The video is below along with a print version for those who are hard of hearing or who just prefer to read at their own pace . This was also published in the excellent DiaNuke
Hi, I’m Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility.
I grew up here in Toronto. My dad was a pharmacist and I went to the University of Toronto and graduated in Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry (MPC) with a gold medal in mathematics and physics.
At that time, I thought nuclear power was great because the only thing I knew about it was it was safe, clean, cheap and abundant, and as a result I thought, “Hey, this is great. It’s going to save the world.” And in fact that was how it was presented in high school at that time. That was back in the 1950s. But when I graduated from university, I discovered that none of these adjectives were in fact true. It is actually one of the dirtiest technologies that we know.
It creates the most dangerous waste of any industry, ever, on the face of the planet. This waste is indestructible and remains dangerous for literally millions of years, and we don’t know what to do with it except to bury it somewhere and hope that it won’t get out. That’s not a very good recommendation for a technology.
Secondly, it can undergo, as we’ve seen at Chernobyl and Fukushima, it can undergo catastrophic failures, and the reason this happens is fundamental. It is because you cannot generate electricity with uranium, without simultaneously generating huge quantities of radioactive poisons. These radioactive poisons are all, you might say, transmutations of the uranium atom.
For example, people have heard about Fukushima. They’ve heard about the poisons that have come out of that: the cesium-137, the iodine-131, the strontium-90, the krypton-85, the plutonium-239. What people don’t always realize is that every one of these elements started off as a uranium atom, and most of that uranium came from Canada. In fact, it came from Saskatchewan, went over to Japan, was used as fuel, and was transformed into literally hundreds of different highly radioactive poisonous materials, which are then spewed out in the event of the accident, and are still leaking today from the reactor. They are still pumping – this is four and a half years after the accident – they’re still pumping almost 400 tons of water a day down into the cores of those melted reactors, the three melted reactors, and then back up to the surface again. By the time it gets to the surface it is saturated with these radioactive materials. The water is so radioactive it can’t be released, so they’ve stored it in 1,500 tanks, huge tanks, each one containing about 300 tons, and they are building more every week because they need them.
And so this is the legacy of the nuclear industry. Now here in Ontario, and here in Canada, we got started into this project through the World War II atomic bomb project. Canada was one of the three countries involved in the project to develop the world’s first atomic weapons. In fact there was an agreement signed in Quebec in 1943 between President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill at the invitation our prime minister, Mackenzie King at the time, for these three countries to cooperate in building the world’s first atomic bombs. The reason why Canada was involved is because we had uranium. Uranium is the key material for all nuclear weapons. There wouldn’t be any nuclear weapons of any description if we didn’t have uranium to start with.
So Canada got involved very early and in great secrecy. CD Howe, who was the power behind the throne in Canada at that time, told parliament that there was a secret project underway and he would appreciate it if nobody asked questions, and so nobody did. So parliament, from that day to this, has never really questioned our commitment to nuclear power or to uranium mining in this country.
That’s one of the reasons why, in my organization, which was founded in 1970, one of the first things we asked for was for there to be a national debate on the benefits and hazards of nuclear power. We were quite willing to have everything out on the table, both the pluses and the minuses, so that people can judge for themselves. That’s never happened in Canada. So what happened is, when they started building nuclear reactors in Ontario with the Pickering reactors, in Quebec with the Gentilly reactors, and in New Brunswick with the Point Lepreau reactor, nobody knew at that time that the radioactive waste problem was a serious difficulty. Everybody thought that it was just like any industry that has garbage. The garbage men take it away and it’s gone. Nobody thought of it as being a particularly great problem. My organization was one of the first ones to blow the whistle on this question.
