Aztext Press

Life Off-the-Grid

Nuclear Waste in the Great Lakes

By Cam Mather

I once spoke at a conference in Tiverton, Ontario that is close to Kincardine where the Bruce Nuclear Plant is. The person who spoke just before me was an engineer from Bruce Nuclear. A woman in the audience stood up and asked the engineer if there was nuclear waste in the water downstream from the plant. She said that her daughter swam at the provincial park downstream from where Bruce Nuclear dumped its cooling water. The engineer admitted that yes, there was a small amount of radioactive tritium released in to the water but that the amount “was less than the background radiation in some parts of Iran.”

I thought that was a weird response. It was as if the folks at Bruce Nuclear had had to work too hard to find something to compare the radioactive levels to in order to make people feel better. They managed to find a place with higher levels but it seemed like useless information since I have no way of knowing whether or not this area of Iran isn’t sitting on uranium and its inhabitants glow in the dark. My concerns weren’t put to rest.

Then I found a study by Greenpeace conducted by a European nuclear expert on the radioactive tritium that Canadian CANDU reactors put into the Great Lakes.

I actually read the entire 100-page report, but the executive summary basically says pregnant women and children under 5 shouldn’t live within 10 km of a CANDU reactor. People who live near a reactor shouldn’t eat anything from their gardens. The report also stated that radioactive Tritium was found in my drinking water when I lived in Burlington since the city draws its drinking water from the great lakes. Radiation causes cancer and I don’t think we need radionuclide in our water. The releases from CANDU reactors are 100 to 1,000 times greater than discharges from other kinds of nuclear reactors.

In this crazy province of Ontario people protest just about every green energy project that is proposed… solar farms, wind turbines, hydro power – we just don’t seem to want green energy in Ontario. We like our nukes. We can’t see them and that makes us happy. Those of you who buy electricity from the grid might have noticed a line item on your monthly bill called “debt retirement.” This money is collected to pay for the nukes but few people notice the charge or know what it’s for. We as taxpayers pay for insurance on the reactors in case of an accident, and we pay to decommission them but nobody ever talks about those costs. It will supposedly cost more than $30 billion to permanently dispose of the waste that’s stored temporarily on site now but we won’t worry about that – we’ll leave that up to our grandkids to worry about. And how will we store it permanently? No one knows, no country on the planet has figured out how to or has taken steps to move forward on it. The technology that makes nuclear power also creates nuclear material that is used to make nuclear weapons. Suddenly those wind turbines are looking pretty good in my book.

Recently in the news though there are signs that perhaps some of us are waking up to the problems of nuclear power. Bruce Nuclear, which is a private company, wants to ship radiation-laced steel steam generators, with beta, gamma and alpha radiation, through the Great Lakes to Sweden for “decommissioning.” And not surprisingly, since 40 million North Americans get their drinking water from the Great Lakes, people are a little concerned. Apparently if there’s a risk of a big hunk of contaminated steel falling into a lake near your water intake, you get concerned. If it’s just a little tritium that floats by all the time, why worry? When they get to Sweden, they take 90% of the metals inside the generators and recycle it and then ship us back the 10% that is too radioactive to recycle. Then we get to pay to store the really bad stuff on site for the rest of its radioactive life. Tell me again why we have to ship this stuff to Sweden to do this? Why don’t we just build a radioactive steel recycling plant in the industrial park that you drive through on the way to the Bruce Nuclear plant? It looked to me like most of the serviced land was empty. Surely that would be cheaper than shipping it to Sweden and back and expose fewer people to a potential nuclear accident.

A spokesperson from Bruce Nuclear, which is a private company, was quoted as saying that as soon as the boat with the generators leaves their dock they have no responsibility for them. They’re used to shirking responsibility like this because taxpayers already pick up the liability insurance tab on their nuclear facility. Put up a wind turbine though, no way, the private company pays the insurance. It’s no wonder every time you see the President of Bruce Nuclear, Duncan Hawthorne on TV he claims that his nuclear plant makes the cheapest electricity in the province. Sure it does, taxpayers built it, taxpayers insure it, taxpayers will decommission it and taxpayers are building a new $700 million power transmission corridor to transmit electricity from Bruce Nuclear to the Greater Toronto Area. Not really a fair comparison is it?

