Lawrence Solomon: Just a (nuclear) waste

(September 9, 2011) Canada’s nuclear industry is again plying the back routes of Ontario’s northlands, looking for a willing host in places like Hornepayne (population 1209) and Ear Falls (population 1153) for a multi-billion-dollar long-term storage facility for the country’s nuclear wastes.

Twenty years ago, the last time the industry made a concerted push to convince northern communities to accept the radioactive waste, the organization I work for, Energy Probe, helped community activists deep-six the plans. Today, some of those same activists of a generation ago again oppose plans to deposit the country’s nuclear waste somewhere in the vast Ontario wilderness. I am among them, but my reasoning has changed. Twenty years ago, I thought the wastes too risky to bury. Today, I think them too safe.

The wastes are bundles of spent nuclear fuel – more than two million of them – that had been powering Canada’s nuclear reactors over the last half century. To date and until a long-term waste repository is built, the spent fuel bundles have been kept at the reactor sites, where they have been slowly and safely cooling off in pools of water.

The federal government has long wanted to move the bundles to a massive deep rock facility it would build in the Canadian Shield, to protect Canadians from the risk it perceives: “the used fuel will remain a potential health risk for many hundreds of thousands of years. For this reason, used fuel requires careful management essentially indefinitely,” the federal government’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization explains.

But are those fuel bundles so dangerous that Canadians need a fabulously expensive infrastructure project – estimates for the project range between $16-billion and $24-billion — to babysit them indefinitely? An increasing amount of research into radioactivity has been coming that points to benefits – not harms – when humans, as well as other animals and plants, are exposed to low levels of radioactivity.

The surprising research comes from top universities and government agencies – the University of Nagasaki and the French Academy of Sciences, among them – and it includes some of the world’s top researchers – the University of Massachusetts’s Edward Calabrese, winner of the Marie Curie Prize, and Johns Hopkins University’s Mark Mattson, the world’s most highly cited neuroscientist. Among the studies’ findings: Workers at nuclear shipyards in the U.S. live longer and healthier than workers at non-nuclear shipyards in the U.S. and people who live in mountainous regions live longer and healthier than those who live at sea level.

Because researchers cannot use humans as guinea pigs in studies of larger exposures to radiation than experienced by the shipyard workers and mountain residents, most of the studies of relatively large exposures to radiation involved animals, but 10,000 inadvertent human guinea pigs for large exposures do exist – these are Taiwanese occupants of 180 apartment buildings that had unknowingly been built with recycled steel contaminated with radioactive cobalt-60. Because this sizable population had received large doses of radiation over a period of nine to 20 years, the scientists who studied them expected to discover a tragedy – the official radiation safety models predicted that the occupants should have suffered 302 cancer deaths, or 70 more than the 232 cancer deaths that would have befallen a like unirradiated population. To their surprise, the occupants suffered but seven cancer deaths over the period studied. This irradiated population also was spared many birth defects: Just three occurred, rather than the 48 predicted by the radiation safety models.

What exactly is the scientific basis of the predictions of harm that come from existing safety models? Amazingly, there is none. Decades ago, scientists decided to base their estimates of death from low radiation doses by extrapolating downward from the deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused by high radiation doses. No study has ever demonstrated that low doses of radiation kill. To the contrary, studies demonstrate that high doses kill and low doses cure, disproving the extrapolations.

Canada’s nuclear power industry – uneconomic from the start — has already cost Canadian taxpayers and electricity customers tens of billions in needless costs. It makes no sense to compound the economic harm that this industry has wrought by continuing a waste disposal megaproject that has neither scientific nor economic justification. The federal government should recall its Northern Ontario road show, spare the anti-nuclear activists the angst they now feel, and hold a Royal Commission into Radiation to bring public policy in this area into the 21st century.

This article first appeared in the National Post.
Lawrence Solomon is executive director of
Energy Probe and the author of The Deniers.

About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
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