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Nuclear power called 'too risky': Expert opposes reactors, citing high cost, waste

Calgary Herald: Dina O'Meara - January 15, 2008

Nuclear energy appears to offer an appealing alternative to a world caught between meeting an ever-increasing demand for power and acknowledging the environmental impacts of burning fossil fuel.

Recent interest in building two nuclear reactors in northwestern Alberta has heated up the issue across the province.

Supporters point toward nuclear power stations generating huge amounts of power with a minimum amount of carbon dioxide emissions, one of the culprits blamed for accelerated climate change.

But Dr. Gordon Edwards, a physicist and mathematics professor at Montreal's Vanier College, disputes nuclear's claim of clean energy, and has been doing so for more than 30 years.

Since founding the Canadian Coalition of Nuclear Responsibility in 1975, Edwards has become one of Canada's foremost nuclear critics. He has worked as a consultant with the auditor general of Canada, the Ontario Royal Commission on Electric Power Planning, and the Select Committee on Ontario Hydro Affairs, Sitting Task Force for Radioactive Waste.

In an editorial board meeting with the Herald, Edwards argued nuclear energy is toxic from the front end of uranium mining, to the last chapter of disposal of nuclear waste, and added there hasn't been a cost- effective nuclear power station ever built in Canada.

Most importantly for the grandfather of eight, any increase in nuclear reactors increases the amount of weapons-grade plutonium and the possibility of nuclear terrorism. The following presents his views on nuclear power.

Q: With climate change at the forefront of a concerned public's agenda, what is your main concern about nuclear power today?

A: I think we've got to get off these habitual hobby horses we've been on. It turns out that fossil fuels are very damaging to the Earth's environment as we know through global warming, and that's a very serious problem.

But nuclear power also poses a very special threat to the human race because of the spread of nuclear weapons, and unfortunately they are inseparable. The reason they are inseparable is because the only two fuels for nuclear reactors are enriched uranium -- they are now doing away with the natural uranium -- or plutonium. Both of those are the key elements of atomic bombs.

Inevitably, as you spread nuclear power, you spread the capability of making these atomic bombs, and they are going to be made. That's my number one objection to nuclear power.

Q: But organizations like the Canadian Nuclear Association have argued the plutonium used in CANDU reactors isn't weapons-grade.

A: That is based on a misunderstanding of plutonium 240, and it's a very dangerous myth. The problem is plutonium 239 is what's called weapons-grade plutonium. When you leave the fuel in the reactor for a long time, you get an ingrowth of up to 40 per cent of plutonium 240, and the industry thinks that material is not suitable for bombs.

The misunderstanding is based on the fact that if you had your druthers between pure plutonium 239 or plutonium 239 with a mixture of plutonium 240, you'd rather go for the pure. That's a matter of preference rather than a matter of impossibility, and saying that it is unsuitable for weapons is extremely dangerous.

Q: You mentioned how refurbishment costs for Ontario Hydro's Pickering nuclear power stations more than tripled from original estimates of $800 million for four reactors to around $2.5 billion for two units because of safety and maintenance problems. What kind of cost issues do you see for Alberta?

A: This is really an important consideration for Albertans -- what is the ultimate cost of this? If you are going to be building nuclear reactors, you're going to be committing a certain portion of Alberta being a nuclear waste dump because nobody else will likely take the waste.

Dealing with nuclear waste is a provincial issue, not a federal one. That means (the province) would have to spend a lot of money on things like security, monitoring and develop expertise within the government to be able to deal with the radiation contamination problems after the

plant is finished its useful lifetime.

Consequently, one of the considerations the government of Alberta has to have is that this is not just business as usual. You have to look ahead and say that the siting of the plant is probably going to be where the waste is going to be, too. And, therefore, you have to qualify it for not only a nuclear reactor, but for siting a radioactive waste dump.

Q: Have there been studies that compare nuclear power costs to other generation, such as coal or natural gas?

A: It's the only energy technology which has a high capital cost at both ends. That is, it has a very high capital cost to build the plant to begin with and then a very high capital cost at the end to dismantle it. And we don't know how much it's going to cost to dismantle one.

Every significant study that I have looked at says nuclear is a marginal contributor to energy sources. The one that's really substantial is energy conservation and energy efficiency and renewables. That's what really makes big inroads. Nuclear power is too slow, too expensive and, I think, ultimately too risky.

Q: What is your message to Albertans who are watching the push for nuclear power grow in the province?

A: My message is 'don't just listen to the salesman.' Listen to people who have had experience with the industry, check everybody's claims, don't take anybody's word for granted -- don't take my word for granted, don't take the industry's word for granted.

I think Albertans should be concerned about having a white elephant. Not only a white elephant, but a dangerous and expensive white elephant. Nobody has been able to identify a concrete customer for these nuclear reactors. I believe what's happening here is that a desperate industry is trying to stampede Albertans into building reactors because what the

main object here is to sell reactors, not to solve energy problems.

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