I remember being on television here in Toronto and Morton Shulman, who used to be the coroner of Toronto, and who later had a radio talk show and television talk show, had me on his show along with an executive from Ontario Hydro, and I said, “Well, we have this problem with nuclear waste,” and he asked, “So what’s the problem?” and the Ontario Hydro guy said, “Well, I mean, every industry has waste so I don’t see the problem. We look after our waste better than any other industry I know of.” And Morton Shulman turned back to me and he said, “So what is the problem?” I said, “Well, ask him where we’re going to put it”. And he turned back and said, “Where are you going to put it?” And the guy went beet red. And so he said, “Oh! You don’t know?”
And that’s when really – literally, you might say – the shit hit the fan. Because they then had a Royal Commission of Inquiry into nuclear power. It was actually into electricity planning. It was called the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Electric Power Planning in Ontario, known as the Porter Commission. It lasted for three years, and the Commissioners devoted a lot of that time into looking at the nuclear question. They were very impressed by the dangers of this nuclear waste, and I’ll explain a little bit more about the danger in a second, but what they concluded – one of their major conclusions – was that unless they can solve this problem by 1985, there shouldn’t be any more nuclear reactors built. This was in 1978 when that report was written. Unless they can solve this nuclear waste problem, there shouldn’t be any more nuclear reactors. And in fact there have not been any new nuclear reactors ordered anywhere in Canada since 1978. So, in fact, we have brought the industry to a standstill simply by asking the question: “Where are you going to put it?” They still don’t have a place to put it.
Now why is it so important? Well, the reason why is because – they had a chart in this Royal Commission report which showed the toxicity, the danger to humans and to other living organisms, of these nuclear wastes. What they did was, they took one year of waste from one CANDU reactor – just one year, just one CANDU reactor – and they looked at how dangerous that waste would be after one year. And they said well, since we don’t have a very easy way to measure toxicity, let’s ask the following question: how much water would you need to dilute that waste to the maximum level of contamination allowed by law? So how much water would you need? It turns out to be almost exactly equal to Lake Superior. That’s one reactor, one year. Multiply that now by the number of reactors, which is twenty, multiply it by the number of years, which is thirty, and you’re talking about 600 Lake Superiors. That’s a lot of Lake Superiors. We don’t have that much fresh water in the whole world.
So what they were basically saying is that this material is so dangerous that if 1 percent, or 0.1 percent, or 0.01 percent of this material leaks into the environment, it’s a disaster. Whereas in most human affairs you’d think that 99.9 percent containment would be wonderful. In this case, it would be a disaster. That’s what’s fundamentally wrong with nuclear power. It creates poisons that we don’t know how to destroy. Nobody knows how to turn off radioactivity. Nobody knows how to shut it off.
And what is radioactivity? Basically, these atoms – that are broken pieces of uranium atoms or else transmuted, heavier-than-uranium atoms like plutonium – these atoms are unstable. They are like little miniature time bombs. They explode, and when they explode, they give off damaging subatomic shrapnel, which is called atomic radiation, and this exists in three major kinds: alpha, beta and gamma. Alpha and beta are not very penetrating but they’re extremely dangerous inside the body. In fact, they’re much more dangerous than the more penetrating gamma radiation.
Gamma radiation is very dangerous, too. In fact, one fuel bundle – it’s about the size of a log for a fireplace. One of those fuel bundles, before it goes into the reactor, you could look at it and handle it with gloves and it wouldn’t harm you. But when that same fuel bundle comes out of the reactor, it would kill any human being standing within one meter’s distance without protection in twenty seconds. And that’s just because of the blast of gamma radiation coming off that spent fuel rod. In fact, those spent fuel rods, those spent fuel bundles, once they come out of the reactor, they’ll never be handled by human hands again. They will only be handled robotically, by robots or by remote equipment.
So how did we get into this? Why did we build so many nuclear reactors? The fact is people were lied to. They were told that this was a clean, safe, cheap, abundant energy source, and that’s what I thought when I was in high school. If that’s all you know about nuclear power, who could possibly be against it? So these were built on false premises, these reactors. And I think now the time has come when people are more and more realizing that this is all a big lie, and that we made a big mistake in swallowing that lie, and going along with it, because we trusted the scientists, thinking scientists were sort of like gods. That because they are scientists they are devoted to truth, they are devoted to honesty. That a scientist would not say anything that was untrue. But they’re forgetting that scientists are human beings, and all human beings are fallible and all human beings may have vested interests. If your whole career, and in fact the dream of your career, is really this technology, you can’t afford to tell the whole truth about it.
