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The Canadian Nuclear FAQ  

by Dr. Jeremy Whitlock


Published in the November 1998 issue of the Peace and Environment News (PEN), a publication of the Ottawa Peace and Environment Resource Centre (PERC), in response to letters to the editor regarding a previous article by the author, "Nuclear Energy: The Green Alternative", appearing in the July/August 1998 issue.

Nuclear Energy Green Again

by Jeremy Whitlock

The October issue of PEN carried two responses to my article "Nuclear Energy: The Green Alternative" (PEN, July-August 1998).

Jan Heynen questions my conclusion that the high energy density of nuclear fuel leads to a reduced impact from resource extraction. He raises the issue of uranium mine "tailings," but my point was that this impact is significantly less than if the uranium had the same efficiency as conventional fuels (including water, the "fuel" for hydro stations).

Heynen warns against comparisons between nuclear and fossil fuel waste. Indeed, you can and should compare them, and Ontarians are beginning to do just that as they breathe more fossil waste lately. Nuclear waste may be highly radioactive, but it can be easily isolated from the biosphere, while airborne fossil waste kills tens of thousands in North America annually. Again, my article was not about "zero" impact; it was about "less" impact.

Heynen disagrees with the concept of "recycling" nuclear fuel. This is not only possible; it happens routinely today. Plutonium is made in conventional reactors without expending extra energy, as Heynen suggests. Uranium, if it doesn't fission, simply turns into plutonium when irradiated. Moreover, this plutonium constitutes the majority of the long-lived radioactive products in the fuel—i.e., if removed to create more electricity, it leaves behind shorter-lived products (hundreds of years, rather than thousands).

Ziggy Kleinau accuses me of "keeping silent" about routine emissions from nuclear plants.

Quite the contrary, my point was that nuclear plants DID have an impact on the environment, but that the impact was much less than for any option today. In particular, the routine emissions from nuclear plants are less than 1 percent of the regulatory standard, and far less than 1 percent of the background radiation we are exposed to. In comparison, you can increase your exposure to background radiation by 100 percent just by moving to a different part of Canada. One thing I did keep silent about is the fact that a coal station leads to a public radiation dose hundreds of times as large as an equivalently sized nuclear station. There is no need for alarm since both levels are negligible, but the comparison is interesting nonetheless.

Kleinau commits a number of errors, including exaggerating the amount of energy needed to run a nuclear station by a factor of ten, but I am most concerned with his assertion that we can do away with large central generating plants and power our cities and factories with solar and wind energy at the point of use. I applaud Kleinau's achievements in self-sufficiency, but powering a home on the Bruce Peninsula is a bit removed from the problem of powering our industrial and urban centres. As I mentioned in my article, diversity is the key: we need renewable, fossil, conservation, AND we need nuclear power if we are going to meet our needs efficiently, cleanly, reliably, and economically in the future.

Jeremy Whitlock
Deep River, Ontario

Discussion welcome.

©1998 Jeremy Whitlock

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