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March 17, 2011

Japan: A meltdown coming to us?

Reuel S. Amdur

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As the world grieves the dead of Japan's horrific earthquake and tsunami, we are also learning firsthand about the vulnerability of nuclear energy.

But Reuters quoted Swiss nuclear engineer Robert Engel saying that “he doubted a complete meltdown is possible.”  He sees such an event to be unlikely. 

Should his doubts give us a sense of security, considering the possible consequences if he is wrong? 

When Chernobyl blew, radiation traveled thousands of miles and poisoned crops in Europe.  Huge land masses were tainted.

There have been nuclear accidents around the world, before and after Chernobyl.  Some of them have occurred in power plants, especially in the United States.

Japan is hyped as a model of safety-consciousness, yet before the current mishap there were loss of life incidents in 1999 and 2004, in two different sites.  Prior to the recent event, one source indicated that there have been 99 accidents in power plants.

Major accidents occurred in Russia in 1957, Siberia in 1993, and in Great Britain in 1957.  Hundreds died in each of the 1957 mishaps, and the 1993 incident was hushed up, so that the number of fatalities remains unknown. 

Well, surely Canada is exempt from these problems.  As a matter of fact, no. 

In an article in Maclean’s back in 1997, Jennifer Wells and her colleagues reported on inspections led by Carl Andognini, a US nuclear engineer, resulting in the shut-down of seven reactors and re-engineering of Ontario’s remaining 12. 

Radiation protection and control of radioactive materials, oil leaks, water leaks, broken gauges, and so on. 

So Ontario has just been plain lucky–so far.

Remember Linda Keen?  She is the former head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, cashiered by the Harper government for refusing to okay the operation of the reactor at Chalk River. 

Shortly after, the reactor had to be shut down when serious corrosion was found.  She was interviewed by the Globe and Mail following the beginning of the Japanese misadventure. 

She commented that she “found the nuclear engineers to be extremely optimistic,” and she saw the industry focusing on single potential problems, not on multiple disasters such as are plaguing Japan. 

So how are governments reacting to the Japanese events? 

None are calling for a halt to nuclear.  Among those not changing what they are doing are the US, Russia, Italy, Poland, Sweden, and the Czech Republic.

Germany is imposing a three-month moratorium on granting extension for facilities pending a review of events in Japan.

Finland will review safety standards.  Britain is asking for a report from experts. France, heavily reliant on nuclear, is not committing itself at this time. 

Turkey will go ahead with two plants, one to be built by the Japanese and another by the Russians.  Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. attempted unsuccessfully to sell them a CANDU reactor.  Turkey is in a quake zone.  Bulgaria is reviewing safety plans for its proposed plant and India is checking plants for safety. 

In Canada, Quebec and Saskatchewan are going ahead with their plans.  Ontario’s Dalton McGuinty said, “Ontario’s nuclear industry is an important part of Canada’s energy advantage.”  Half of the province’s energy is from nuclear.

Canada sold India a nuclear facility for peaceful energy.  India used the technology to build a bomb, and in reaction Pakistan decided to join the club as well.

Is it not time to call a halt? 

Granted, the risk of an event such as at Chernobyl or Fukushima occurring in Canada is very low. 

However, the consequences of an adverse event are so extreme that that low risk is simply not worth taking, especially in the light of ongoing problems identified in nuclear facilities, of the kind of gung-ho attitude identified by Linda Keen, and of political interference to overturn safety concerns.

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