Green Party Moment: Is it Time for Real debate on Nuclear Power?

Linda Keen

Linda Keen former Nuclear Watchdog

So I was at the Green Party website, (actually, it’s more of an Elizabeth May site now.), and there was a media release with Elizabeth May’s schedule for the day. Lo and behold, amongst the local campaign type stops, is a notice of a joint press conference with EMay, and Linda Keen, the former Nuclear Watchdog sacked by the Harper Conservatives for, well, being a public watchdog and sounding the alarm.

This is clearly relevant to the local SGI campaign, as then Minister for Natural Resources was, you guessed it, Gary Lunn. I know that there was a lot of bad feeling betweeen Lunn and Keen way back then, so I can pretty well guarantee that Keen will have some damaging things to say about Lunn. I am also crossing my fingers that Elizabeth May will relax her determination to focus 100% on getting elected in SGI, and work this issue Nationally.

While Lunn should be held accountable for his heavy handed actions at that time, the topicality of Nuclear Safety issues is potentially an enormous gift to the Green Party in this current election. I don’t need to remind everybody that a terrible disaster is unfolding in Japan.  The nuclear debate has been continually clouded by mis-direction, and outright misinformation by parties on all sides of the argument. A geat many people ignore the fact that nuclear is horrendously expensive, and brush over the risks to the public by pointing to the very stringent safety standards the Nuclear industry operates to. What Japan has taught us is that you do not have to be incompetents, (Chernobyl), to poison your neighbourhood. Fact is that every nuclear reactor has the potential to become a major disaster. Folks, that includes huge swathes of Ontario, and with a number of Provinces mulling over their nuclear options, in the future could include more and more Provinces of Canada.

I am personally not a wild eyed hater of nuclear power. Some Greens are, and some Greens actually support nuclear power due to the lack of airborne emmissions. Nuclear power is relatively clean, and is unquestionably a stable source of electricity. For me, the problems are that it is overly expensive especially once power transmission costs are taken into account. The expense of de-commissioning reactors, and storing the wastes in perpetuity is completely ignored, but we all know that the public purse WILL end up footing the bill… and for generations to come. Then there is the potential for mis-use of spent nuclear fuel. Then there is the added potential, which is impossible to cost, of a nuclear accident that can kill millions of people. Just how the heck do you account for that risk when cost-justifying nuclear reactors? On balance, a great many Canadians would agree that the risks far and away outweigh the benefits, and the proof is fresh in the minds of all Canadians. The opportunity exists for the Green Party to justify it’s existence, and give this issue the airing that it needs.  The opportunity exists for all 308 Green Party campaigns to talk about the risks in an intelligent way, and actually perform a public service, while putting a whack of votes in the bank. So how about it Elizabeth? Will you attack Lunn with his shortcomings, or jump start an intelligent debate on the costs and benefits of nuclear power?

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13 Responses

  1. totally agree, a great opportunity that May had better not waste.

  2. Then there is the added potential, which is impossible to cost, of a nuclear accident that can kill millions of people. Just how the heck do you account for that risk when cost-justifying nuclear reactors?

    Versus what? Oil? Coal? Burning wood? Name me an energy technology that isn’t expensive, polluting or risky. Solar power? Also has toxic byproducts that need to be disposed of.

    It may be true that a nuclear accident could kill millions of people, but the truth is that even Chernobyl did not. At the time, 31 people died. That is very sad, but it is not ‘millions’.

    About 6000 people have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer attributed to the Chernobyl disaster. A total of 15 had died of the disease by 2005. Again, not to minimize it; it’s not a good thing, but it is still not ‘millions’.

    They’re estimating that, of the 600,000 people most exposed, 104,000 will die of cancer. Of an unexposed similar group, about 100,000 would. Cancer is a terrible thing, but a 4% increase also does not constitute ‘millions’.

    It’s all very well to complain about the potential risks of nuclear power, but the reality is that other power sources we’re using are killing people, right now.

