Nukes | nik harron Illustration by nik harron. Photo by Spacekris \ Fotolia.com

Dr. Linda Harvey says nuclear power is dangerous every day, not just when disaster strikes.

Any form of electric power could be considered clean and green if you only look at what happens after it enters the grid for distribution. Nuclear power is often afforded this privilege.

Reasons for this are partly political and partly biophysical. Ionizing radiation, the main medical and environmental scourge of the nuclear industry, often exerts its visible effects years, decades or generations after the original exposure, making it easy to downplay, discount or deny.

Radiation is not kind to living tissue. Any of the forms of radiation given off by uranium-235 (the isotope used for energy generation) and its decay products, including uranium split in a nuclear reactor or in spent fuel, can rip through a cell and damage any component of that cell, including the DNA, carrier of the cell’s genetic information. Damage to DNA can begin the process leading to cancer. Damaged DNA in a reproductive cell, an egg or sperm, can be passed on to the next generation if the offspring live. This damage is cumulative over generations if the environment remains contaminated.

The nuclear industry not only digs up and distributes buried natural radioactivity while mining uranium, it renders the uranium hundreds of thousands of times more radioactive by the process of nuclear fission in currently operating power-generating reactors. The waste it leaves is fiercely radioactive and must be segregated from all biological organisms for thousands of years.

These activities, particularly the mining, milling and reactor-construction phases, are also extremely fossil fuel intensive – there is no substitute for diesel-driven heavy machinery – releasing copious amounts of greenhouse gases when the climate can least afford it.

And uranium, just like fossil fuels, is in finite supply. Reasonably assured reserves of uranium in the world as of 2013 are at 3,698,900 tonnes, and estimated annual reactor requirements worldwide are 59,270 tonnes. At this rate of usage, reserves will last a little over 60 years – less if we ramp up nuclear power generation.

Radioactive contamination has not been responsibly contained by the industry. When uranium is removed from ore, 85 per cent of the radioactivity in the original deposit is left behind as tailings. Since these are now on the Earth’s surface in finely crushed form, they are free to migrate, to leach through water, blow away, be absorbed by plants, be eaten and find their way into human living spaces. Containing tailings is not easy and the list of documented spills and dam failures is long. After the Serpent River was diverted by a breached containment wall at a mine near Elliot Lake for a period in 1975, an official report found “no living fish in the entire river located downstream from the mining wastes.”

Levels of tritium, a radioactive by-product particularly of Canadian CANDU reactors, have been increasing in Lake Ontario and elsewhere. Increases in childhood leukemia have been detected near some European reactors. Lung cancer is well-known in uranium miners, and more recently hints of genetic damage have also been found.

Both tritium and plutonium, another reactor by-product, are required for making nuclear weapons and carry a proliferation risk.

Then, there are the accidents that come with the nuclear industry. Apart from innumerable poorly publicized “incidents,” the major ones are Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. Chernobyl has by some estimates resulted in up to 800,000 premature deaths. It has left parts of eastern Europe heavily contaminated and contributed to serious health issues among people living in these areas. Fukushima is on a similar track and has released unprecedented volumes of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean.

There is nothing sustainable about destroying an element (uranium-235), damaging the human genome and contaminating parts of the globe for centuries.

 

Asthma Society president Robert Oliphant says nuclear lets us wean ourselves off fossil fuels.

The OECD, Scientific American and NASA’s James Hansen have argued that the world must add nuclear capacity if it wants reliable, sufficient, carbon-free energy. It’s also the healthier way to go.

Air is necessary to life, but fossil fuels turn it into a health hazard. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 3.7 million people die annually from outdoor air pollution, mainly from the burning of fossil fuels. “Few risks,” Dr. Maria Neira of the WHO has said, “have a greater impact on global health today than air pollution; the evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe.” The Canadian Medical Association estimated that air pollution cost Canada $8-billion in 2008 – an annual cost adding up to over $250-billion by 2031. With hotter, muggier conditions, people with asthma and other respiratory problems will suffer more and die earlier.

In Ontario, however, air quality has improved. The province experienced zero smog days in 2014, compared to 53 in 2005. Some credit goes to a cooler-than-usual summer. But while in 2005 coal supplied nearly 30 per cent of Ontario’s electricity, it now supplies none. Instead, nuclear stations generated 58 per cent of the province’s power in 2013. A consultant’s report to the province estimated in 2005 that dropping coal from Ontario’s power-generating mix would eliminate roughly 1,000 ER visits and more than 900 hospital admissions a year, at an annual savings of $2.6-billion in healthcare costs.

It takes fossil fuel to build a nuclear plant but virtually none to operate one. A research review funded by the Canadian Nuclear Association concluded that lifetime emissions from nuclear power were on par with those from wind.

Uranium is a finite resource, but unlike other non-renewable fuels, it can be reprocessed and reused. Additionally, it is fear, not the engineering challenge, that blocks waste disposal in secure geological sites.

The spectacular meltdown of the primitive Chernobyl nuclear plant may, by the most inclusive reckoning, have contributed to as many as 800,000 premature deaths since 1986. Air pollution causes that many deaths, worldwide, every three months.

There is no perfectly “safe” energy. Renewable technologies – hydro, solar and wind – create environmental impacts and suffer intermittent output. But the costs of nuclear power need to be weighed with a more honest appraisal of its benefits.  

Dr. Linda Harvey is a retired family physician in Ontario and past president of Physicians for Global Survival. She has a personal interest in radiation and health stemming from events involving her own community. 

Robert Oliphant is the president and CEO of the Asthma Society of Canada, a national health charity advancing the interests of Canadians with asthma and respiratory allergies through research, education and the promotion of clean indoor and outdoor air. 

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