COVER

GUARDING AGAINST DISASTER

KEVIN SCANLON May 12 1986
COVER

GUARDING AGAINST DISASTER

KEVIN SCANLON May 12 1986

GUARDING AGAINST DISASTER

COVER

On the wall of the windowless downtown Toronto office, a map of southern Ontario shows vivid purple circles around each of the province’s five nuclear power plants. The 10-km radius of each circle is significant: it marks the limits of the areas designated for evacuation if a reactor begins leaking radiation. The detail hangs in the office of Furrukh Ali, head of plans and operations for Emergency Planning Ontario (EPO), the provincial body that co-ordinates plans for potential calamities. And Ali acknowledged that his department—and its counterparts in the two other provinces using nuclear power—have no specific plans to combat a disaster as large as last week’s meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Said Ali: “The more serious the accident, the less likely it is to occur. Accidents of greater severity are possible, but they’re very improbable.”

Fireproof: That official policy is based on the knowledge that CANDU reactors built by the federal Crown corporation Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL)including those at one plant in Quebec and another in New Brunswick—have such safety features as a deuteriumbased “heavy-water” coolant system for the reactor core and exterior container walls one metre thick. For one thing, heavy water is fireproof—unlike the graphite blocks used to insulate the Soviet reactor. Still, such Canadian critics as Norman Rubin, director of nuclear research for Toronto-based Energy Probe, say that the Chernobyl accident demonstrated the nuclear industry’s misplaced reliance on probability. He noted that Soviet authorities had estimated that the chances of a meltdown were one in 10,000 years of operation—a probability that occurred at the Ukrainian plant after only nine years. But de-

fenders of nuclear power maintain that the benefits of cheap electricity and a reduced dependence on imported oil outweigh the slight risks involved.

Ontario’s Nuclear Emergency Plan lists seven nuclear hazard zones, including potential threats from U.S. reactors in border states. Those designations concern some residents of the most thickly populated part of the

country and one which includes 21 reactors at the four operational plants in Ontario. There are two installations— Pickering and Darlington—within 64 km of Toronto, one near Douglas Point in Bruce County on Lake Huron and one 207 km northwest of Ottawa. And Windsor is only 16 km from the Enrico Fermi plant across the border in Michigan.

Radioactivity: The Pickering plant alone has seven reactors, and 100,000 people live within 10 km. But Ali insists that the most serious threat they are likely to face from the nuclear facility is a “controlled incident”—a re-

actor malfunction with the radiation contained inside the building. EPO planners say they are prepared to deal with emergencies ranging from a small leak to a major release of radioactivity.

‘Most extreme’: If such an accident were to occur in Ontario, the planners would urge the premier to declare an emergency. Then, the premier would

designate the provincial solicitor general to take overall command of the antiradiation forces at the Ontario Provincial Police headquarters near Toronto’s waterfront. There, technical advisers from such ministries as Environment, Energy, Agriculture and Health would meet representatives of the affected area’s police forces and fire departments. And after studying reports from teams monitoring the radiation levels near the plant, it would be up to the attorney general to decide on the course of action—from telling residents to stay inside to ordering an evacuation of the 10-km zone. Ali de-

scribed evacuation as “the most extreme measure.” Declared Ali: “We are not expecting a catastrophic accident which would occur with no warning whatsoever.”

‘Media disaster’: Ali noted that there had been no advance warning when a freight train derailed near the Toronto suburb of Mississauga in November, 1979. As firefighters battled the fire that broke out, toxic chlorine gas leaked from ruptured tank cars, prompting the successful evacuation of 300,000 residents from their homes. But EPO co-ordinator Kenneth Reeves said that the fatality-free operation demonstrated the crucial importance of good communications during an emergency. By contrast, he said, U.S.

officials had failed to keep the press and public informed when a partial meltdown occurred at a nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pa., in 1979. Said Reeves: “Three Mile Island was a media disaster. If it had been managed properly, there wouldn’t have been the large voluntary evacuations. There wouldn’t have been the confusion.” Obsolete: The largest concentration of nuclear plants is in Eastern Canada. But concern over a nuclear accident spans the country. In southern British Columbia there is unease about the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission’s graphite-block reactor, similar to the

one that exploded in the Soviet Union, 300 km away in Richland, Wash. Greenpeace spokesman Thomas Buchanan says that the 23-year-old reactor is obsolete and poses a threat to Canadians and Americans alike. He noted that the plant was inoperative for four months last year because the cooling system was clogged. Said Buchanan: “We feel it’s much too similar to the Ukrainian situation.” But B.C. nuclear physicist Erich Vogt declared, “A catastrophe of that proportion is not pleasant to contemplate, but the reactor is well-removed from any major population centre.”

