Norm Rubin is a full-time staff member for Energy Probe. This response appeared in the newsgroup run by the Peace and Environment Research Centre (Ottawa).

Wed, 01 Apr 1998 17:35:31 -0800 (Norman Rubin)
A Pro-Nuke critique of the Panel Report, from AECL's Jeremy Whitlock

Following is a letter to the editor by AECL CRNL staff person Jeremy Whitlock, about the HLW/FEARO report, released 98/03/13. For those unfamiliar with Jeremy, he's a Ph.D. physicist who works mainly on reactor-control issues (as I recall) and hosts a very informative and incredibly well-maintained web-site called "The Canadian Nuclear FAQ", at which, he says, gets a rather pathetic 16 "hits" (visits) per day. The text below is trivially edited from that web-site. I think I've got it exactly as it appeared in the [Deep River] North Renfrew Times, on March 25, 1998. His text on the web-site actually starts "To the Globe and Mail:", but I'm not aware that the Globe and Mail ran it. Did anybody see it in the Globe and Mail?

I'm reproducing it here, not because I agree with it, or even because it's unusually outrageous (though it IS a bit outrageous). Rather, it's one of the VERY FEW spots in all the media coverage that has correctly made a difficult distinction that the Panel HAD to make, and tried reasonably hard to make: the distinction between "acceptability" and "safety from a social perspective". The distinction is important BOTH to the present formal decisions by the panel, the gov't, etc., AND to the broader public issues and understanding.

In brief, the Panel's guidelines required them to answer two separate questions: Is the Concept SAFE? and Is the Concept ACCEPTABLE? They seem to have had no trouble concluding, unanimously, that the Concept IS NOT ACCEPTABLE. Re: Is the Concept SAFE? they were clearly divided among themselves (as was the testimony they heard), and they reflected that division by answering the question from two "perspectives": the "technical perspective" and the "social perspective". Both "perspectives" ask the same questions ("a" through "g"), but they come up with different answers. To the technical [mindset], they concluded that the safety of the Concept "has been on balance adequately demonstrated for a conceptual stage of development" -- a carefully qualified "go". To the "social perspective" [i.e., to a "normal" intelligent person who has been paying attention but hasn't lost every shred of common sense], "it has not".

NB that WHETHER OR NOT the Concept is judged "SAFE", they concluded that it is NOT ACCEPTABLE, apparently failing on all 6 counts of acceptability, "a" through "f". Unfortunately, the press release and background, and Blair's speech, all harped a bit too much on "a" -- "it must have broad public support". As a result, it's been easy for reporters and AECL-types to leave the impression that the Concept is perfectly acceptable except for the lack of broad public support. But it didn't just flunk acceptability criterion "a", it also flunked b, c, d, e, and f!

Moreover, it did NOT pass the "Is it SAFE?" test; it flunked -- with 50%. That last point was generally missed, but Jeremy understood it -- and hated it -- when he wrote this letter. (Incidentally, he pretends NOT to understand it AT ALL in the body of his "FAQ" on the subject: "The report concluded that the plan for Deep Geological Disposal is technically sound, and that nuclear waste would be safely isolated from the biosphere, but that it remains a socially unacceptable plan in Canada. The report makes several recommendations, including the creation of an independent agency to oversee the range of activities leading to implementation. The scope will include complete public participation in the process." I've searched the report electronically, to see if it really says "that nuclear waste would be safely isolated from the biosphere". The report never uses the phrase "safely isolated", and none of the appearances of the phrase "the biosphere" gives much support to the claim -- but that's Jeremy, AECL, etc., for you!)

Here's the letter, followed by my comments on it:

[ My letter deleted, to save space - JW]


NR's comments on the letter:

NB that Jeremy INVERTS the Panel's discussion of SAFE and ACCEPTABLE: The report is very clear that "safety", judged from both perspectives, is ONE of SEVEN criteria for ACCEPTABILITY. Jeremy suggests that they've done it the other way around:

"[...] the inclusion of this acceptability, by the panel, within the definition of "safety".

He also (intentionally) misunderstands the decision that the Concept is NOT SAFE from the social perspective, as follows:

"The more legally-minded [anti-nukes] have invoked our Charter of Human Rights, claiming that radiation dose, no matter how insignificant, and regardless of the direct benefits (e.g. clean electricity, cancer therapy), should be banned if an individual chooses not to be exposed to it, as a matter of personal rights. "

That "claim" is one I'd admit I'd make, though it's NOT based on the Charter, and it's NOT what led the Panel to conclude that the Concept is NOT SAFE from the social perspective! I don't think anything like this "claim" came up in any of the seven criteria for safety.

But the "best" part of the letter is surely this:

"The effect on human and environmental health, now and into the future, is a matter of scientific determination. How we may feel about those findings is equally important, but another chapter altogether."

To which it's hard to say more than "Wow!" -- but I'll force myself: The Panel, like many of us, was pretty clear that all effects "into the future" we're talking about -- 100s of 1000s of years into the future -- is NOT, at least at present, "a matter of scientific determination." That's like, kind of, the whole point, eh? And that's why the determination comes down to a dispute between "I don't trust the forecast, forecaster, etc." and "We've followed [today's] Best Professional Practices, and that's the best we can do, so let's drill the hole already!"

Norman Rubin

Peace and Environment Resource Centre