In the atmo-

sphere of mistrust pervading the industry, nuclear sympathizers could wonder if the accident was just too coincidental, if the reactor had been sabotaged to capitalize on the anti-nuclear sentiment growing with the film ’s popularity. In time, the saga of Three Mile Island, like its celluloid counterpart, drew to an end without the ultimate climax, the ultimate disaster—-a meltdown. But in its wake a fearful public and wary politicians began to vent anger and their loss of faith in nuclear science and technology. Fact and fiction were forged in a common legacy: a fuelling of the nuclear debate. Today the reactor remains shut down, perhaps for years. The film has lost its first-run crowds. But the nuclear debate rages on, fanned by protests in Washington, London and at Ontario Hydro ’s proposed

Darlington site of the world ’s largest nuclear plant, 1+5 miles east of Toronto. And despite the countervailing force of a looming energy crisis, it is emerging as the issue of the ’80s.

It is an incredible thing, undeniably alien, a complex fortress of power sitting on the edge of Lake Ontario, close to the tidy bungalows of Pickering, only 20 miles east of Metro Toronto in the nation’s largest, most densely populated urban area. This is Pickering A, one of the world’s most efficient nuclear generating plants, and next to it, under construction, is Pickering B. The eight enormous Candu reactors will have the capability of lighting up a city of three million.

Pickering is a wonder of science and technology. Everything about it is very

big. It is unthinkable that something could go wrong at Pickering. In fact, Ontario Hydro estimates the chances of a major accident at the nuclear station at one in a million. And a meltdown of the sort envisaged in the film The China Syndrome is “virtually incredible” to Ontario Hydro engineers. So incredible, in fact, that a study of the possibility has never been made. Yet if a major accident did take place at Pickering—a fear that is more real after the nearmiss at Three Mile Island—the consequences would be disastrous. J.W. Beare, a senior official of the Canadian Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB), the nuclear industry’s regulatory body, has described what those consequences would be: “The worst possible accident at a site like Pickering (assuming none of the safety devices work and using the

most pessimistic assumptions regarding behavior of the reactor core, transport of fission products, meteorological diffusion and wind direction) might result in several thousand deaths, tens of thousands of injuries (and later deaths) and billions of dollars in property damage. In short, a disaster.”

A disaster did happen about 20 years ago in the Soviet Union. It appears from sketchy reports that a mysterious nuclear accident killed hundreds of people and desolated a large area in the southern Ural mountains. According to Zhores Medvedev, an exiled Soviet geneticist, the accident occurred when

carelessly buried nuclear waste erupted like a volcano spewing radioactive material over an area conservatively estimated at 10 square miles. The area remains uninhabitable.

Thoughts of the Three Mile Island nightmare are still fresh, but a serious accident has occurred in Canada, as well, during pioneer nuclear work at Chalk River, Ontario, in 1952. The official explanation said there was a “power runaway, extensive fuel failure, reactor breakdown and escape of radioactivity.” Most employees were inside at the time, but the frame construction of the building offered little protection against gamma-ray radiation. An electrician on a tower next to the smokestack was found to have been

exposed to the radiation equivalent of about 10 x-rays. The cleanup (President Jimmy Carter, then a nuclear engineer in the U.S. Navy, was one of those involved) included disposal of one million gallons of radioactive water. Surface contamination was restricted to the disposal area. There was leakage into the Ottawa River, though downstream readings showed no hazardous levels of radiation.

A new language of rem, millirems, curies, has formed around the nuclear industry. It is confusing, technical, and it can quickly bore a perplexed, distrustful public. The scientists seem to know what they are talking about when they are dealing with levels of radiation: exposure to something like 100 rems (100,000 millirems) will cause radiation sickness and 500 rems will kill. But little is known about the effects of exposure to low levels of radiation. Hydro officials, for instance, maintain that the small amounts of radiation that are leaking every second of the day from the Pickering plant are not harmful. Yet U.S. military personnel who were exposed to less than one rem of radiation during bomb tests in Nevada in the late 1950s are now experiencing leukemia rates about double the statistical expectation.

The AECB has set the maximum

annual dose permitted for nuclear workers at 5,000 millirems and, for the public, 500 millirems. These “safety” limits have little to do with safety. Rather, they have more to do with “engineering feasibility” and cost: the lower the radiation limits, the more it costs the industry to stay within bounds.

Officials were saying after the Three Mile Island accident that the cancer risk for residents of the area was negligible. Then, in a statistical sleight of hand that further demonstrated the uncertainties of trying to gauge the effects of low-level radiation, they revised the estimate and said “several” cases of cancer were probable. Once more, the nuclear spokesmen had eroded their shrinking credibility.