This is the way the nuclear industry has always behaved. It’s paternalism written with a capital P because they believe that “we scientists, we nuclear scientist, we can, in fact, look after these wastes. We can prevent reactors from exploding. We can prevent all the bad effects. For example, we can prevent these materials from being used in atomic weapons.” In fact, they cannot do this. This is beyond human power.
Because they thought that they were able to control this, they thought that it’s no harm to tell people reassuring lies, to tell people it’s perfectly safe because “we’re going to make it perfectly safe. The waste is not a problem because we’re going to solve it.” But what they were doing was putting on their shoulders a kind of an arrogance that is beyond their powers to actually realize, so we’re now at the showdown stage, and we have countries like Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Sweden and a few other countries who are totally phasing out nuclear power.
Germany had seventeen nuclear reactors. The moment the Fukushima reactor accident happened and after that triple meltdown, they shut down seven of those reactors permanently and they’re in the process of shutting down the remaining ten. By the year 2022 they should have them all shut down.
Here in Canada, although we haven’t said that we’re phasing out nuclear power, in fact, we seem to be – because at Pickering, where we had eight nuclear reactors, two of them are now permanently shut down and the other six are going to be shut down by the year 2020, so eight of those reactors are going to be gone permanently by 2020. [Since this interview, Ontario is seeking to extend the operating lifetime of the Pickering reactors to 2028.]
And even though the government of Ontario has said they’re going to build new reactors, they have not. They have postponed and postponed it, because the cost is absolutely exorbitant. It turns out that they spent billions of dollars in refurbishing some of the old Pickering reactors, and these refurbished reactors are operating at about a 70 percent capacity factor. That means they’re only operating a little more than two-thirds of the time compared with what they’re designed to operate at, so more and more the planners and the government authorities are beginning to catch on to the idea that this is a bad deal, and at the moment we’re trying to convince the government of Ontario, and there already have been talks between the premier of Quebec and the premier of Ontario, one-to-one talks, [suggesting an alternative]. Rather than taking a further risk on refurbishing the Darlington reactors – the four big reactors outside of Toronto at Darlington – rather than refurbishing these at a cost of billions of dollars, why not buy surplus hydropower from Quebec? We’ve got huge surpluses of water-generated hydropower.
Now that was not environmentally innocuous at all—there was a lot of damage done to the environment building those dams, but now that they’re built we do have surplus hydropower. There’s no harm in using that surplus hydropower, as long as it isn’t used to justify more damage of the same kind. In the meantime, Ontario can actually do itself a favor. It would cost far less to buy the surplus hydropower than it would to refurbish those reactors. They can also do Quebec a favor because they are now selling that surplus hydropower to the United States at a loss. And you could also do the people of the country a favor by getting rid of this liability.
Many people still believe that the CANDU reactor is really a good reactor, and it is. It’s really one of the best – but it’s the best of a bad lot. Just because you’re the best of a bad lot doesn’t mean you’re good. The fact of the matter is that a CANDU reactor can melt down just like any other reactor can. It can have catastrophic failures just like any other reactor because the fundamental problem is not the mechanism of the machinery. That’s not the problem. The problem is that while it’s producing electricity it is also creating this enormous inventory of poisons. Anything that disrupts that, whether it’s an earthquake, whether it’s sabotage, whether it’s terrorism, whether it’s an industrial accident, whether it’s an unanticipated explosion, whatever it might be that allows that stuff to leak into the environment, is going to create catastrophic results. So it’s fundamental to the technology. It is not based upon the machinery. It’s based on the poisons that are created. A nuclear reactor is not just a machine for generating electricity; it’s also a warehouse holding a fantastically large quantity of radioactive poisons. That’s the fundamental problem.