    The 2nd-biggest (and growing) energy source is coal. 35 coal miners die every year (on average) just in the U.S.

    5800 miners died in China in 2008 & 09 (combined). That alone is greater than the total number of predicted deaths from the worst nuclear disaster in history.

    As Cecil Adams put it, “Point is, there’s no risk-free way to do this. Is radiation sickness or cancer a horrible way to die? Yeah. So is black lung.”

    As to the fact – which I don’t dispute – that every nuclear reactor has the potential to become a major disaster, well, so does every oil rig. Or have we forgotten last April already?

    The problem is not the specific technology, but the regulation and oversight thereof. It is certainly possible to minimize the safety risks of nuclear power plants (and of oil rigs, for that matter), but without strict oversight*, any technology becomes less safe.

    I’m not quarrelling with your points regarding cost, though I would like to see, rather than simply an accounting of how much nuclear power costs, a comparison of how much it costs versus alternatives, including known safety risks and the degree to which they are addressed and minimized.

    If nuclear power costs too much, fine; but how much does your proposed alternative cost? Oh, wait, you don’t seem to have proposed one…

    Nuclear power is neither 100% safe nor free. However, neither is any other power source. Anti-nuclear activists generally present society’s choice, as “nuclear power vs. not-nuclear,” but it isn’t; it’s “nuclear vs. other source(s)”. But somehow the “some other source” part always seems to be missing.

    If they want to make a compelling argument, it should not be “No nukes!” but rather, ” instead of nukes!”

    *Which none of the industries want, as it increases their costs – but that’s certainly not something confined to the nuclear industry!

  3. Oops: That last quotation was meant to say “<X> instead of nukes!” but the html parser removed it. Sorry.

  4. @Wilson,

    As you noted, I am calling for a real debate on Nuclear power, not simply bleating ‘no nukes’. Go ahead and propose alternatives.

    With respect to your arguments about the death toll from Chernobyl, you are dead wrong. My wife comes from Russia, and her (tiny little) home town was right in the path of the Chernobyl fallout. Her little brother died of Thyroid cancer, and was one of dozens of children to do so in the years immediately after Chernobyl. Mind you, this is in a small town, with a population of 5,000. Your claim that only 6,000 have been diagnosed is obviously predicated on false or misleading data.
    I was profoundly affected when we visited last year, because in the graveyards, Russians have a custom of fixing a picture to the headstones. There was row after row of childrens photo’s adorning headstones from the past ten years. They by far outnumber adults. I do not trust anecdotal evidence, but when confronted like that, it is impossible not to be affected.
    I do not know if estimates of approximately 960,000 premature deaths caused by Chernobyl are accurate, but the figure becomes more believable with clear evidence staring you in the face like that.
    Whatever your views on nuclear power may be, the potential risks from mishaps are several orders of magnitude greater than any alternative.

  5. My figures came from the Cecil Adams story I linked to and I don’t know where he got his figures (he didn’t cite his sources). I have seen similar figures (to his) elsewhere, but again I don’t have sources.

    My suspicion – and it is only that – is that the difference between the worst numbers and the best numbers is the degree of confidence that can be assigned to whether a particular case can be attributed to only the Chernobyl disaster.

    There are so many ways for people to get cancer that it is almost impossible to say for certain that a particular case had a particular cause; all a scientist can do is assign a probability. (Even lung cancer from smoking is probabilistic.)

    The problem with that, of course, is that it is a fairly subjective measure. So, a scientist who supports nuclear energy (whether from their own convictions or because they are being paid to do so) may well assign probabilities in such a way as to favour other causes. While another scientist with opposing views (again, personal or paid) is liable to do the opposite.

    When the studies are published, the numbers conflict. The truth, very likely, lies somewhere in the middle.

    As to alternatives, I’m not qualified to propose them, though I do tend to support alternative sources such as wind, solar and geothermal and would like to see the government tax structure changed to do the same.

    I don’t have the figures to be able to provide a meaningful comparison between any (or all) of them and nuclear power (or other conventional) sources. My point was that neither do most of nuclear power’s critics.

