Response to the article “Nuclear energy plays a key role in meeting Canada’s net-zero goals”

Authors David Billedeau and Nicholas Palaschuk are staffers of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and are certainly welcome to their opinions on nuclear power, but I challenge the two leaps of faith that they make about nuclear energy:

1. That small modular nuclear reactors are legitimate. You will discover that not one has been built if you have the patience to read the World Nuclear Association’s page on small modular reactors. No private investors have put money after them. Fantasy and government subsidies do not make a market.

2. That nuclear power is carbon-emissions free. To fulfill that claim, the industry has to incorporate the carbon “costs” of mining, refining, shipping the uranium to enrichment, in itself requiring the energy of a small city, shipping it back to the reactor, manufacturing the steel and concrete of the reactor, dealing with the waste and, finally, decommissioning, which produces even more radioactive waste. Protecting the environment from radioactivity at the mine sites and the tailings piles should also be added to the carbon cost of nuclear power. (A boiling-water reactor proposed for Saskatchewan will require enrichment, but not all proposed SMRs will. A proposed small reactor in New Brunswick from ARC Clean Technology will have different costs.)

Radioactive pollution is particularly noxious. It occurs at every step of nuclear energy production. Nuclear reactors are not emissions-free. They must vent hydrogen, mostly in the form of tritium, which is accompanied by other radioactive pollutants:  krypton, carbon-14, caesium-137, iodine-131 and strontium-90. Tritium and carbon-14 can be taken up by every cell in the human body, bombarding them with radioactive particles or rays.

In 1962, my physics professor cautioned a group of pro-nuclear students – of which I was one – that nuclear power “had some shortcomings.” We listened respectfully as he described the waste as difficult to contain and hard to accommodate. We thought of him as an “old fuddy-duddy,” unable to embrace our new and wondrous technology. We believed that the smart people who had split the atom would figure out how to take out the garbage.

They didn’t. They’ve tried for over 70 years.

The current idea is to abandon the waste underground in deep geological repositories. So far, not one is successfully in operation. Two have utterly failed at costs ranging in the billions – in Germany and Carlsbad in New Mexico. Finland, with its Onkalo respository, is the closest to having one be operational but it is having problems with the containers in which the waste will be packaged and has been criticized for siting it on the Gulf of Bothnia.

The industry talks about “reprocessing,” “recycling” and “pyroprocessing,” as if the product is denatured, environmentally friendly and that the waste has magically disappeared. Whatever you might think these processes are, they are not environmentally friendly.

I am completely in agreement with the writers that nuclear physics, energy and power should be included in our educational curriculums. We must include the ways in which ionizing radiation affects health. With a more educated public, we’d have a more honest discussion about the price we are willing to pay for electrical energy. Are we willing to have radioactive pollution for this purpose? Especially when there are much less harmful sources of energy to exploit? Who speaks for our grandchildren?


Dale Dewar, MD, FCFP, Wynyard, SK Friday, December 16, 2022