Radioactive Saskatchewan: nuclear power debate

The Carillon, Vol. 52, Issue 11 | Nov. 19 – 25, 2009

Decision time: Natural choice or dangerous risk?
(Co-written with Peter Mills and Dustin Gill)

The call has been sounded and battle lines have been drawn. Brad Wall’s government, uranium industry leaders, and former Greenpeace president Patrick Moore have all emerged in favour of exploring nuclear power for Saskatchewan, while environmental groups and consultation participants are strongly opposed.

Since the inception of the Brad Wall government, it would seem that the stigma of a nuclear-powered future has been hanging high over the residents of Saskatchewan. No matter what side of the debate you find yourself on, the implications remain the same for all – Saskatchewan’s future is changing, and what that future will look like will be determined by today’s leaders.

The concept is nothing new to Saskatchewan or the Wall government. Saskatchewan sits on the largest high-grade uranium deposits in the world, and numerous past governments have looked at ways to take full economic advantage of this vast resource. For years, Saskatchewan has mined it and exported it abroad to be processed and manufactured by other provinces, countries, and nations – designating Canada as the largest exporter of uranium in the world.

Making more of this resource seems to make good economic sense, but the immense costs and risks have long prevented Saskatchewan from making full-scale nuclear sites a viable option. However, possibly in light of our recent global economic strength, it appears that government and industry are taking a closer look at the possibility of a “value added chain” to Saskatchewan’s uranium industry, which would boost Saskatchewan’s economy by taking advantage of local nuclear fuel.

Of course, there are other economic arguments, as well as environmental and security issues that complicate nuclear power in the province. The proposal being made by Ontario nuclear contractor Bruce Power is for two 1,000-megawatt reactors, which would cost between $8-10 billion to commission, build, and certify over a period of 10 to 15 years. Construction would create 20,000 jobs. Despite its high price tag, nuclear power could certainly be a boon to the province’s economy.

However, the Saskatchewan Environmental Society (SES) has objected to nuclear power as an economic solution, arguing in a recent position paper that “experience shows that either high electricity rates or significant government subsidies are required to make the nuclear choice a feasible option.” The SES and many other government critics argue that renewable energy would be more sustainable, less risky, and ultimately create more jobs.

Dwain Lingenfelter, provincial NDP leader, discussed the nuclear issue in an interview with the Carillon on Nov. 15. He hopes to employ alternatives to fulfill Saskatchewan’s energy needs. “During my leadership run I made the commitment, and it’s generally accepted by the party – although we’ll have to go through the policy review – to move our province to 50 per cent renewable [energy] by the year 2025. We think that is doable by using wind for up to about 20 per cent of the power produced by SaskPower. Conservation will be included in that.”

Lingenfelter argues in favour of more research and careful consideration before making massive financial commitments. “Make the decision based on the science of the environment, and the science of the economy, rather than on some emotional knee jerk reaction,” he said.

Environmentally, nuclear power is a mixed bag. While it is carbon-neutral, it produces byproducts and risks, and any debate must attempt to strike a balance between these two factors. Fears of meltdowns, accidents, and terrorism are also questions that must be addressed before any conclusion on nuclear power can be reached.

The debate seems to have turned against the government in recent months. The release in September of a government-commissioned independent report by veteran civil servant Dan Perrins indicated an “overwhelming” rejection of nuclear power by those who participated in a 16-week consultation process. Perrins made a number of recommendations to the government, calling for openness, discussion, and disclosure. With Perrins’ report, and recent reticence by the government and Bruce Power on the question of moving forward on an official proposal, Saskatchewan’s nuclear future is by no means certain.

Meltdowns, attacks unlikely: Real risks less dramatic, still deadly

Nuclear power is scary. Even if you ignore the spectre of nuclear apocalypse that loomed over the Cold War, the idea that deadly materials at the heart of a mysterious, extremely complex machine can generate electricity is difficult to swallow. With these fears, it’s easy to overstate the risks of nuclear power, and imagine that our future will consist of three-eyed fish and radiation poisoning. However, nuclear power is not a game of Russian roulette. There are many shades of grey between safety and meltdown, none of which are pleasant.

It’s important to understand that a thermonuclear explosion in a power plant is impossible, since such explosions are the products of atomic fusion, while nuclear reactors harness radiation to heat water into steam. The danger is from the radioactive material itself.

According to the Saskatchewan Environmental Society, “if even one percent of the fission product material inside a reactor were released into Saskatchewan’s environment, it would be catastrophic, making vast land areas unfit for living or farming due to radioactive contamination.”

Patrick Moore, the former president of Greenpeace Canada and founder of Greenspirit, an environmental consultancy firm, argues that the chief fears of Saskatchewan residents, namely nuclear waste, meltdowns and terrorist proliferation, are not likely to happen or cause damage. This is true to some extent. While the risk of a meltdown is highly overrated, there are other risks that are less dramatic but more likely. Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are typically held up as nightmare scenarios, but the likelihood of either happening in Saskatchewan is extremely low. Three Mile Island occurred due to poor training for reactor operators, which led them to misinterpret the information that sensors were providing, while Chernobyl was the product of serious structural deficiencies and shoddy Soviet engineering. There were seven unintentional partial core meltdowns between 1951 and 1969.

While the province may not be consumed by clouds of radioactive dust, the potential for leaks, fires, and contamination is more likely. There have been several civilian nuclear accidents in each decade since the 1950s, which amount to a disturbing pattern of minor irregularities. While the rarity of dramatic events may offer reassurance to nuclear advocates, there still remain serious risks that are part of the nuclear norm.

Fears of a terrorist attack have also energized the nuclear debate. While a direct attack upon a nuclear power plant would be the stuff of movies rather than real life, the nuclear fuel chain is a viable target for terrorists. Depleted uranium, the byproduct of the enrichment process, is useful in the creation of dirty bombs: explosive devices that spread radioactive material across a wide area. Again, while this would not be as dramatic as a meltdown, the results would be similarly disastrous.

Needless to say, the human and economic costs of any one of these scenarios would be catastrophic and far-reaching. These fears may be reduced by the presence of careful technical oversight and a well-funded, well-equipped security regime that supervises and regulates every stage of the fuel transfer process. However, if the benefit of nuclear energy would be to reduce Saskatchewan’s carbon footprint, it’s worth wondering if all of these risks and costs are higher than those of alternative energy sources.

Full Feature Credits
Written by Alex Colgan, Dustin Gill, Peter Mills, and Jennifer Squires
Photos by Tyler Dekok, aliciapatterson.org, boston.com, digitaljournal.com, leaderpost.com, and ucsd.edu

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