Monday, July 22, 2024

Our way or the highway

If asked whether a side panel on the fuselage of a Boeing 737 Max 9 might fall off while the aircraft was in mid-flight, the manufacturer, the airline and even the civil aviation organization that regulates the industry would probably have said it is extremely unlikely. They might even have said that, with all the maintenance and double-checking of equipment that goes on, it is a virtual impossibility.
But last week, that’s exactly what happened to Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 out of Portland, Oregon. Fortunately, the flight had reached an altitude of only 16,000 feet when a section of the wall blew out, and was able to return to the airport without further incident. But had the plane been at its normal cruising altitude at the time, there could have been an entirely different outcome.
Also last week, Canada’s nuclear regulatory body decided to grant CNL permission to build a nuclear waste disposal facility at Deep River to house radioactive waste in perpetuity, saying that the project “is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects.”
A million cubic metres of radioactive material. Some of it deadly for thousands and even hundreds of thousands of years. In a mound just over a kilometer from the Ottawa River.
What could possibly go wrong?
One wonders what they think constitutes a significant adverse environmental effect. What level of risk are they assuming residents of the Ottawa Valley from Sheenboro to Montreal should accept.
Some are unsurprised by the decision to grant a green light to the disposal plan. Certainly, if Canada can’t find a place to dump low-level radioactive waste from its nuclear industry, how is it ever going to find solutions for its mid- and high-level wastes? And without the disposal problem solved, how can it continue with a nuclear program that generates the waste in the first place? In this context, this decision may well have been a foregone conclusion.
Asked why this matter is not being addressed at the political level, some politicians will tell you they are not nuclear experts and should leave it to the technical experts to decide.
But the technocrats must not have the last word on the public’s risk tolerance with respect to the possibility of radioactive substances finding their way into the Ottawa River over coming decades, centuries and millennia, or the implications for millions of people living along its shores for hundreds of kilometers downstream. They cannot speak to our willingness to accept the increased risk of cancer for generations to come. And they are not the right people to ask how all this affects the government’s claims of wanting to enter into a respectful nation-to-nation process of reconciliation with First Nations.
The factors requiring consideration go well beyond technical. They are inter-generational. They are ethical. This is an inherently political matter that must be resolved at a political level.
Yes, it is true that there is a radioactive mess on the Chalk River site that needs to be cleaned up sooner than later. And we share Pontiac MP Sophie Chatel’s disappointment that no alternative disposal solutions were brought forward for consideration.
But it has primarily been the Liberals who have been pushing nuclear power for decades yet have failed to come up with a coherent national strategy for the disposal of the industry’s radioactive wastes. So it feels a bit rich that, having painted Canadians into a corner, they are now pressing us to accept the only proposal on the table, one that is far-from-optimal, for the sake of expedience.
But if the politicians agree with the nuclear regulator that significant adverse environmental effects are unlikely, then maybe they’d like to consider Lebreton Flats, just down the street from Parliament Hill, as a fitting site for the disposal facility.

Charles Dickson


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