Would you want to have in your backyard a warehouse full of the most dangerous radioactive poisons you can imagine? I think the answer is no. We don’t want it. And as a matter of fact even some nuclear scientists think so. For example, I heard Alvin Weinberg, one of the deans of nuclear energy—he was the head of the Oak Ridge nuclear division down in the United States, which developed the first enriched uranium atomic bomb—and he said “We nuclear scientists…”—this was back in 1977 even before Three Mile Island—he said that “We nuclear scientists have made a big mistake in thinking that nuclear power is just another form of generating electricity. We should not be building these near large cities at all.” Now he was pro-nuclear. He said we should build them, but we should build them behind a wall which society is shut off from, and this wall should be a very large, and it should include a lot of waterfront property so that we can have enough water to run the reactors, and that’s where the reactors will melt down into the ground. He didn’t think about the fact that this stuff will come over the wall and contaminate the food supply, but he thought that it was definitely a mistake to build these reactors close to cities.
Look at what we have done here in Ontario. We’ve built reactors right along the shores of the Great Lakes. Can you imagine anything more stupid? Because if you look at what’s happening at Fukushima right now, all the water that’s pouring into the Pacific Ocean from the Fukushima reactors. Imagine if that wasn’t the Pacific Ocean but only the Great Lakes. We would be contaminating the water supply for forty million people, and not just for one generation but for several generations to come. So it seems that people are beginning to wake up and realize that this is not the way to go.
Canada was the world’s largest supplier of uranium in the early years. Up until 1965, all of our uranium production – from 1942 to 1965 there was a tremendous amount of uranium mined in Canada – it was all for bombs. It all went into nuclear weapons. There were military contracts. In fact, that was the only market there was for it. We also, by the way, sold all of our plutonium for bombs to the United States from the Chalk River reactors that we built. Then in 1965 Prime Minister Pearson said from now on we’re only going to be selling uranium for peaceful purposes.
Well, it sounds good, but the problem is when you sell uranium for peaceful purposes, what happens to it? You put it into a nuclear reactor. The uranium atoms get chopped up and create all these poisons we talked about. But some of the uranium atoms actually absorb a neutron to become a little heavier, and they turn into a substance called plutonium, which has a 24,000-year half-life, and which is the nuclear explosive that is most used in nuclear weapons. There isn’t any nuclear weapon that doesn’t use uranium or plutonium, and every atom of plutonium starts off as an atom of uranium.
So here in Canada, even though we are thought of worldwide as being like the Saudi Arabia of uranium, in terms of how much uranium we have – for example, in the province of Saskatchewan – we already have two provinces that have banned uranium mining altogether. British Columbia has declared a permanent ban. There will never be uranium mining in the province of British Columbia. By the way, way back around 1980, it was the British Columbia Medical Association that led the charge on that particular score, although there were many others who played a role in it—the Fruit Growers Association, the Landowners Association, the Small Business Association—an amazing agglomeration of different segments of society which brought about that moratorium. It was originally a temporary moratorium but now it’s become a permanent one.
In Nova Scotia we had a ban on uranium mining declared in 1985. It again was a temporary ban, which extended right up until a couple of years ago, when it was made into a permanent law. And so now it’s illegal in Nova Scotia to even explore for uranium. And by the way, if you’re exploring for something else and you happen to come across uranium, you’ve got to stop. That’s according to the law.
Right now in Quebec we have a temporary moratorium on uranium mining and we’re hoping—in fact we’re just at the end of a process of a public hearing, a year of public hearings on uranium mining in Quebec – we’re hoping that the Quebec government, the first government to phase out nuclear power completely in North America, will ban uranium mining also from Quebec.
