Following are letters to the editor responding to "The Deep," Charles Wilkins's cover story on nuclear waste disposal in Report on Business magazine's March issue. The letters have been edited for length and clarity.
Consider waste in context
Charles Wilkins' cynical piece on nuclear waste management taps into some common fears and misconceptions, and in the process misses some key facts. Every human activity produces waste. A lot of it is toxic, and a lot of it lasts longer than 400,000 years. The advantage of spent nuclear fuel, it turns out, is its small volume, robust nature, and the resulting ease with which it can be managed—for the duration of its risk. All the spent fuel from over 50 years of nuclear electricity in this country takes up less volume than one day's worth of garbage generated by the City of Toronto. We know more about this material than any other waste form. This is a manageable legacy of made-in-Canada, emission-free energy powering half of Ontario and a third of New Brunswick.
Canadian Nuclear Society
Deep River, Ontario
Put radiation risks in perspective
Readers of this article, who have been conditioned over many decades to fear all radiation, should consider a few facts to help put their fears in perspective. While the Canadian nuclear industry does not yet have a permanent site to dispose of its spent fuel, it is the only industry that sequesters and accounts for all of its waste. By contrast, the major worldwide technologies used for electricity generation—coal and natural gas—simply release their waste to the atmosphere. In addition, the radioactive emissions from the burning of coal are far higher than any nuclear plant in the world, since all coal contains some uranium.
For those concerned that geological structures cannot be guaranteed to remain intact for 400,000 years, consider that the world's most radioactive underground ore deposit, near Cigar Lake, Saskatchewan, has been relatively intact for over one billion years, since before the Rocky Mountains were formed. Technologies proposed for encapsulation of used CANDU fuel are simply engineered improvements of what nature has shown us can work.
Dr. Michael Ivanco
President, Society of Professional Engineers and Associates
Cars more dangerous than nuclear
I enjoyed reading "The Deep." But the article does not mention that nuclear energy is statistically the safest dependable power source on the planet. Each year in Canada, we have about 2,000 deaths and 170,000 injuries from car accidents. The risk from nuclear energy is orders of magnitude lower than the risk from automobiles that we accept every day. Yes, nuclear reactors produce nuclear wastes but those wastes are sequestered. They are not dumped into the atmosphere like wastes from our gas-fired power plants or automobiles.
Paul Acchione, P. Eng.
Past Chair, Ontario Society of Professional Engineers
The rock is stable
Charles Wilkins might have asked himself how natural gas could have remained confined in Southwestern Ontario rocks for over 100 million years while we are supposedly hard-pressed to store nuclear waste for 400,000 years. I wish you, editor, had viewed this article with as much caution as the guards at the Bruce site did Wilkins.
Richard E Jackson P. Eng.
(The writer worked for many years on planning for nuclear waste disposal in Canada.)
Saugeen citizens value sustainability
I am dismayed at the lack of balance on reporting the social side of the debate. Many here in Saugeen Shores really feel a generational responsibility to not leave problems for our grandchildren. It has nothing to do with pitting the atomic "establishment" against outraged volunteers. The detractors in Saugeen Shores (mainly seasonal cottagers not comprehending our culture) played up numbers at the Joint Review Panel, when most residents chose to be responsibly quiet, to give a fair voice to both sides. But it is clear the vast majority support sustainability on a longer-range view. So many quotes from detractors and so few from residents. I am disappointed.
Waste should have been tackled in the '50s
The truly insane aspect of the nuclear disposal project is that it is being done now, and not in the 1950s. They didn't know then what they were going to do? And so today we have interviews with 18,000 lay people about where to dispose of the waste, and then choose a spot according to their unschooled wishes. I freak over herd mentality like that in the stock market. What reaction should I have to herd mentality like this?
Where else would you show everybody in the world where our nuclear reactor is, where the waste is, what it looks like and the extent of security up there? If there is an inner game of actual due process going on here, may we know it now, please?
Deep burial is widely opposed
The article fails to point out the precedent-setting nature of the Kincardine DGR site, located right beside the Great Lakes (drinking water for 40 million people). Without the public challenging our silent politicians, approval is imminent for this underground nuclear-waste dump. You ignore the extensive opposition in Canada and the United States—142 resolutions representing 18 million citizens and an international petition of 73,000 signatures. The federal and Ontario governments will fail the people if they do not oppose and stop this poorly considered proposal. Voters should challenge our silent politicians to say "no" to any DGR in the Great Lakes basin.
Spokesperson, Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump
There's a better method than burial
Thank you for showcasing the problem of disposing of Canada's nuclear waste, an issue with serious long-term consequences, yet very much outside public awareness.
Burial of the waste is likely what will happen, but preparation of the waste for burial, as you describe it, is astonishingly out of date and may be the wrong way. I refer you to a February, 2015, article in Physics Today (a publication of the American Institute of Physics), according to which vitrification—the conversion of nuclear waste into a stable glassy matrix—has become the international method of choice.
