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The Canadian Nuclear FAQ  

by Dr. Jeremy Whitlock


To The Peace River Record-Gazette regarding information on nuclear power for Albertans:

(published in 2007 Oct 2 edition)

To the Editor,

I consider myself an environmentalist by nature, drawn to the nuclear industry by its small environmental footprint. I have worked as a reactor physicist for 13 years, raising three children near the nuclear operations of Chalk River Laboratories, as I myself was raised (being a second-generation employee of the plant). There is absolutely no way that I would be part of any industry that endangered my family, or other Canadians.

I often speak with the public on this topic. While accompanying Energy Alberta officials to nine communities in Peace Country over three days recently, I was pleased to meet many Albertans. While many were satisfied with our presentations, a number of concerns lingered and I'd like to address the top three here:

I personally feel that used-fuel management is one of the nuclear industry's best assets. Far more than any other industry (energy-related or otherwise) nuclear plants make the effort to isolate 100% of their dangerous waste from the environment, and to ensure this for thousands of generations - which is relatively straightforward due to the robustness and small volume of the used fuel. The potential also exists for recycling this fuel 100 times over (extending uranium resources virtually indefinitely), and in the process eliminate most long-lived waste products. There are many other human activities out there producing far more toxic and longer-lasting waste, and in this category I would include commercial garbage production.

Safety is number-one in the operation and design of a nuclear plant. Minimal radiation emissions from operation are routinely measured in the air, water, milk, and plants around a nuclear plant, and are typically less than 1% of the natural background radiation in our environment, which itself is less than 1% of anything known to cause harm. The public, quite simply, is millions of times removed from any real risk of radiation from nuclear operations, and incurs a greater radiation dose increase simply by moving to an area of higher elevation like Calgary or Banff. This is not theory, but the measured results from 60 years of reactor operation in Canada. Radiation is probably the most understood, and most easily monitored, substance in our environment.

Safety extends to potential accidents (expected and otherwise), as well as natural disasters and terrorist attacks. The starting assumption is that "things go wrong": humans make mistakes, computers malfunction, pipes leak and detectors fail. Safety is ensured through multiple back-up control and shutdown systems, rigorous training of personnel, strict oversight from the federal regulator (the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission), and a "defense-in-depth" approach that protects the public behind multiple barriers.

These barriers start with the robust fuel itself, designed to operate for up to two years in a reactor at high temperature and pressure, and contain all waste by-products. The fuel is not hazardous when shipped to the plant, cannot generate heat outside the reactor, will never explode like an atomic bomb, and does not generate plutonium that is attractive for weapons proliferators. The safety barriers continue through layers of containment and shielding, monitored by protection systems that are constantly tested. All safety systems have back-ups, and safe shutdown does not require outside electricity or human intervention. One of the final barriers is what I call the "what-if" building: a massive containment building around the reactor and all of its support equipment. These structures, among the strongest on the planet, are designed to isolate all credible accidents (including airplane collisions) from the outside world.

I hope by sharing these facts I can help others feel more comfortable about this made-in-Canada, world-leading technology.


Jeremy Whitlock

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