Greenpeace criticizes nuclear risk assessment

The Globe And Mail: Martin Mittelstaedt - June 26, 2008

Bruce Power's decision to ignore differences in plant design when assessing the risks of accidents and terrorism at new nuclear stations is deeply flawed, says a report commissioned by Greenpeace that has been submitted to federal regulators and is being released today.

The company has announced that it would like to build several new reactors at a site on the shores of Lake Huron near Kincardine, with three vendors in the running, each offering different designs.

But in an environmental assessment of the project, Bruce Power said it wants to have general risks at nuclear plants reviewed and not deal with the specific strengths and weaknesses of the types of plants proposed by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., Westinghouse Electric Co., and Areva Group.

"The plant designs under consideration by Bruce Power vary significantly in their safety and security characteristics," the report says. "Bruce Power proposes to provide a 'technology neutral' assessment of the potential for accidents and malfunctions. That assessment would not be credible."

Bruce Power defended its approach, saying it doesn't want to commit to a specific reactor design at this time.

"We're looking at all our options, and narrowing it down will come later," said John Peevers, a spokesman.

He said that once the company selects a reactor type, the resulting plant will be subject to licensing by federal nuclear regulators. "That's another really robust process designed to protect the public and safety," he said.

The Greenpeace report is one of the opening salvos in what is expected to be a major showdown between environmentalists on one side and the Ontario government and nuclear industry on the other over whether building new atomic power plants is the right thing to do. Ontario Power Generation, the government- owned electricity company, also has said it wants to build new reactors.

The province contends that new stations are needed to replace Ontario's aging fleet of atomic reactors and to help phase out dirty, coal-fired power plants. But environmentalists say nuclear power has catastrophic accident risks and is unlikely to be viable without major subsidies.

"Greenpeace's fear is that safety is being compromised and flawed reactors will be approved," says Shawn-Patrick Stensil, a spokesman.

The outcome of the dispute is important for the province because any new plants will cost billions of dollars and will lock the province into nuclear power as an electricity source for up to 60 years.

The Greenpeace report also outlined the many different types of terrorist attacks that nuclear plants may face, suggesting that an explosive-laden small aircraft is probably a bigger threat than a Sept. 11-style attack. It said that a used plane able to carry about a tonne of explosives can be bought in the United States for as little as $400,000 to $1-million.

It recommended that new plants "be highly robust against attack."

The study was submitted to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, which is seeking comment on the type of information companies need to release for public scrutiny in the environmental impact statements for their new reactor projects.

The report was written by Gordon Thompson, a U.S. expert on security risks facing nuclear power plants and executive director of the Massachusetts-based Institute for Resource and Security Studies.

The report looked at the three reactor designs under consideration and deemed the one from Areva as providing the most protection against a terrorist attack because of its 1.3-metre-thick containment structure and other defences. It deemed the Westinghouse design as offering the least protection, and placed the AECL proposal at an intermediate level.

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