The article mentions numerous instances where existing storage facilities have leaked and discharged radioactive materials into the soil and groundwater, and then goes on to describe the vitrification process in considerable technical detail.
Nuclear waste disposal is unquestionably a very complex chemical, physical and long-term geological problem. I would hope that you would be able to bring the public's attention to the latest scientific thinking on this subject in an article like this.
We had better get this right.
Nuclear potential is still great
Charles Wilkins has written a usefully detailed article on nuclear waste storage. As nuclear energy will be of increasing importance in helping reverse or mitigate the damage done and to be done by global warming, it is necessary that decision-makers and as many of the public as possible be fully aware of related issues and their resolution.
Wilkins has properly noted the uncertainties associated with storage of radioactive waste for 400,000 years. That is why his quoted comments of University of Toronto Professor Peter Ottensmeyer are so important. Professor Ottensmeyer points out that when our CANDU reactors have taken everything that they can from the uranium they consume, they've used up a little less than 1% of the fuel's fissionable capacity. So all we need to do is run the remaining so-called nuclear waste through fast-neutron reactors. Not only do we profitably use up almost all the fissionable material, but the critical storage time for the remaining waste is nowhere near 400,000 years—it would require only 300 years of storage. Using up the nuclear waste now in storage in this manner would provide an estimated 4,000 years of nuclear energy for Canada's use, and the waste storage problem would be reduced to a trivial concern.
Wilkins mentions risks associated with nuclear energy and its waste, but these risks are poorly understood. First of all, a nuclear reactor is inherently incapable of a nuclear explosion. Nuclear reactor accidents can occasionally be fatal, albeit rarely—such fatalities are not numerous. While about four dozen deaths were caused by the Chernobyl reactor accident, its design was never used in the West, and has been entirely superseded since the Chernobyl accident. No one died as a consequence of the Three Mile Island accident in the U.S.
Comparatively, the number of deaths caused by working in the fossil-fuels industry is high. It is not unusual for several thousand miners per year to die working in coal mines in China.
Occasionally, nuclear reactors are damaged by earthquakes, tsunamis, etc. Analysis of such events has led to improvements in reactor design. A 6.8-magnitude earthquake almost directly underneath a reactor in Kashiwazaki, Japan, in 2007 failed to cause irreparable damage or significant leaks of toxic radioactive material. Even the deliberate crashing of a jet passenger plane with pinpoint accuracy into a reactor of contemporary design cannot cause a core meltdown, nor a release of radioactive material. The passengers in the aircraft would all die, but in all probability, no one else would, except those directly struck by the aircraft or caught in the explosion of aircraft fuel.
Further, non-fatal exposure to reactor-failure radiation has been found to generate health benefits to exposed people (the "hormesis" relationship), a quite unexpected result.
In short, while Wilkins discusses potential problems with nuclear waste disposal, they are far less serious than many of the public have been led to believe, and all can be eliminated or solved with appropriate planning.
Robert H. Barrigar, Q.C.
Wrong about bombing reactors
I read with interest the article on nuclear wastes in Canada. It is an important topic for all Canadians to be aware of, and the article contains a good deal of useful information once it settles down to business.
Unfortunately, the author damages his credibility early on by making some baffling and inexcusable errors. In particular, he asserts that he "knew" if the reactors at Chalk River were hit by nuclear-armed missiles from the Soviet Union, "the explosion would be the equivalent of a thousand, maybe a million, H-bombs."
This is not only a preposterous statement in its own right—if the word "H-bomb" were replaced with "tonnes of TNT" it might pass muster—but it is also quite misleading, as the nuclear reactors would add virtually nothing to the explosive power of the bombs.
It is true that if a nuclear weapon explodes on a nuclear reactor, the radioactive fallout will be greatly increased, because the contents of the reactor core will be vaporized and scattered far and wide; however, the magnitude of the explosion will be unaffected.
In general, the core of an electricity-producing power reactor (quite a bit larger than the research reactors at Chalk River) contains more than 1,000 times as much radioactivity as the fallout released by the Hiroshima bomb.
Nuclear physicist Sir Brian Flowers pointed out in his 1976 U.K. Royal Commission Report, "Nuclear Power and the Environment," that large parts of Europe would still be uninhabitable today if nuclear power had been developed and deployed throughout Europe before the Second World War, because nuclear reactors would not have been spared from the intense bombing and sabotage that characterized that conflict.
Gordon Edwards, Ph.D.
President, Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility
Missing facts on radiation
"The Deep" has much useful information that should be brought to the public attention for discussion.
