Ottawa Citizen Online

Monday 16 June 1997

Hard to fight nuclear nonsense

Jeremy Whitlock

In my June 4 letter I urged common sense when dealing with issues involving radiation. This advice has gone unheeded, if the three letters of June 9 are any indication.

Dave Taylor, of the Concerned Citizens of Manitoba, writes that nothing is acceptable short of "zero emissions." Beyond the fact, established by a scientific committee of the United Nations (UNSCEAR), that there is no evidence of any health effect of low-level exposures to radiation, this demand is peculiar in that Mr. Taylor himself emits radiation (from natural sources in his body). Surely we can come to a compromise based on common sense.

Kelly O'Grady, of the Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County, compares Chalk River Laboratories with the Hanford site in Washington State, a massive weapons-plutonium production site with severe contamination problems, mostly stemming from decades of improper treatment of its cold-war reprocessing waste. Ms. O'Grady is certainly entitled to question the operations of the Chalk River lab upriver from her, but the disposal activities at Chalk River are minor in comparison with Hanford, and the debate should not be needlessly diverted for rhetorical purposes. For the same reason, it is unfortunate that the CCRC Web site speaks freely of "quadrillions of becquerels" of radiation, while ignoring the one important criterion: the effect on the environment and its denizens downstream. As my June 4 letter indicates, we're talking about extremely small concentrations of radiation here, especially in comparison with the background levels in the river itself.

Norm Rubin, of Energy Probe, while incorrectly characterizing AECL employees as "former weapons designers," and incorrectly attributing most background radiation in water, milk, and beer to weapons fallout, does appear to agree with my calculations. However, he then takes the philosophical stand that, even though the effect on both the environment and our health is insignificant, we should oppose the operations at Chalk River, simply because we don't like them.

In particular, Mr. Rubin accepts the one-per-cent risk of contracting cancer from background radiation in the world around us, but rejects any "greater" risk due to Chalk River's operations -- neglecting to state that this "greater" risk is both insignificant and unmeasurable, as is the one-per-cent risk from background radiation in the first place.

There is no argument against emotion, so I submit my own philosophical stand: that I and many other citizens of this planet do choose to accept such minor increases in risk, for the benefits of nuclear power (as an example, anyone in the world who has ever had a nuclear-medicine treatment has likely benefited from the daily operations at Chalk River).

Since our two philosophical stands are obviously incompatible, the solution must come from sober judgement of the societal risks and benefits, and not from who shouts the loudest. Again, I urge concerned citizens to find out more about radiation, from credible, scientific sources.

Jeremy Whitlock, Deep River