Here’s the reality of nuclear power, plain and simple. It makes nuclear waste, which lasts for thousands of years. Some of this waste ends up in nuclear weapons. One of the most dangerous places on the planet is the border between India and Pakistan. They’ve had 3 declared wars and lots of skirmishes over the past few decades, and they are both nuclear armed. They made their nuclear weapons from plutonium created in their CANDU Nuclear power plants, which Canadian taxpayers underwrote. No one has ever created a nuclear weapon from a used solar panel or wind turbine.

So here’s my challenge to Duncan Hawthorne. I’ll go out and take any one of the solar panels off my tracker, and I’ll place it under my bed and I’ll sleep over top of it for a year. Or a decade for that matter. All you have to do it take one of those used steam generators and park it in your driveway beside your bedroom, and leave it there for a year. If you’re so confident that it’s safe to ship them through the Great Lakes, I’m sure you won’t mind sleeping beside it for a while.

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  1. Larry

    I think they’ve had a few leaks at Darlington too. 😦

  2. isaac

    I’ve been reading this blog from some time – though you’ve done a great job bringing our energy and environmental problems to light, the solutions you propose simply fall short.

    You speak as if wind and solar can replace coal/nuclear/gas plants, when they clearly can not. The electricity grid requires two forms of capacity: reliable base load (nukes, large hydro dams do this best) plants, and peaking plants which can be ramped up and down quickly as demand fluctuates. (gas/coal)

    The only good application I see for renewable energy installations are rural houses in areas where transmission lines can not be economically brought in and propane is used for the large heating loads.

    The capacity factor of solar in Ontario is only around 12.5% (3kwh per day on average for a 1kw system), while that of on shore wind is 25-30% at best. Worse yet, renewable energy installations can run near full capacity one minute and produce nothing the next, making them practically useless for large-scale use on the grid.

    The “green energy” advocates claim that renewables reduce the amount of fossil/nuclear fuel which has to be mined and consumed; however, even the best electricity distribution systems can not respond quickly enough to compensate for the sporadic output of wind/solar farms. The net result is wasted electricity production (redundant – fossil fuel plants have to run regardless of how much renewable energy is put into the grid) wasted money, and wasted natural resources.

    Environmentalists want governments to shut down coal and nuclear plants and replace them with wind turbines/solar panels. Since renewables have a poor capacity factor, getting rid of “dirty” power generation will mean squandering our dwindling natural gas reserves on inefficient thermal power plants, when the resource could be put to much more efficient use providing instant heat in domestic applications. Even the best thermal natural gas plants are only 35/55% (single and combined cycle respectively) efficient, yet the least efficient furnace I can buy on the market is 90% AFUE.

    Hydro and reliable offshore wind aside, “Green” energy sources are not environmentally friendly at all in grid-connected applications. Solar panels are produced using toxic heavy metals and silica which must be mined (using oil which has peaked and is in decline) along with petrochemicals; likewise metal for wind turbines must be mined too. (I wouldn’t want to live near a cadmium or arsenic mine more so than I would want to live near a nuclear reactor) downstream of a “Green” energy itself could just be a figment of the fossil fuel age.

    Grid connected users on the other hand can benefit much more so from basic energy efficiency upgrades which always deliver savings, unlike expensive solar panels – adding insulation, draft proofing, HVAC upgrades, lighting upgrades, etc. Since we’re still at the point at which the general public*** cares more about granite countertops/SUVs than energy issues, getting back to the basics is a better strategy.