While Ontario’s safety record, certainly compared with most other jurisdictions, appears to be good, nevertheless, all four sites, at Rolphton, Douglas Point, Bruce and Pickering (see map), emit radioactive material constantly into the air and water.* So do all nuclear establishments. Since 1962, when the first plant went into operation, 62 workers have received radiation doses over the permissible five-rem limit.

There have been at least two “unusual”—i.e. bigger than usual—leaks of radioactive water in Ontario. One of them occurred last February at Pickering, but the public wasn’t notified until 3 Vs months later. That did nothing to enhance Ontario Hydro’s slipping credibility or the utility’s dismal public relations record. (Hydro employs more than 100 public relations officers.) On this occasion a ton of radioactive water containing tritium was flushed into the lake in an 80-second spurt. At that moment, at that point, the radiation level was 40 times the maximum “safe level” set by the AECB. Hydro immediately monitored Pickering’s drinking water and found the level of tritium rose to about one per cent of the AECB limit. Hydro said the spill meant nothing. It was put in the context that if a person drank Pickering’s water for about 450 years the level of radiation received would equal a single chest x-ray.

That would have been reassuring, except that the long-term genetic implications of even low-level radiation remain unknown. When Dr. Edward Radford was told about the Pickering leak he gave a whistle of surprise and said: “You may have a time bomb sitting in

*To date, Ontario is the only province with operational generating stations. A $895-million reactor is under construction at Point Lepreau, New Brunswick, as is Gentilly II, the $85j-million project in Quebec where the Parti Québécois government has imposed a renewable moratorium on expansion of that province ’s inoperative nuclear program. Gentilly I near Trois-Rivières was built in 1972 for $120 million and has never been operational.

their DNA there.” Radford, a U.S. expert on epidemics and chairman of the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation committee, (BEIR) was testifying before an Ontario legislature committee on Hydro affairs. He said recent research showed that a sudden intake of tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, could be dangerous to fetuses of women who drink the water. He said the substance would probably stay in the child as long as it lives.

In public hearings such as the one in Ontario, for every scientific allegation, whether proor anti-nuclear, there is a scientific rebuttal. Who can be believed? While scientists and technologists talk in terms of millionor billionto-one odds against any particular disaster, the engine has fallen from the wing of a DC-10 in flight, an oil well has blown on the bed of the Gulf of Mexico and continues—uncontrollably—to spew 30,000 barrels a day into the sea; Skylab has crashed to earth almost completely out of control of its technological creators. With precedents like these, with such “worst possible scenarios” occurring regularly along the frontiers of technology, it is no wonder that the public is uneasy, resentful and distrusting of the nuclear industry. Its continuing reliance on the philosophy of technofix—as technology creates problems, technology will find a way to

solve them—doesn’t reassure the way it used to.

Canada’s “nuclear establishment” was born in 1946 with the passing of the Atomic Energy Control Act (now under review) and the creation of the Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB). Then in 1952, a Crown corporation, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL) was established as its design engineering arm. The AECB and AECL, joined in 1953 by Ontario Hydro, became Canada’s exalted group of nuclear policy-makers. They have, until now, maintained de facto autonomy, operating independently from cabinet, Parliament and legislatures.

The emotional heart of the nuclear debate is whether reactors are safe. The apostles of nuclear power say there are fewer hazards from science’s new blessing than from air travel, lightning, toxic chemicals, crossing the street, smoking or drinking whisky. The dissenters say that any nuclear risk, however small, is an unacceptable risk.

Both sides of the nuclear debate in Canada agree that an accident like the one at Three Mile Island could happen with the Candu reactor. However, On-

tario Hydro officials are at pains to point out that the Candu has more safeguards than the U.S. reactors. On the other hand, the critics, such as Dr. Gordon Edwards, one of Canada’s expert and credible nuclear opponents, question Candu’s safeguards.

Edwards, a Montreal mathematics professor and chairman of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, has challenged Hydro to prove radioactive fuel couldn’t melt through the concrete reactor floors and into the ground. Hydro found the possibility of a meltdown “virtually incredible” and said the nuclear establishment has never set out deliberately to prove a meltdown couldn’t occur. Efforts, instead, have been devoted to ensuring that events leading up to a meltdown are prevented.

Hydro’s confidence in the safety features of its plants might alleviate some fears—despite incidents of radioactive leakage, spillage and overexposure to some workers—but on a global scale there is room only for apprehension. A major accident appears inevitable. There are 523 commercial reactors operating, under construction or ordered worldwide, another 138 planned and

300 research reactors in service. It’s a lot of fission.

Even if Ontario’s nuclear industry were closed down, there are still at least 18 U.S. nuclear plants in border states within fallout distance of Canada. In Europe the situation is worse. A British royal commission on nuclear power commented: “There can be little doubt that as the number of reactors in use throughout the world increases there will in time be a major accident. Such an accident, even if it occurred abroad, would certainly cause anxiety in this and other countries and might require reactors to be shut down while safety aspects were reassessed.”

