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The Canadian Nuclear FAQ  

by Dr. Jeremy Whitlock


To CBC Radio's science show "Quirks and Quarks" regarding a story on nuclear waste management in Canada:

(read, in part, during their 2004-10-02 broadcast)

2004 September 18

Dear Mr. McDonald:

I found your Sept. 18 show on nuclear waste to be on the whole fairly balanced, with opinions covering most positions in this contentious debate. While it was necessary to hear from Norman Rubin of Energy Probe, I found it unfortunate that he wasn’t identified as a professional anti-nuclear activist, since, as you pointed out later in the show, opposition to nuclear power does tend to colour one’s viewpoint on nuclear waste management.

I found less relevance in Paul Kennedy’s entirely unrealistic “what-if” scenarios, which seemed intended to scare rather than to inform. I address specifics below:

  1. Not only is it difficult to envision a terrorist bomb doing much damage to a spent fuel storage container (as you subsequently pointed out), but it is not likely that success in such a venture would achieve much for the terrorists. A high radiation field around the rubble would inhibit fire-fighting and other emergency measures, but effects on the surrounding public would likely be minimal. Any kind of intended explosive dispersal of contamination would be hampered by the heavy materials involved, which would absorb much of the overpressure shockwave. Radiation fields in the surrounding community would undoubtedly be measurably higher, but not likely high enough to cause a health effect. As the Tokai-Mura accident in Japan demonstrated, of course, the very existence of elevated radiation levels would be enough to cause mass panic, and this is perhaps where the terrorists might make some gains.

  2. The thought that a future militant society might mine a nuclear waste repository for its plutonium content, for the purposes of making nuclear weapons, is not credible. The reactor-grade plutonium found in spent reactor fuel would make only a crude, unreliable weapon, and only then at considerable expense and health risk to the perpetrators (see my article at http://www.nuclearfaq.ca/cnf_sectionF.htm#x2 for more discussion). It is not likely that a sub-national or national group would pursue this route to military supremacy, when other more effective and cheaper options exist. It is very likely, on the other hand, that future generations might mine a nuclear waste repository, regardless of its intended level of permanence, for its bountiful energy content.

By way of providing balance to Mr. Kennedy’s vision of doom, may I suggest the following alternate scenario:

“It is the year 2200. There is no world hunger and dictatorships are few and short-lasted. Society has achieved a global equalization of wealth, but only through a massive scale-up and equalization of energy usage on all continents. This has taxed the planet’s natural resources. Natural gas is gone. Coal and oil burning are restricted. New uranium deposits are being found only at depths of several kilometres, and uranium extraction from sea water, while promising a virtually infinite supply, is proving expensive. The fusion prototype reactors have had most of their teething problems fixed, but another 30 to 50 years is needed before commercial units will become viable.

“The various governments turn to their nuclear spent-fuel repositories, and begin to extract plutonium fuel from the material left there over two centuries ago. They are grateful that their antecedents had the foresight to entomb this valuable resource in a manner that isolated it indefinitely, and yet left it available for use by future generations.

“At the same time they are bewildered at how a people that so casually bequeathed a litany of other, far more dangerous, hazards and toxic detritus to its descendents -- perhaps understandable in an age of unprecedented industrial advancement -- could have taken the time to address the long-term disposition of this one toxic legacy. If only they had acted as responsibly in all sectors of their industry!”

Thank you, and keep up the good work.


Jeremy Whitlock

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