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The Canadian Nuclear FAQ  

by Dr. Jeremy Whitlock


To The Globe and Mail regarding a letter from David Martin (of the Sierra Club of Canada) extolling the virtues of natural gas:

January 17, 2001

To the Editor, The Globe and Mail

David Martin is wrong to claim "it is an internationally accepted principle that any exposure to ionizing radiation increases the risk of cancer and birth defects" (letters, January 17). His statement is intended as a slight against the routine emissions of nuclear power plants, but he deliberately obscures the facts. In fifty years of intense scrutiny, there have been no health effects observed from radiation levels thousands of times higher than that due to nuclear power plants. Radiation at such low levels is a natural part of our environment, and certainly one of the least toxic. Nuclear plants, in turn, are among the least radioactive sources we are exposed to.

Nevertheless, the accepted principle of radiation safety is to err on the side of caution, and assume that the possibility of harm exists at all exposure levels. This is very different from claiming an increase in risk, because the effect could just as likely be zero. All we know for certain is that any effect is so small as to be unobservable. It is unfortunate that anti-nuclear activists like Mr. Martin routinely exploit this conservatism to their own end.

Mr. Martin distorts the truth in his claim that nuclear costs twice as much as natural gas, "even with increased gas prices." Perhaps Mr. Martin is thinking of peaking supply conditions, where plants are turned off and on to meet the daily peak electricity demand. Unfortunately the bulk of our supply is turned on all the time (baseload), including the nuclear power plants that Mr. Martin would replace with natural gas. Under these conditions the situation is quite the opposite: nuclear power, including construction, operation, decommissioning and waste management, costs half that of natural gas. And this is before gas prices started skyrocketing.

Nuclear power is the cleanest, safest, and cheapest baseload electrical supply option available to us. Forward-thinking governments of the world know this, and continue to make nuclear an important contributor to their energy-supply portfolio. Other governments have been swayed by misinformed perception, and like Sweden of late, will probably turn to compromise down the road.

It is time for bold but rational thinkers in this nation's energy debate. The needs of the new millennium are not well-served by the Seventies' "No Nukes" mentality.


Jeremy Whitlock