  6. Actually, there is one very compelling reason to believe that the dangers of nucear power dramatically outweigh the benefits. That is the fact that the best, meaning the most professional risk analysts in the world will not touch them. To whit, the Insurance Industry. Were the risks manageable, then insurance would be available to nuclear operators, and at least on economic terms, the justification of nuclear power would be easy. If the plant could operate at a profit, while insuring against the risks of disaster, then it would be economically justified.
    The fact that this is not possible speaks volumes. It also speaks directly to my more prosaic arguments against nuclear power, that the taxpayers are inevitably left holding the bag.
    Insurance industry will insure satellite launches, will insure crops, will insure against adverse weather, will insure just about any quantifiable risk. However they won’t insure Nuclear power plants. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it….

  7. Even after Japan, in the USA, the nuclear vote splits 50-50. Here Libs are pro nuke. NDP are anti. (At this stage, the Greens won’t be poaching Con votes…so it doesn’t matter where Cons stand although Harper wants to get rid of the money pit AECL).

    But May is going to push the nuke fear button with Keen in tow. How to spin this with Japan in the background???

    Back in August 2006, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission had issued a license to the AECL Chalk River reactor. The license required an emergency power supply be connected to reactor coolant pumps to ensure cooling of the reactor core if a destructive event were to occur, e.g. an earth quake. Months latter, CNSC inspectors discovered that the connections had never been completed. The reactors were shutdown but AECL protested to the government. AECL had correspondence to prove that the CNSC knew all along that the emergency connections were never completed and AECL paraded some industry dinosaurs before the committee. They testified that the reactor was safe enough to start back up. Because of a looming shortage of the isotopes the federal government bypassed the CNSC by fast-tracking an emergency bill allowing AECL to restart the reactor for 120 days. The government was gambling that an earthquake wouldn’t occur meanwhile.

    Keen has a legitimate beef. Instead of pressuring Keen to break the law, the government had the option to get parliament to amend the law. Then there were the partisan attacks by members of parliament against Keen. The regulatory licensing process recognizes that some events are unlikely but at the same time the consequences of a reactor melt-down are significant. The same licensing process is followed at Canada’s other reactors. It is followed by other nations. Keens position is supported by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

    But Keen’s staff had also messed up and put the government in a position where it had to weigh the risk of lives lost due to a shortage of radio-isotopes vs. the risk of a nuclear accident. Was it fair to make Keen take the fall? Had she tried to clean up the watchdog and got canned for it? Some say the watchdog is too friendly with the industry (and aren’t surprised the license violation was overlooked by staff).

    At the end of the day, a voting person should ask if the government has weakened the oversight of the snoozing nuclear watchdog by getting rid of Keen. It will be interesting to see how this gets spun to voters.

  8. However they won’t insure Nuclear power plants. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it….

    Yes, it made me wonder if it’s true. So I went looking.

    Why homeowners in Canada don’t get nuclear insurance</a (though that article says that they could). In that case, you are correct that the government is assuming the liability. However, it’s not clear that government is because insurers won’t or that insurers aren’t offering coverage because the government is.

    However, since nuclear operators, on the other hand, are required to carry insurance, to a minimum of $75 million, I suspect the latter. They get it from members of Nuclear Insurance Association of Canada, in this country and, south of the border, from American Nuclear Insurers, the US equivalent. Other countries have their own versions.

    Because of the cross-border nature of potential nuclear accidents, the insurance situation has a number of international conventions attached to it. Otherwise, it is insured much in the same way as other industries. (Which is to say: probably inadequately, and, yes, shored up by government funds if the coverage is inadequate, but not more so than other industries.)