However, the article does little to abate the public's fear of radiation. The word "radiation" scares not only the average person but also university-educated leaders in medicine, the media, politics and science who do not have expertise in the area of nuclear health physics. There is little in this article to educate readers about radiation or, more importantly, to impart an appreciation of risk.
There is no doubt that nuclear energy waste management is a concern. However, waste disposal is a political and public education problem rather than an engineering problem.
Here are just a few factually based thoughts…
We have been living in this province for over 65 years with nuclear radiation, which currently provides almost 60% of our electrical needs. How many people have died from this nuclear radiation? (Answer: zero.)
How many deaths have been prevented and lives extended because we no longer use coal? (Answer: many thousands.)
A 1,000-megawatt coal-burning plant ejects 100 times as much radioactive gases and particulate into the environment as a 1,000-megawatt nuclear plant.
No one died at Three Mile Island and average life expectancy in the area was unaltered.
Chernobyl's problems were rooted in an opaque Russian culture of never admitting failure so that politics trumped science and good engineering practice.
Did you know that nuclear failure at Fukushima was because of an engineering decision based on 100-year tsunami records, which were exceeded? If the electrical outlets for the cooling pumps had been placed 10 feet higher, there would not have been a problem. This potential problem has since been addressed at nearly 500 nuclear stations around the world. (By the way, Ontario doesn't have tsunamis.) When most people hear the word Fukushima, they think about radiation; yet more than 18,000 people died from the tsunami and very few died from radiation.
Wilkins tries to create fear about conditions 400,000 years from now. There may not be a human race at that time! Should we also worry that five billion years from now, our benign sun will expand to be a red giant and fry everyone and everything on this planet?
There are several pieces of nuclear information that are missing. There should be distinctions between alpha, beta, gamma or neutron radiation. There should be knowledge that we live in a sea of radiation, so that each of us receives on average 2-3 mSv of natural radiation from the sun, food, water and medical procedures in a year. We have pretty tough immune systems, so that it takes on average 6,000 mSv of sudden acute exposure to kill us.
By the way: Canada has unique knowledge and expertise about radiation. Canadians, such as Bertram Brockhouse, professor at McMaster University, who worked at Chalk River, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his neutron density studies, which led to Canada being a recognized world leader in the production of medical radioisotopes. For example, Technetium-99m is used 200,000 times daily in hospitals and clinics in the world for non-invasive diagnostic procedures.
On the negative side, Canada's expertise led to the fact that 60% of the fissile nuclear material in the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was processed by Eldorado Mining at beautiful Port Hope, Ontario.
We all make better, balanced decisions when we have good information and appreciate not only the very serious risks of radiation but also its benefits.
(The writer is a retired high school physics teacher.)
Nuclear engineer needed
I find it mildly ironic that, whereas in the early days of nuclear power generation any photo of a nuclear power plant always featured a herd of cows in the foreground, now I find that a photo of that (same?) herd of cows appears front and centre of what I feel is a distinctly slanted article, "The Deep," raising all the skeptics' fears about the problem of the disposal of nuclear waste.
I am not a great booster of the nuclear power industry, but it distresses me to see a respectable magazine like Report on Business publish an article about a serious problem like the disposal of nuclear waste, by a writer whose credentials in this field appear to be limited to having studied sciences at U of T some 30 years ago. Mr. Wilkins is undoubtedly an accomplished writer, having been awarded several prestigious prizes, but it puzzles me as to why you might have selected him to write this article on nuclear waste disposal, when his previous oeuvre ranges from Paddle to the Amazon through to Walk to New York and a book about rowing across the Atlantic, with no sign of any serious technical expertise in any facet of waste disposal or nuclear engineering.
Maybe your readership is such that some sort of "light touch" is required when you put one of the more complex of current problems before them, but I suggest you are letting your journalistic desire for a "good story" stand in the way of presenting a reasonably balanced picture. Maybe it would have been better to have asked Charles Rhodes, the Toronto area nuclear engineer and consultant, to whom Mr. Wilkins refers in his article, and who at least believes a Deep Geological Repository will be necessary, to write the article.
At the very least, I suggest it would have been appropriate to preface the article with a brief biography of Mr. Wilkins, and to note that he is a resident of the Canadian Shield geological area.
Don't forget nuclear debt
Everyone seems to enjoy bashing solar and wind, but nobody has given any voice to the fact that Ontario ratepayers are still paying off the debt to build the last nuclear plants. We as ratepayers have no idea how much is still owed, how much they collect for this debt and how much is applied toward it each year. Now they want an additional $24 billion or more (likely more; their cost estimation record is abysmal). That money will have to be paid by the ratepayers. Yet, the industry keeps promoting the idea that it is a low-cost producer. Hogwash! When you add in all the costs and potential safety and health issues, the nuclear industry is the worst choice for electricity generation. Give me something with fixed costs like the green industry and let the nuclear industry sell their snake oil somewhere else.