Nuclear Power: Exploding the Myths

And here is an excellent background article for everyone just starting to find out about nuclear:

reprinted from Encompass Magazine, March 2001

by Gordon Edwards

Nuclear power was once portrayed as peaceful, clean, safe, cheap and abundant. It was even described as miraculous. Disney’s animated documentary film “Our Friend the Atom” promised that nuclear power could end world hunger, eliminate poverty, and bring about an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity. For decades, the Canadian Nuclear Association distributed a public-relations comic book which concluded with these words:


“The benefits of nuclear radiation that we know today are nothing when compared to what we may reasonably expect in the future.

“Food may be preserved in its original fresh condition for long periods of time. Nuclear-powered ships may ply the oceans; trains may cross continents many times on only a few ounces of nuclear fuel; power reactors may help open up remote areas such as Canada’s North….

“In time it is possible that nuclear power may lead to temperature-controlled, germ-free cities, and a better life for all mankind.”

Today the rhetoric is more muted, but nuclear power is still touted as a saviour of sorts: it will save us from global warming, help us eliminate nuclear weapons, meet the world’s burgeoning energy needs. And Ottawa’s nuclear decisions remain as inscrutable and unaccountable as ever.

So far, Ottawa has spent over 13 billion (in 1997 $) of taxpayers’ money building dozens of nuclear facilities, paying thousands of salaries, creating entire towns to house workers, and spreading Canadian nuclear technology to India, Pakistan, Taiwan, Korea, Argentina, and Romania. Through all this, Ottawa never resorted to public consultation, parliamentary debate or any form of open democratic process. Public approval was taken for granted. It still is.

Jean Chrétien likes nuclear power. He doesn’t mention it during election campaigns. It can’t be found in the Liberal Party’s red book of promises. But M. Chrétien uses his office to back the Canadian nuclear industry to the hilt:

* At a 1996 G-7 Meeting in Moscow, Chrétien stunned everyone by saying that Canada favours the idea of accepting tonnes of left-over plutonium from dismantled nuclear warheads, to be used as fuel in CANDU reactors. The official rationale? “Canada has to play a role in nuclear disarmament.” Samples of weapons plutonium fuel from Russia and the US are now being tested in a reactor at Chalk River, Ontario. If the ambitious scheme goes ahead, Canadians will be responsible for all the high-level radioactive waste and residual plutonium in perpetuity; yet Ottawa has no plans for any form of public consultation on the fundamental policy questions — just pro-forma environmental hearings on the little details.

* M. Chrétien is an indomitable nuclear salesman. Since the banks won’t finance CANDU reactor sales, he ensures that the Treasury of Canada does. China was given one-and-a-half billion dollars of taxpayers’ money for buying a CANDU reactor. It was the largest loan in Canadian history, yet there was no procedure to secure taxpayers’ permission or parliamentary approval. Turkey was promised an equal amount if it would plant a CANDU in its earthquake-prone soil.

* M. Chrétien was reportedly furious to learn that Canadian law requires a complete environmental assessment for a publicly financed project like the Chinese CANDU. He and his cabinet ignored the law. The Sierra Club of Canada sued. Government lawyers refused to provide documents on technical and financial aspects of the project, saying they were not relevant, because no cabinet member had ever seen any of them. Apparently, the largest loan in Canadian history was based on nothing more than the say-so of Canada’s nuclear industry. Ottawa is now trying to stop the court from obtaining copies of other assessments that China may have done on the CANDU project.

* This fall, Chrétien’s cabinet launched a concerted effort to have Canada’s overseas sales of nuclear reactors accepted by other G-7 countries as a respectable strategy for combating global warming. In fact, the Chrétien government had done nothing to fulfill its 1997 pledge at Kyoto to reduce carbon emissions in Canada by six percent. Instead of apologizing, Ottawa is now saying that Canada deserves greenhouse gas credits for reducing carbon emissions by selling reactors abroad.

Despite all this, the nuclear industry is moribund. Not a single power reactor has been ordered in North America for the last quarter-century, and there are no prospects at all. In western Europe nuclear expansion has also ground to a halt; Germany, Sweden and Switzerland are phasing out nuclear power, and France’s aggressive nuclear program is at a standstill. Only in Eastern Europe and in parts of Asia are there any markets for nuclear reactors, and most of them require heroic financial incentives from the sellers.

