Published in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix:
The current hype about Small Modular Nuclear Reactors (SMRs) is that they are safe, carbon neutral, emissions’ free, have no effect upon the environment or human health, have little or no waste and are essential to address the threat of climate change. Nuclear industry executives claim that these ingenious things can be built and running within the next decade.
No nuclear power plant has ever been built on time or within budget. What of the other claims?
Safety. In order to make this claim, the nuclear industry overlooks the effects of radioactivity on both the environment and human health. Catastrophic accidents are ignored. Who speaks for the children? Over 60 research papers identify an increase in leukemia in children in the vicinity of nuclear power plants.
Carbon neutral. Do claims of carbon neutrality include mining, refining, trucking, enriching, fuel rod manufacture, site construction, decommissioning, and waste management? To be fair, these should be included in other sources of energy as well, but enrichment itself is an unusually energy-intensive process.
Emissions’ free. Nuclear power plants release radioactive gasses as a regular part of their operations and sometimes by accident. Tritium is particularly noxious emission because it can be incorporated into every cellular function and structure in biological organisms. It is likely the culprit in the increased incidence of leukemia in children. Other gasses include krypton and radon. Minute amounts of cesium-137, strontium-90, iodine-131 and carbon-14 are also found in the released gas.
No effect upon the environment. Reactors that use water as their coolant return the water to the rivers and lakes at a higher temperature. A cascade of effects involves fish populations, algae growth and changed mineral content. The proposed SMR for Saskatchewan is a Boiling Water Reactor which will require coolant.
No effect upon human health. A prominent scientific panel in the United States which periodically reviews ionizing radiation and health stated in 2005 that “the smallest dose has the potential to cause a small increase in risk” of cancer in humans.
Have little or no waste. While the volume of waste may be small, it is not easily contained. Recycling, reprocessing and pyroprocessing are not simple processes, nor are they “clean”. Locations where they have been done remain extremely contaminated. (eg. Mayak in Russia and Hanford in the USA). Furthermore, the treatment removes only the plutonium which is an extremely small proportion of the waste.
Essential to address climate catastrophe. Nothing could be further from the truth. Countries that have avoided the nuclear energy money pit have been able to address their carbon footprint with new and innovated ways to provide their energy needs. The belief that it would provide “baseload” energy is a myth at best because it cannot be powered up and down in the nimble fashion required.
Up and running within the decade. SMRs are a new technology (or an old, discarded technology being brushed off for new sales) and, based upon the record to date, even less likely to fulfill this promise.
Why are the Canadian and United States governments pouring federal tax dollars into the nuclear industry? We are already committed to over $50 million and Premier Moe says the commitment will go to $5 billion! What is the attraction?
The “Nuclear Age” was ushered into being for production of atomic bombs. Nuclear power was an afterthought. With the USA and the UK “modernizing” their nuclear arsenal, we should not overlook the possibility that plutonium extraction is still the motivating factor. It is our tax money that’s funding this project. Is this what we want?