Wednesday, July 17, 2024
Fair Comment

Nuclear energy never will be ‘clean’

By Lynn Jones and Gordon Edwards

The 2024 federal budget contains many references to nuclear energy as a “clean” source of electricity. In our view, referring to nuclear electricity as “clean” is the height of absurdity.
The nuclear fuel chain begins with the mining of uranium from rock underground where, without human intervention, it would remain safely locked away from the biosphere. Uranium has many natural radioactive byproducts, including radium, radon, and polonium-210 that are discarded in voluminous sandlike “tailings” at uranium mill sites. These materials are responsible for countless thousands of deaths in North America alone. Canada has accumulated 220 million tonnes of these indestructible radioactive mining wastes, easily dispersed by wind and rain over the next 100,000 years.
Inside a nuclear reactor, uranium atoms are split to produce energy. The atomic fragments are hundreds of newly created radioactive poisons, most of them never found in nature before 1940. They make used fuel millions of times more radioactive than the original uranium. One used fuel bundle, freshly discharged, will deliver a lethal dose of radiation in seconds to any unshielded human nearby. There are hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste irradiated fuel bundles worldwide and the quantity grows larger each year. There is no operating repository anywhere in the world for such wastes, but there are several failed repositories.
Radioactive waste has the “reverse midas touch” turning everything it touches into more radioactive waste. This includes the nuclear vessel in which the waste is created, and everything that comes in contact with the cooling water needed to prevent the waste from melting down. Containers for radioactive waste become radioactive waste themselves. All radioactive waste must be kept out of our food, air and drinking water for countless millennia.
Radioactive atoms are unstable. They disintegrate, throwing off a kind of subatomic shrapnel called “atomic radiation.” Emissions from disintegrating atoms damage living cells. Chronic radiation exposure can cause miscarriages, birth defects, and a host of degenerative diseases including cancers of all kinds. Genetic damage to eggs or sperm can transmit defective genes to successive generations. Nuclear power plants routinely release many radioactive substances to the air and water even though there is no safe level of exposure to these emissions.
Plutonium is one of the hundreds of radioactive byproducts created in used nuclear fuel. It is of special concern because it is the primary nuclear explosive in nuclear arsenals worldwide. “Reprocessing” of nuclear fuel waste to extract plutonium is sometimes called “recycling” but this is disinformation; the resulting waste is more difficult to manage than the original fuel waste. Many serious accidents have occurred around the world at reprocessing plants. Places where extensive reprocessing has occurred are among the most radioactively contaminated sites on Earth. Plutonium can be used as a nuclear fuel, but extracting it is a nuclear weapons proliferation risk.
Managing radioactive waste is difficult and very expensive. The projected multi-billion-dollar cleanup cost for the legacy waste at Chalk River, Ont., is the federal government’s biggest environmental liability by far, exceeding the sum total of all other federal environmental liabilities across Canada.
The multinational consortium running Canada’s federal nuclear laboratories is receiving close to $1.5-billion annually, much of it for managing legacy radioactive wastes. The consortium’s plans include piling up one million tonnes of waste in a giant mound beside the Ottawa River and entombing old reactors in concrete and grout beside major drinking water sources.
These plans fail to meet the fundamental requirement to isolate waste from the biosphere and have been met with widespread concern, opposition and legal challenges.
Nuclear energy is not now, never has been, and never will be “clean.” The sooner our elected officials come to terms with this fact, the better for Canada and Canadians. Honesty is the best policy.

Gordon Edwards, Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, Montreal
Lynn Jones, Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area, Ottawa

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