Anti-nuclear rage doesn't hold water

Times Reformer Simcoe Editorial/commentary: MICHAEL DEN TANDT - November 23, 2010

A nti-nuclear zealots are second only to animal-rights activists in their theological passion for the cause. Any hint that nuclear power may not be a force of evil turns them radioactive.

Still, it's surprising to see the venerable Sierra Club jumping on the anti-nuclear bandwagon with such mindless, hair-tearing fervour.

Aren't these a bunch of nice, mild-mannered folks in L.L. Bean pants and khaki vests? Apparently not.

At issue is a plan by Bruce Power, on the shores of Lake Huron near Kincardine, Ont., to ship 32 spent steam generators to Sweden for recycling -- 16 to start.

Sound simple?

It might be except that they weigh 100 tonnes apiece. And each has embedded within it a small amount of low-level nuclear waste -- four grams, to be precise.

Just how virulent is the radioactive material in each unit? According to Bruce Power, standing just next to one for an hour would garner exposure similar to a single X-ray.

That has been confirmed by nuclear scientists, by staff at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, and by the Medical Officer of Health in Bruce-Grey.

Mind you, nobody's likely to stand next to one of these monsters. That's because Bruce Power, dogged by the anti-nuclear lobby and its ignorant political enablers on various municipal councils around the Great Lakes, is certain to impose a maniacal level of security during shipment. Which isn't a bad thing.

The Sierra Club quotes a Dr. Edwards, of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, as saying that "an accidental spill will pose a serious long-lived contamination problem."

That's assuming, of course, that the freighter used to transport the generators will sink. Big ships sink on the Great Lakes all the time, don't they? The last one was the Edmund Fitzgerald, tragically lost with all hands on Nov. 10, 1975. It's almost a daily occurrence.

But let's assume the ship is doomed, no matter what safeguards are put in place. Let's assume the captain and crew are insane and sink it deliberately.

Even then, according to Dr. David Shoesmith, a University of Western Ontario professor who has spent the past two decades researching nuclear disposal, the level of radioactivity would be negligible. "Whatever contamination released from it would be diluted to such an enormous extent by the lake that it would be absolutely undetectable ... and would not do any damage," is what he said a month ago.

This isn't to say that it would be good for the generators to fall overboard. It would be bad, actually. But at the risk of stating the obvious: It is unlikely to the point of being impossible. And everyone involved in this, including the Sierra Club, knows it.

The real issue is precedent. The Bruce A refit requires that these generators be replaced. A Swedish company, Studsvik, has pioneered a method of recycling -- separating the 90% of material that is not even mildly radioactive, from the 10% that is. That suddenly makes nuclear power more environmentally sustainable.

That's not what the zealots want. They want no nuclear -- period.

This is an oddly irrational position for anyone living in a modern industrial society to take. Two thirds of the electricity consumed in Ontario, Canada's most populous province, is nuclear. We can't function without it. And nuclear power is carbon-emission free. But reason doesn't intrude on articles of faith.

When did environmentalism become a religion, with dogma as rigid and contradictory as that of the medieval Church?

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