    From the little I read about it, in the case of the Japan disaster, it looks like, while TEPCO does have nuclear insurance, it is for problems stemming from operation or failure of the plant under normal circumstances and does not cover damage by either the earthquake or the tsunami. So the government may well be on the hook for that one. That seems an odd choice in a country that experiences earthquakes on a fairly regular basis and from which the term tsunami originated…

    However, it jibes with earthquake insurance out here on the West Coast: it’s either unavailable or prohibitively expensive and so, while we perhaps should, few homeowners have it. I suppose it’s entirely possible that a large enough earthquake could damage a dam (most of our electricity is hydro) which could trigger a catastrophic flood, I doubt that insurance is available for such an event, and the government would be on the hook for it.

    Huh, that’s pretty similar to the situation you describe for nuclear power. Interesting.

  9. Oh, damn. If WordPress lets you, would you mind fixing the end tag on that first link (right before “though that article says that they could”), please?

    I apologize about that.

  10. This has been spun by Keen as “who has better judgment, May or Lunn?”

    OK. Based on what I know, I’ll say Lunn could have done better.

    But what of Keen? Some of her staff knew the reactor upgrades had not been completed and went along. Then some gung-ho inspector blows the whistle and Keen orders the reactor shutdown.

    Meanwhile the reactor was operational for 18 months. If she’s head of the watchdog, how did she deal with staff when she found out that her staff had OK’d the reactor operating in violation of its license?

    Why would her staff turn a blind eye in the first place? If there’s a systemic cultural problem at the CNSC, then she bears responsibility?

    Spinning this for political gain by telling half the story doesn’t advance democracy.

  11. […] This week, the first nationally visible attemp to suppress Lunns support was executed, with the joint press conference featuring Elizabeth May, and Linda Keen, the former Nuclear watchdog clumsily fired by Lunn. Given the topicality of nuclear safety, […]

  12. 30 – April – 2011: Calgary, Alberta, Canada

    I will be voting for Jack Layton and the NDP May 2 because of the issues raised in this post.

    Having researched nuclear power before graduating I literally changed my field and went into oil and gas as a wellsite geologist for eighteen years. With manmade global warming now confirmed, one wonders if fate doesn’t indeed have a sense of humor?

    Fukushima had me revisit the nuclear industry, and it is obvious to me I made the correct choice back in 1978, the alternative being a source of electricity that cannot be made safe (nuclear).

    There is much new information on Chernobyl and on low level radiation now available, of the highest calibre. See “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment” ca 2009/10, by Alexy Yaklobov et al, former head of the Soviet Academy of Sciences under Mikhail Gorbachev; see Dr. Christopher Busby’s and the European Committee on Radiation Risk’s information on low level radiation in general, and from depleted uranium and weapons derived uranium in particular; see the brand new (April 2011) report by the German affiliate of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War – “Health Effects of Chernobyl, 25 Years after the catastrophe”.

    For historical perspective, see the incomparable “An Irreverent, Illustrated View of Nuclear Power” (1979), by John Gofman, of the Manhattan Project, soon after to become a medical doctor and one of the world’s chief proponents of the anti-nuclear movement.

    In closing, a quote from this book, as I see repeated comments on the ‘comparative cleanliness’ of nuclear:

    John Gofman:

    “There is no nuclear fuel, no reactor type, no operating mode which can significantly alter the astronomical quantities of radioactive nuclear fission products produced in nuclear power installations.”

    Dr. Gofman, who worked at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory until he was essentially fired for his anti-nuclear stance, was of the opinion until the day he died in 2007 at 88 years of age, that the Achilles Heel of nuclear power was that no feasible containment of the radioactive byproducts of nuclear power was possible while a plant was running, and that there is no safe dose of radiation from these fission products, which are biomagnified in the environment, breathed in and ingested by living things (that would include us).

    The damage is immediate to the genome, and effects manifest bodily much later, and then down at increasing rates through the generations.

    We have a monster loose here – controlled by pathological corporations, and now even governments, who have obviously forgotten who is in charge, as have we the citizens of the western pseudo-democracies.

    We had better all get our collective acts together pronto.

    Michael Desautels, B.Sc., mountaineer, father, husband, friend.

  13. good info here glad i came

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