Published on
the Calgary Sun/Canada

Nuclear Not the Answer

Bill Kaufmann

The world's most recognizable anti-nuclear activist has just landed in Calgary and could still barely believe the news.

Alberta, with an already well-deserved dismal international environmental reputation, was seriously flirting with nuclear power.

"You're crazy to countenance their construction," says Dr. Helen Caldicott of Bruce Power's plans to build four huge third-generation nuclear reactors that would inevitably export power to places such as California, which has ruled out any more such plants themselves.

"You get the waste, the exposure to radiation and they get the electricity."

Bruce Power CEO Duncan Hawthorne has said any unease among Albertans over nuclear energy is due to a lack of knowledge.

Caldicott agrees -- that if Albertans truly knew the myriad downsides to the industry, they'd be far beyond uncertain.

Her latest book, Nuclear Power is Not the Answer, is a potent primer for those who thought the industry's only risk was a reactor meltdown.

There's the routine venting and accidental leakage of radioactive agents from working reactors "so utility operators can decrease the intensely radioactive environment maintenance workers must enter," writes Caldicott.

When it's not the conventional fugitive radiation, there's the escape of so-called noble gases with comic book handles such as krypton and xenon.

While the nuclear industry insists such gases are relatively benign, "they actually decay to daughter isotopes, which themselves are very chemically active," states Australian medical doctor Caldicott.

The mining and processing of uranium has proven not only hideously deadly to its extractors and surroundings, it's a significant expender of greenhouse gas emissions, as is the construction of the plants and transportation of waste.

And if there's a finite resource, uranium is its very definition.

If all the world's electricity was nuclear-generated, the supply of accessible uranium would be exhausted in nine years, says Caldicott.

As the purity of uranium veins dwindle, far more fossil fuels are burnt to retrieve them.

Breeder reactors can produce fuel, but also heighten the chances of accidents and the proliferation of plutonium used in nuclear weapons.

Not only is longer-term storage of nuclear waste a costly conundrum, the warehousing of extremely radioactive fuel rods at plant sites, in so-called swimming pools, are invitations to terrorist attacks and accidents.

Dismantling the radioactive plants at their lives' end is a dangerous, involved process.

And Alberta taxpayers can be sure they'll pay through the nose, either through almost inevitable government subsidies or electricity rates passed on by utilities to cover exorbitantly expensive upkeep.

In 2005 alone, the U.S. Congress earmarked $13 billion for this heavily socialized industry.

Nuclear proponents insist the generation III reactors proposed for Alberta are less hazardous than older variants, but critics counter they're an amalgam of their predecessors.

"They say the new reactors are safer, but they haven't built anything," adds Caldicott.

In short, even if everything went according to plan in Peace River, the costs and headaches posed by nuclear power hardly seem worth the trouble.

Especially so when that gargantuan investment could be channelled to mass production of clean, safe and proven renewable energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal.


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