I think the clearest indication that this industry will not survive is its dread of open debate, independent scrutiny, or public accountability. For over two decades, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited has had a policy of refusing to debate in public with knowledgeable critics. AECL frequently boycotts public meetings, as well as radio and TV shows where both sides of the issues might be adequately represented, in hopes that the events will be cancelled (which they frequently are). I like to think that such an industry cannot long endure.

Let us now turn to the main myths of nuclear power:

Myth 1. ”Atoms for Peace” and ”Atoms for War” have nothing in common.

Untrue. The Canadian nuclear program began as part of the World War II Atomic Bomb project. The first reactors at Chalk River were built, in part, to produce plutonium for bombs. Plutonium from Chalk River was used by the Americans, the British, and the Russians in their respective bomb programs. India’s first atomic bomb, in 1974, used plutonium produced in a clone of the Canadian NRX reactor. Israel’s Dimona reactor, which produces plutonium for that country’s nuclear weapons, is also a close copy of the NRX reactor.

Every régime that has purchased a CANDU reactor has had military ambitions of a nuclear nature. India and Pakistan are obvious examples. Korea and Taiwan had clandestine atomic bomb development programs when they first purchased Canadian reactors. The generals in Argentina wanted to make Argentina the first nuclear weapons state in South America, and Ceaucescu in Romania had similar inclinations.

Plutonium is mass-produced inside nuclear reactors. It doesn’t occur in nature — but, once created, it lasts for thousands of years. Operating a nuclear reactor creates a permanent plutonium repository. At any time in the future — thousands of years from now, or next year — plutonium can be separated from the spent nuclear fuel and used to make atomic bombs.

Recent reports from US weapons authorities have confirmed that any kind of reactor-produced plutonium is good for making atomic bombs. Indeed, the US Academy of Sciences pointed out in a study in November that CANDU spent fuel can be more easily used by criminals or terrorists to get plutonium for bombs than can spent fuel from other types of nuclear power reactors.

The threat of nuclear warfare, increased by the spread of nuclear explosive materials worldwide, is at least as unsettling as the prospect of climate change.

Myth 2. Plutonium extracted from dismantled warheads can be destroyed by burning it as fuel in civilian reactors.

Untrue. Nuclear warheads are rendered useless when their plutonium cores are removed, but there is no method for destroying the plutonium. This constitutes a serious danger. What’s to prevent the plutonium from being put back into the warheads, or stolen by criminals, terrorists, or agents of an aggressive régime, and re-fashioned into new nuclear bombs?

At present, all that can be done is to make the plutonium more difficult to access, and therefore less likely to be used in weapons. The method that is favoured by the peace movement is “immobilization”. Plutonium is blended with highly radioactive liquid wastes — there are millions of gallons left over from the weapons program. The mixture is then solidified into ceramic logs weighing two tonnes each. These radioactive logs are stored securely and guarded under international control.

Nuclear power proponents prefer a different method: the “MOX” option. Small amounts of plutonium are mixed with large amounts of uranium to produce a “mixed oxide” reactor fuel, abbreviated as “MOX”. MOX fuel is used in a commercial power reactor to generate electricity, and the irradiated fuel is stored onsite.

But the plutonium is not eliminated. From half to two-thirds of the original amount remains in the spent MOX fuel, still weapons-usable, posing a perpetual security risk. MOX is up to seven times more expensive than regular uranium fuel — even if the plutonium is free — so there’s no good economic justification either.

The MOX option is particularly dangerous because it packages plutonium as a commercial product instead of banning it as a dangerous material. Countries that have invested heavily in nuclear power — Russia, France, India, Japan — hope to use plutonium as the principal nuclear fuel of the future, ushering in a “plutonium economy”. In this scenario, tonnes of plutonium will be circulating annually in the world’s economy, and it will be easy for a criminal organization to acquire the few kilos needed for an atomic bomb.

Unlike the immobilization option, the MOX option runs the risk of stimulating a global traffic in plutonium that cannot be policed effectively. Plutonium gives off almost no penetrating radiation, even though it is extremely toxic when inhaled or ingested. Fresh MOX fuel is therefore easy to steal and smuggle across borders. A recent report from the US says that three men, working for two weeks with only modest resources, could extract enough plutonium from MOX fuel to make an atomic bomb.

