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The large domed building is the Vacuum Building which is designed to suck any radioactive steam that could be released. to date, this has not been needed. Photos taken April6 2011 during a media tour of the Ontario Power Generation's Darlington Nuclear facility near Oshawa, Ont. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
The large domed building is the Vacuum Building which is designed to suck any radioactive steam that could be released. to date, this has not been needed. Photos taken April6 2011 during a media tour of the Ontario Power Generation's Darlington Nuclear facility near Oshawa, Ont. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Fukushima's ripple effects on nuclear power in Canada Add to ...

The rectangular concrete bay tasked with containing 150,000 bundles of spent uranium looks like a swimming pool, with a temperature - 30 C - to match.

But the tranquil-looking body of demineralized water at Ontario's Darlington nuclear generator belies the painstaking, energy-intensive effort to keep it cool.

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Its fuel-cooling counterpart at 40-year-old Fukushima Daiichi spent weeks emitting high levels of radiation. A blast of liquid gas stemmed a leak this week, barely 48 hours before another powerful quake further complicated efforts to contain the damage.

By then, radiation in the water, air and soil around Fukushima's crippled reactors was thousands of times the legal limit, leaving the rest of the world to confront questions about nuclear safety that most hadn't in decades.

Canada is still grappling with its hunger for power and the aging systems that fuel it: A report released Thursday found Canada's grid needs a $293-billion infusion over the next 15 years. To that end, Ontario Power Generation wants to build a pair of new reactors on the eastern side of its Darlington site, about 60 kilometres east of Toronto.

Hearings on the proposal - which asks for approval for "up to four" reactors, for a total of 4,800 megawatts of electricity - wrap up Friday. Critics of nuclear power have pointed to Japan's crisis as a cautionary sign Canada should proceed more cautiously in its own nuclear ambitions.

While Canada's oceans and food supply haven't been tainted by radiation in significant enough amounts to threaten the public, Fukushima's ripple effects are forcing the country to re-evaluate the way it pursues and safeguards nuclear power.

Your health

The seawater won't harm you. But unnecessary iodine may.

"You have to eat a million kilograms of seaweed to get the dose which is equivalent to the dose of a cancer treatment," said Simon Fraser University chemist Krzysztof Starosta. "And it has to be dried. You will die of dehydration rather than radiation poisoning."

As talk turned to a "radiation plume" in the days following the tsunami, British Columbians raided drugstore shelves for potassium iodide tablets.

They needn't have. Health Canada and independent researchers found amounts of the radioactive isotope iodine-131 in West Coast rainwater and seaweed and Washington milk to be harmless.

Natural Resources Canada, which intensified its radiation testing after March 11, scaled it back after March 25 "due to the low levels of radiation being detected." Health Canada is now updating its continuous data collection thrice weekly.

A greater concern, said Perry Kendall, B.C.'s chief medical officer of health, is people taking the potassium iodide tablets, which generally retail between $10 and $16 a bottle, as a precautionary measure. They'd be useless - but they could also do serious damage to thyroid development, especially to women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Regulation

Fukushima's global impact has lead some to argue nuclear regulations should be a global, rather than national, concern.

"An implication I see arising from the Japanese nuclear crisis is continued evolution in the direction of internationalized safety standards," said energy analyst Tom Adams.

In Canada, it's now the purview of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. Created in 2000 to replace the post-Second World War Atomic Energy Control Board, the commission's seven-person panel and 600 employees are in charge of licensing nuclear plants and enforcing safety and performance regulations.

The commission has an officer stationed full-time at every nuclear plant in the country, and is meant to be an independent agency under the Natural Resources Minister. The commission couldn't immediately answer when asked whether Canada's rules need better enforcement.

South of the border, a report this month from the Union of Concerned Scientists suggests that's the case: A report by scientist David Lochbaum found the U.S.'s nuclear regulator had failed to act on multiple safety threats on U.S. plants. The rules existed, Mr. Lochbaum found, but those in charge weren't enforcing them.

Former CNSC president Linda Keen, who was fired in January, 2008 amid furor over a shutdown at Chalk River's isotope-producing reactor, said this week there's "no doubt" Canada's existing nuclear laws are sufficient.

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