Energy Probe’s Norman Rubin says that North American and Soviet nuclear experts share the same faith: a be-

lief that serious reactor accidents are extremely unlikely. Rubin says that a 1978 Ontario royal commission report on electric power planning predicted that there was likely to be only one meltdown in 10,000 years at Pickering. Said Rubin: “A week before the Soviet accident, all the estimates and safety features seem to make sense. A week later the officials all sound like idiots.” And he noted that the Pickering and Darlington nuclear plants are closer to Toronto than Chernobyl is to Kiev. Declared Rubin: “You need an unlucky day for a disaster to occur, but the potential is always there.”

Among the stout defenders of the industry is Ontario Hydro nuclear specialist Michael Williams. Williams, who points out that he lives in Whitby-halfway between the Pickering and Darlington nuclear sites—argues that the risks are minimal. He noted that nuclear power now supplies 40 per cent of the electricity produced in the province at cheaper costs than power generated in plants importing coal from the United States. Declared Williams: “The benefits outweigh the risks. Knowing the hazards, you can operate a plant at minimal risk.” Still, Hugh Spence, a spokesman for the Atomic Energy Control Board in Ottawa, acknowledging that accidents do occur, recalled that in August, 1983, a broken pressure tube resulted in a spill of contaminated coolant within the Pickering plant. But in that incident there was no hazardous leak from the plant and no one was injured.

Dismantle: That accident cost Ontario Hydro $700 million to replace all the pressure tubing in the plant. It was one of the most serious Canadian incidents to have occurred since the first Canadian reactor began operating in Chalk River, Ont., in the Ottawa Valley immediately after the Second World War. That tiny reactor achieved a more dubious distinction on Dec. 12, 1952, when a technician mistakenly lifted at least three of the reactor’s 12 shut-off rods out of the core, contaminating the interior of the reactor building. The incident lasted only 70 seconds, but it was the first nuclear reactor accident in history and the reactor was shut down for 14 months.

The cleanup alone took six months. One member of the crew assigned to dismantle the reactor core was a 28-year-old U.S. naval officer from Plains, Ga., named Jimmy Carter. Carter went on to become the 39th President of the United States in 1977, but in 1952 he was detached from the submarine USS Sea Wolf to study U.S. and Canadian nuclear research labs. And in the course of that assignment he received the equivalent of one year’s permissible dosage of radiation when he descended into the reactor container for two minutes.

Carter maintains that he did not suffer any ill effects from his exposure. But last year Bjarnie Paulson won a 25-per-cent disability pension in compensation for the skin cancer he developed after being exposed to radiation at the Chalk River plant in

1958. At the time, Paulson was helping to clean up the research station after a second nuclear reactor accident, which occurred on May 25, 1958, when a fuel rod in a precursor to the CANDU reactor broke and caught fire, spreading radioactive dust throughout the 12-storey building. More than 600 men helped clean up the contaminated building and 475,000 square yards around it.

Closure: While the cancer-causing effects of radiation remain the prime concern of those opposed to commercial nuclear energy, a spectacularly unsuccessful Quebec reactor raises questions about the cheapness of that source öf power. AECL built Gentilly 1, an $88million CANDU experimental reactor on the south shore of the St.

Lawrence River opposite Trois-Rivières, in 1970.

But after it began operating, the troubleplagued plant was in service intermittently for a total of less than 30 weeks before the federal energy control board shut it down for safety reasons in 1979, in what was to have been a temporary closure. In fact, the plant never reopened, because the board demanded the installation of $120 million worth of safety equipment. Hydro-Québec decided not to buy the plant, and next month AECL plans to seal its doors with concrete, ending a failed experiment that one AECL official once said used more electricity than it produced.

Unease: At the same time, Gordon Edwards, a Montreal mathematics professor who is president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, refuses to take AECL assurances that Canadian reactors —with their thick container walls— are safer than the malfunctioning Soviet plant. Said Edwards:

“It is easy to sit here and point the finger at weaknesses in the Soviet design, but it is pos-

sible that if we had a series of similar violent explosions, it could damage our containment systems.” As for the more immediate unease about fallout from the Chernobyl incident, Norman Aspin, president of the Canadian Nuclear Association, which lobbies for the peaceful use of nuclear energy, said that the reaction was justified but the threat of radioactivity should not be exaggerated. Said Aspin: “No doubt there will be

some period of public anxiety, but my guess is that it will die down and people will say ‘It’s not our country, it’s not our system, it’s not our reactor.’ ” And residents living near a Canadian-built nuclear reactor can only hope that if an accident occurs the safety features live up to their warranties.

-KEVIN SCANLON with NOMI MORRIS in

Toronto

KEVIN SCANLON

NOMI MORRIS