    ***;I’m referring to the average person who has no clue and doesn’t care to learn how energy is produced, consumed or how much different appliances consume (the type who gets angry when you tell him/her that resources are finite, infinite economic growth is simply not possible, and energy is still too cheap in North America)

    I think James Kunstler was right when he said that (North) America is “blowing green smoke up it’s ass”; the notion that we can just “green” everything with feel good LEED certifications or tiny solar installations (which don’t displace petroleum as a transportation fuel or produce enough electricity for heating) while the status quo (debt based fiat currency, motoring, stock market growth, importing everything from china) gets maintained is indeed a flawed one. Placeboes can only get one so far.

    I’m far more concerned about peak oil/natural gas (gas especially) than CO2 emissions or nuclear waste, especially when there’s no technology on earth which can replace fossil fuels on the scale at which we use them for heating, transportation, food production (don’t forget nat gas fertilizer production), or manufacturing. Demonizing coal and nuclear energy while precious natural gas gets squandered on power plants or making empty promises to cut CO2 emissions isn’t a wise strategy. (I share this guy’s view on the topic – We need to just cut back, consume less (disengage from the “consumer” economy) and come to terms with the fact that institutions which suffer from “paradigm-inertia” (especially as it applies to complex energy/economic issues) will not react fast enough to “save civilization” from oil/gas depletion.

    6+ Billion people can not be supported without fossil fuels – we’re way beyond the natural carrying capacity of the earth; and yes, civilization will eventually collapse and there’s nothing one can do about it. I don’t want to see that collapse hastened by bad energy policy.

  3. Thanks Issac. I appreciate you taking the time. I agree with much of what you say and don’t delude myself into thinking that we can eliminate nukes in this province for baseload in the foreseeable future. What frustrates me is that the current journalistic norm in this province is to refer to “expensive renewables” Expensive compared to what? $26 billion for a couple of new reactors? Journalists have decided they can go to the IESO website and find that the current price of electricity is .6 cents a kWh and that this is the real cost of power in the province. Ignoring all the externalities like CO2 emissions from coal, this price simply doesn’t represent the true cost of electricity. And since we’re only servicing the debt on the nukes with our “Debt retirement charges” on our electricity bills we haven’t even started to pay the true cost for the system as we know it. If the cost to build those nukes, and insure them, and decommission them and permanently dispose of the waste was factored into that IESO rate, then maybe we could stop this totally inaccurate perception of renewables being expensive.

  4. The true cost of power is the answer. However, the economic formula must include environment and real value of fresh air, clean water and poison free food.

    As for the base power of the renewable, wind power is proven that it can be a base power, if the wind turbine distribution was designed properly. At this time the OPG rewards companies to use wind as a peak power, via financial incentives. That would have to stop.

    More people need to realize that we can not deploy any more nukes until a solution for the waste is found and proven. Otherwise, we really do not have a fully developed product. And too bad that this waste is used in Iraq by US as the waste dump for DU missiles with democracy wishes lasting thousands of years

  5. isaac

    Wind by it’s very nature is intermittent and can not be controlled; hence it can not used for base or peak power generation. (supplemental only, backup up by fossil fuel plants)

    If utilities billed for the true cost of electricity, it would probably be over $0.50-$1 per kwh – high enough to destroy the economy and get every politician in charge voted out of public office. (political suicide)

    Nukes can and will be deployed; however, the waste will have to be stored indefinitely.

    There’s no such thing as an environmentally benign source of energy and generating electricity is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to fossil fuel consumption.

  6. Phil, Ohio

    Makes you wonder just how much radioactive water is in the Great Lakes that has leaked from all the nuke plants on the shores?

    Radioactive water found near Louisa power plant (Virginia)
    Posted: Nov 02, 2010 6:17 PM EDT Tuesday, November 2, 2010 6:17 PM EST Updated: Nov 02, 2010 8:26 PM EDT

    By Melissa Correa
    Posted by Terry Alexander

    CHESTERFIELD, VA (WWBT) – Dominion says that radioactive water found in a groundwater sample is not a health hazard. It didn’t leak into Lake Anna. You shouldn’t be worried.

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