At the centre of the nuclear safety issue is waste; specifically, what to do with it. In an eerie, subterranean environment at each of Canada’s nuclear plants, are the “swimming pools” where neatly stacked bundles of spent uranium fuel rods are stored underwater. Anyone touching one would die. Within the next few years, a decision is to be made on whether to reprocess the uranium into plutonium and recycle it through the reactors.

Even so, the waste eventually will be

buried in the ground. Spent nuclear fuel is extremely radioactive and toxic for hundreds of years, very radioactive and toxic for thousands of years, and merely toxic for tens of thousands of years. The Canadian plan is to bury the waste about 3,300 feet underground in a great cavern somewhere in the Canadian Shield. Test drilling has started in Atikokan in Northern Ontario, but residents have protested even the testing.

Ontario Hydro officials say the rock formations in the Canadian Shield have been stable for millions of years. “We really don’t expect that to change tomorrow,” says Don Watson, manager of Hydro’s safety services department.

But an Ontario royal commission into electric power planning was not so optimistic. “At present,” it concluded, “we possess inadequate knowledge to ensure the integrity of the rock at the comparatively high temperatures generated by the radioactive waste materials, or under pressures from deep drilling and construction of the depository itself.”

Two years ago the Swedish parliament decided that no new nuclear plants could be put into operation unless it was proven that waste disposal problems had been solved. They haven’t. Ontario’s royal commission recommended that if a panel of independent experts is not satisfied with spent fuel disposal research by 1985, a moratorium on new nuclear construction might be justified.

The nuclear critics say that Ontario is building nuclear plants when it already has an oversupply of electricity, enough, that is, to maintain a healthy export market to the U.S. They say Hydro has an excess capacity of 42 per cent, but Hydro says it has an excess capacity of 17 per cent. The 25-per-cent difference is what Hydro says it needs in reserve for peak loads, outages and maintenance.

Whatever the truth is—and Hydro has consistently overestimated the province’s power needs—Ontario is committed to a nuclear future. Nuclear costs represent almost $24 billion of a $30-billion 10-year Hydro capital expansion program. The critics say that the money is going into the wrong energy source, that the investment is taking money away from the alternatives—solar, wind, biomass, etc.

Norm Rubin, a nuclear researcher for the Ontario ecology group, Energy Probe, says that electrical heating of homes (30 per cent of all new homes in Ontario will be heated by electricity) is poor economics. “Trying to solve an energy shortage with a high-grade energy like electricity is like using caviar to solve a protein shortage.”

Rubin argues that nuclear plants, es-

pecially with their astronomical capital costs (they are cheaper to operate than coal plants), can in no way compete in energy savings with home insulation. “We could spend $2.5 billion and get a return that would be comparable to the energy Darlington would put out.”

Hydro officials argue the alternatives—at least at the present rate of research and investment—will do little to produce electricity until 2000 or beyond. By 2000, for example, it has been estimated that solar energy will contribute between two and three per cent of Ontario’s energy needs.*

The immediate alternative to nuclear power is more coal-burning plants (Ontario’s hydroelectric power future is limited) but they are dirty, polluting the air and killing the lakes. If coal generation replaced nuclear power it would cost each Ontario resident $40 more per year for electricity. Ontario’s coal is imported from the United States and last year it would have cost $400 million more for coal than uranium.

To date, the anti-nuke protest in Canada, albeit vocal, has been small. But it is growing and for the first time the nuclear establishment is on the defensive. As a result, Ontario Hydro has changed its public relations posture; it is now committed to presenting facts instead of hiding them. Nevertheless, in the absence of any massive public protest against nuclear power, Ontario’s decision-makers are under no pressure , to abandon their commitment to nuclear.

Meanwhile, anti-nuke leader Edwards has called for a public inquiry into nuclear power and a two-year moratorium on licensing, construction and the sale of reactors and fuel until fundamental health and safety questions are resolved. His suggestion could attract attention as public confidence in nuclear power has been slipping. A regular poll by the University of Toronto’s Institute of Environmental Studies has shown a steady decline in Torontonians’ confidence in the province’s commitment to nuclear energy. Between 1975 and 1977, support for the program fell to 68 per cent from 86 per cent; after Three Mile Island it dropped to 48 per cent. “We know the industry is unsafe and it’s doubtful that it can ever be safe,” says Edwards. “It’s like the tar baby in Brer Rabbit', once you’ve stuck a finger in it, you get both hands and feet stuck trying to pull loose. The big question now is how to tool down the industry.”

*Federal research figures show $1 billion was invested in nuclear power between 1958 and 1977. No figures for renewable energy were kept until 197i. From then until 1977 only $U.2 million was spent on renewable energy development. During the same four-year period, $370 million went to nuclear development.