We’re waiting to hear from that. But in April of this year we had an international symposium on uranium with people coming from Australia, from China, from Mongolia, from Europe and from Africa, and from all over the United States and Canada, to meet together and have three days of intense discussions about uranium. Out of that symposium came an international declaration – and again led by the physicians, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), they won the Nobel Prize Peace Prize in 1985, and they have the led the way on this – calling for a worldwide ban on uranium mining.
They’re saying that, like asbestos, which we have found to be such a dangerous mineral that it should really be left in the ground altogether, there’s no way you should mine asbestos. Yes, it’s natural. So is arsenic, but arsenic is actually safer to mine than asbestos is. So asbestos should just be left in the ground. And uranium is of the same character, even more so. Asbestos threatens the health of anybody who comes in contact with it. Uranium threatens the entire planet. It threatens the entire survival of the planet, in terms of its ultimate use in nuclear weapons. And even when you use it for peaceful purposes, it breeds the material that can be used for the next ten thousand years, twenty thousand years, a hundred thousand years, for nuclear weapons. We’re calling for a ban on uranium mining worldwide, and we don’t think this is pie-in-the-sky. We think this is just plain common sense.
Of course that doesn’t mean that it solves the problems that are already there, but it means that you have put a cap on them. We talk about putting a cap on carbon emissions, so let’s put a cap on weapons of mass destruction. And of course the main weapon of mass destruction really are not chemical weapons, or bacteriological weapons—horrible as they are—but nuclear weapons, which include all the worst characteristics of those other two together with further dangers.
It’s been calculated by the same scientists who work on climate change, using the same models that are used in climate change, that if you were to have an exchange of nuclear weapons. (They like to use the word “exchange” … “Would you like to have my nuclear weapon?” “Oh, good thank you. I’ll take one of yours…”) If you had a war involving only a few dozen nuclear weapons on each side, this would affect the entire northern hemisphere and cause a nuclear winter which would mean that it would be impossible to grow food, and it would have devastating consequences for the entire northern hemisphere. That’s a small nuclear war. If you had a big nuclear war, it’s totally “game over” much faster, and not only human civilization is gone but higher forms of life as well. So why would you want to bring that material to the surface?
Let’s just think about it for a moment. What is uranium needed for? What is uranium used for? Well, basically, you can count them on the fingers on one hand, and have extra fingers left over. Nuclear weaponry is the only use for uranium that absolutely requires uranium. With no uranium there’s no nuclear weapons. OK, so that’s number one. Number two is electricity generation, but we have many ways to produce electricity. We’ve got wind power, we’ve got solar energy, we’ve got hydropower, we’ve got…even peddling your bicycle generates electricity. Turning a wheel will generate electricity… and geothermal power. So uranium is not really needed for electricity. It is just one of many ways, and we don’t really need it.
As a matter fact, the contribution of nuclear to electricity production worldwide has declined steadily since 1995. In 1995, it was about seventeen percent of world electricity that was produced by nuclear. Now it’s down to eleven percent and still falling.
In fact, even the most optimistic pro-nuclear people are admitting that nuclear will continue to decline in importance for the next twenty to thirty years at least, because no matter how many new reactors you build, they’re going to be shutting down the old ones faster than they can build the new ones. Most of them are old and most of them are falling apart, and they’re being shutdown much faster. So there’s no way that nuclear power can make a dent in global warming in the time frame were talking about.
On the other hand, let’s take a look at the specific examples such as German. Germany decided basically that while – especially since 2011 – they’ve decided to phase out nuclear power, in only eight years, they built 30,000 megawatts of wind power. Now that’s twice the entire installed capacity of nuclear power in Canada: 15,000 megawatts. If all our reactors were running and producing at top capacity, we’d have 15,000 megawatts of nuclear electricity. Germany built 30,000 megawatts of wind power in eight years. There’s no way you could build that amount of nuclear power in eight years. It’s impossible.
