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The Canadian Nuclear FAQ  

by Dr. Jeremy Whitlock


To The North Renfrew Times regarding a response letter to the editor published the previous week (appended below) regarding the proposed Near Surface Disposal Facility (NSDF) at CNL Chalk River Laboratories.

(published in the 2020 January 29 edition)


More harm than good

To the Editor,

Re: “Basic scientific facts?” (letter by G. Edwards, NRT January 22).

Mr. Edwards continues to dangerously misinterpret the facts of radiation.

“Dangerous” because, while misinterpretation of this complicated topic is understandable, wilfully spreading this misinterpretation incites fear of good technology that - on a societal scale - leads to increased death and disease.

The fact that something emits radiation, even cobalt-60, does not make it lethal. The hazard is determined by the dose, which in turn is determined by many factors including (but not limited to) concentration.

As an example, the human body contains trace but essential amounts of cobalt, a portion of which will be radioactive cobalt-60. This cobalt- 60 is created by interaction with the neutrons emitted from our bodies every second, as well as elsewhere in the vicinity – part of the natural background radiation that surrounds us.

By Mr. Edwards’ logic we should classify ourselves as high-level radioactive material, and graveyards as nuclear megadumps.

The human body also contains very long-lived radionuclides, born in stars billions of years ago, that emit alpha particles, beta particles, and gamma rays which our body absorbs.

Every second of our lives roughly 10,000 atoms inside each of us radioactively decay this way, including cobalt-60 and uranium (but mostly carbon- 14 and potassium-40).

This energy is natural and safe, even though it comes from the same elements used to zap cancer, sterilize surgical equipment, and run nuclear reactors. We are part of nature’s energy.

There are experts in this country that know how to distinguish between dangerous and low levels of radioactivity.

They work at sites like Chalk River Laboratories, and at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission which is responsible for our safety and the protection of the environment.

Mr. Edwards is not one of these experts, and his actions cause more harm than good.

Jeremy Whitlock
Vienna, Austria

Original letter to North Renfrew Times (2020 January 22) from Mr. G. Edwards:

Basic scientific facts?

Re: “Fear-mongering” & “No harm, no foul,” letters to the editor, NRT January 15.

Two giants of Canada’s nuclear establishment, J. Whitlock and K. Chaplin, apparently cannot manage to debunk criticisms of CNL’s proposed megadump at Chalk River except by standing science on its head.

Mr. Whitlock claims that cobalt-60 is low-level waste because “it doesn’t require heavy shielding,” and Mr. Chaplin pretends that long-lived radioactive materials with thousand-year half-lives are harmless.

These statements are incorrect. Cobalt-60 contaminated equipment can deliver lethal doses of gamma radiation in a short time unless carefully shielded.

Ontario Power Generation’s reports that a single irradiated pressure tube from a CANDU reactor can give a contact dose of 850 rems per hour, providing a lethal dose in half an hour; and from an irradiated calandria shell OPG estimates a contact dose of 49,000 rems per hour, giving a lethal dose in half a minute.

These doses are mainly due to gamma rays emitted by cobalt-60.

Cancer patients undergoing cobalt-60 radiation treatment have occasionally been killed by a failure to regulate the gamma dose delivered by the cobalt-60 source in the machine: see .

As for long-lived radioactive materials, in the first half of the 20th century hundreds of people died from handling and sometimes ingesting minute quantities of radium-226, a natural radioactive byproduct of uranium with a 1,200 year half-life.

Bone cancers, fatal anemias, and head cancers were documented illnesses resulting from radium exposure.

Radium is now regarded as far too hazardous to be used in a commercial setting; it is mostly dumped as radioactive waste in the voluminous sand-like uranium mill tailings.

Plutonium-239 has a half-life that is 20 times longer than that of radium (ie. 24,000 years) yet it is regarded by the US National Academy of Sciences as approximately five times more hazardous than radium (BEIR-IV Report).

Hundreds of human-made radioactive materials have been created as a result of the nuclear industry, but the long-term management of these wastes is ultimately a societal problem, not just an industry problem.

Most of these materials have natural background levels of ZERO.

It is also incorrect that beta and alpha radiations can be easily measured, even though they are often more harmful than gamma rays.

Hundreds of atomic workers at Pickering and Bruce were contaminated with carbon-14 dust and plutonium-contaminated dust due to a failure of routine radiation monitors to detect these materials.

Canadians deserve truth and frankness, not evasiveness and denial on this subject.

Let’s all try to respect the basic scientific facts.

Gordon Edwards

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