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The Canadian Nuclear FAQ  

by Dr. Jeremy Whitlock


Submitted to several Peace Country (Alberta) newspapers regarding a complaint by a local citizen concerning a previous speaking engagement by the author in Grimshaw, Alberta

(published in the 2007 Dec 11 editions of the Manning Banner Post and the Grimshaw Mile Zero News)

The following exchange between Grimshaw resident Jake Binnema and Dr. Jeremy Whitlock concerns a previous speaking engagement in Grimshaw on the subject of the ACR power plant proposed by Energy Alberta:

Dear Dr. Whitlock:

I attended an open house hosted by Energy Alberta in Brownvale in September. While there, a poster with bold but questionable claims about CANDU reactors grabbed my attention. One blatantly false claim stated that the record for CANDU reactors, worldwide, was that there have been "ZERO accidental release(s) of radiation" in "Five Hundred Reactor Years." (I found the same claim at AECL's website at www.aecltechnologies.com/images/up-CANDU-Global-Leader.pdf.)

Since you, a physicist from AECL, were at the meeting, I confronted you about this error and indicated that I have lived near a CANDU reactor and that there have, in fact, been leaks of radioactive tritium from CANDU reactors in Ontario. I went on to suggest that tritium, being a form of hydrogen, was dissipated into the environment as water and in organic compounds and would have been consumed by humans who may thus have suffered detrimental health effects.

In your reply, you did not acknowledge the error on the poster. Instead you speculated that low levels of ionizing radiation might actually be good for our health and that it might stimulate our immune systems. In fact, most experts in the field suggest that "there is no safe level of radiation."

I respect your point of view and your right to defend it. But I must admit that I came away from that meeting with deep concerns about the manner in which a CANDU reactor is being promoted in the Peace River community by Energy Alberta and the AECL. People are hearing flatly contradictory comments about nuclear power from the pro and con side. Some feel they don't know whom to believe. Based on what I saw and heard from you in Brownvale, I have good reasons not to believe the AECL and Energy Alberta.

Thank you,

Jake Binnema

Dear Mr. Binnema,

I apologize that my response to this question in Brownvale was insufficient. It sounds like I misunderstood your question to be about routine (not accidental) releases. Certainly there was no attempt to avoid the topic of occasional leaks at CANDU stations, since these are a matter of public record (each one, in fact, usually makes front page headlines), and if you look at my website, www.nuclearfaq.ca, you'll see I freely discuss this aspect of operations.

The poster you refer to did indeed contain an error, and once recognized, was pulled from further display. Fortunately, in both our oral presentation and in the handouts the correct statement appeared: "500 reactor years = zero accidents" (referring to the operational safety record).

This was probably a case of overzealous editing from a longer statement about there being no off-site impact from releases (routine or accidental), which is a fact. The releases we're talking about here pale next to what other industries and municipalities pump into the same waterways on a routine daily basis - both in terms of volume and toxicity - and CANDU releases only make the news because (a) nuclear is newsworthy, and (b) the information is readily available.

Tritium itself is considered to be a weak radionuclide, which is why Health Canada's drinking water limit for tritium (7000 Bq/L) is higher than most other radionuclides. Even then, you would need to consume at least 20 tonnes of water contaminated at this maximum level in order to equal your annual background radiation exposure (which itself is thousands of times less than levels causing known effects). And keep in mind, CANDU stations typically emit only 1% of their release limits, whether routine or accidental. In short, the effect is negligible - which is why it's permitted.

Radiation in the environment around a nuclear plant is measured routinely to ensure compliance, and numerous health studies of the local populations have confirmed the absence of any effect.

Moreover, to me the accidental releases are a positive story - i.e. it speaks to the effectiveness of containment that limited the off-site releases to these negligible levels. In fact I wish other industries had as many accidental off-site releases, with as much environmental effect, as the nuclear industry. The planet would certainly be much cleaner!

Regarding low-level radiation, you ask: "Is it not generally conceded among experts in the field, that "there is no safe level of (ionizing) radiation." The answer is an emphatic "NO". At background radiation levels (which are hundreds to thousands of times higher than the CANDU emissions, accidental or routine) there is simply not enough information to know one way or the other. Conservative safety practice, however, assumes a level of harm, but there is absolutely no evidence for this.

I also pointed out in Peace Country that low levels could even be beneficial to health, similar to many toxins at low-levels - an effect called "hormesis". This is supported by a large body of scientific study (e.g. mice exposed to low radiation levels are healthier and live longer), although we will likely never know since it is impossible to see any effect at these levels.

I hope this helps. Please keep in mind that I live in a small town outside Canada's largest nuclear laboratory, home to several reactors and other nuclear facilities. So when I'm in Peace Country discussing what can be expected from a nuclear facility, I'm describing what I choose to live with as well, backed by thirty years of immersion in this field of knowledge, and a professional and personal ethical standard.


Jeremy Whitlock

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