Myth 3. Nuclear Power can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Untrue. Nuclear power is too expensive to build and too slow to deploy, and does not address the bulk of energy needs which are non-electrical. Studies show that each dollar invested in energy efficiency saves from five to seven times as much carbon dioxide as a dollar spent on nuclear.

The Royal Society of Canada’s 1993 COGGER Report (“Committee on Greenhouse Gas Emission Reductions”) didn’t even mention nuclear, which was near the bottom of the list of priorities. Energy efficiency was at the top.

It is true that nuclear reactors do not give off carbon dioxide. Neither does solar, wind, ocean thermal, wave power, micro-hydro, or most other renewable energy technologies. Bio-gas (biologically derived methane), though carbon-based, doesn’t add to global warming because burning it recycles carbon that was recently extracted from the atmosphere, whereas burning fossil fuels releases carbon that was locked away millions of years ago.

Studies conducted in the aftermath of the first oil crisis showed that nuclear power has little or no role to play in a rational off-oil energy strategy. “Energy Future”, the celebrated 1979 Report of the Harvard Business School Task Force on Energy, concludes that efficiency, coupled with judicious use of solar, is by far the most cost-effective strategy for achieving, swiftly and permanently, major reductions in primary energy use (and in greenhouse gas emissions, though the report didn’t have global warming in mind.)

President Carter created the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI) in 1979 and asked if the sun could satisfy 20 percent of US energy needs by the year 2000. The SERI report, “A New Prosperity”, showed the goal was in fact easily achievable, but the key was implementing a thorough cost-effective energy efficiency strategy. With lower consumption levels, solar becomes affordable and effective.

In Canada, Friends of the Earth coordinated an ambitious energy analysis, published in 12 volumes by Environment Canada and EMR, entitled “2025: Soft Energy Futures for Canada”. It concluded that Canada could, by 2025, support twice the population while using only half as much primary energy as was used in 1978, yet with three times the GNP. This would require no economic penalty, nor would it require curtailing energy use (much as that might be desirable). Due to efficiency gains, no increase in electrical facilities would be needed despite increased electrical use, and all nuclear plants could be retired.

Building an energy-efficient society goes a long way toward building an environmentally friendly and sustainable future. It is more work than just throwing money at energy megaprojects, but the benefits are enormous. It creates jobs throughout the economy, rather than focussing them in one industry. It sharply reduces our negative impact on the global environment. It makes communities more viable by keeping money in the local economy. It brings back hope in the future and sets a worthy benchmark for future generations and developing countries. The obstacles aren’t technical or economic in nature, but political and social. It should be our first priority.

Myth 4. Nuclear Power is Clean and Safe.

Untrue. Canada has 200 million tons of radioactive wastes in the NWT, northern Saskatchewan and Ontario, from uranium mining activities. The Wall Street Journal described such waste as an “ecological and financial time bomb”, and a Canadian environmental panel described one Saskatchewan site as potentially the most toxic waste dump in Canada.

Irradiated nuclear fuel remains toxic for millions of years. The nuclear industry estimates that a geologic repository will cost about 17 billion dollars. Money is now being put aside for the repository project, although a ten-year-long environmental review found unresolved safety and environmental concerns. For example, the radioactivity of the waste will heat up the bedrock, which won’t return to original temperatures for more than 50 000 years. Could this “thermal pulse” jeopardize the integrity of the repository?

The Atomic Energy Control Board reported to the Treasury Board in 1989 that catastrophic accidents are possible in CANDU reactors, and that it is impossible to say with any assurance that CANDUs are safer or less safe than other types of reactors. A 1976 British Royal Commission on Nuclear Power and the Environment pointed out that bombing a nuclear reactor with conventional bombs would be as catastrophic as a severe nuclear accident. Large parts of Europe might be uninhabitable today, the report said, if nuclear power had been deployed in Europe before World War II.

It is important for people from across the country to insist that nuclear power be phased out in Canada and that no public money be used to finance any expansion of this industry. The Ottawa-based Campaign for Nuclear Phaseout coordinates such resistance to nuclear development:, (613) 789 3634,

And for more information on topics related to the nuclear industry, visit the web site of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility at

Note of the editor:
The Ontario Association of Power Producers is likewise a very good source of information and lobbies the federal government to commit to competition in the supply of energy.

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