When you think about it, you realize something… Let’s imagine that you could build 30,000 megawatts of nuclear in eight years. During that entire eight years you would have no benefit. In fact, you would be adding to global warming because building the concrete structures, mining the uranium, refining the uranium, enriching uranium—greenhouse gases would be emitted big-time in building these reactors. You would get no electricity until after the eight years was done. Then you would start producing electricity.
With wind power, you build some windmills now, and you get immediate benefits. Next year you get more, next year you get more, next year more, more, more, and after eight years you have built your way up to 30,000 megawatts, but you’re getting benefits all the way along the line. So you can see, the difference here is that these renewables are much more flexible, they’re light on their feet. They are like boxers that can, you know, float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. And they can sort of solve the problem, starting right away, whereas nuclear is lumbering along and is really unable to respond quickly enough to make a difference.
There’s another thing, too. If after a while you decide you don’t like those windmills, what do you do? Take them down. No problem. You can’t do that with nuclear power. By the time a nuclear reactor is finished or you decide you don’t want it, you’re stuck with it – because it’s a radioactive hulk. Even after you take the nuclear waste out of it, the structure itself is so radioactive you have to let it cool off for about forty years and then you have to dismantle it. And all the rubble becomes radioactive waste. So you end up with a huge cost in the future even after all the benefits have been squandered. You don’t have that with any other energy technology that I’m aware of, so that’s where I think that that simple economics combined with simple common sense combined with a real sense of responsibility to the future is combining to put an end to the nuclear age.
I have to warn people, though, that while the nuclear age in terms of nuclear energy may be winding down, the age of nuclear waste is really just beginning. People are going to have to get more involved – not less involved, more involved – to make sure that these wastes are handled properly. And that doesn’t mean abandoning them. What the industry wants to do is to abandon these wastes. They want to dig a hole, put them down that hole, and then tiptoe away and say, “There, that’s done!” And of course it’s not done. Those wastes are there, and they’re going to remain dangerous for millions of years, or certainly hundreds of thousands of years. And they want to put some of these right beside the Great Lakes, right now. They’re talking about building a deep geological repository less than a mile from Lake Huron – that’s about 1.5 kilometers. And so people are fighting this – not out of a sense of fear, but a sense of responsibility. They don’t feel that it’s ethical or scientifically justified to abandon these wastes because nobody knows, if you put them down there, whether they’re going to stay there.
They could very well leak out over the hundred thousand years of danger that the authorities admit to. But when they say a hundred thousand years they’re talking about plutonium, which has a 24,000-year half-life, and when you multiply that by ten you get 240,000 years, so there’s your hundred thousand years. The reason you multiply by ten is because it takes ten half-lives to get the amount reduced by a factor of a thousand. But what they don’t think about – even the people in the nuclear industry, who should know better, or at least they don’t want to admit it – is that when plutonium disintegrates because it’s unstable, it turns into another element, which is radioactive for seven hundred million years. And so in fact it doesn’t disappear; it transforms into something else which is even longer-lived than plutonium itself.
What’s happening here is that when you start totaling up the benefits, you find out that nuclear power can’t do the job. When you total up the costs you figure out that they’re never-ending, and by the way that’s why they want to bury them and abandon them. It’s so that they can cut their liability, so the corporation can draw a line and say “we’re no longer liable because we have (quote-unquote) disposed of this.”
They thought they had disposed of poison gas in the Black Sea until it started bubbling up to the surface again after a while. Dow Chemical in Sarnia [Ontario, Canada] thought that they had disposed of chemicals that they’d injected deep into underground holes until they came up in the St. Clair River as toxic blobs in the sediment. And we’ve heard about various other incidents where, you know, like the Love Canal [Niagara Falls, New York State] where there were toxic waste dumps which have come back to haunt people and endanger the lives of people now living there.
So this is where we’re at, and I think that we’re at a very good juncture because people are awakening. People are realizing that they have been misled. They were taught that nuclear power was essential. They are finding out that not only is it not essential to have nuclear power but rather it is essential to get rid of it.
Dr. Gordon Edwards
July 25, 2015