A few good reasons why we should abandon nuclear energy for good | Docs Talk | David Suzuki Foundation
Photo: A few good reasons why we should abandon nuclear energy for good

Each step in the nuclear chain poses hazards to the environment and human health (Credit: Swobodin via Flickr).

By Dr. Éric Notebaert, MD MSc

Consensus is growing that we must reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Proponents of nuclear energy say nuclear is the best alternative. But nuclear energy is neither clean nor green. Each step in the nuclear chain poses hazards to the environment and human health.

Upstream of nuclear power plants, uranium mining and transportation of ore are highly polluting activities, which generate large amounts of greenhouse gases. Nuclear power therefore produces much more CO2 per kW/hr than wind, solar or geothermal energy. Upstream activities also generate air pollutants that are detrimental to health.

The situation isn't better when it comes to the operation of nuclear plants. Three large recent studies of millions of people living near 200 nuclear facilities show, beyond any doubt, an association between the incidence of childhood leukemia, leukemia mortality and the presence of a nuclear facility, for up to 15 kilometres around the plants.1

For nuclear workers, the surrounding population and their children, a rise in the incidence of leukemia, breast, lung, bladder and thyroid cancer and birth defects has been demonstrated.2

Moreover, nuclear energy is by far the type of energy that requires the most water, a precious resource that is increasingly rare. Water is required to absorb the waste heat from power generation and to cool equipment.

When the cooling water re-enters the environment, either as steam or waste water, it is contaminated with tritium. An unstable form of hydrogen, tritium is produced in large quantities by CANDUs (the type of nuclear reactors designed and built in Canada). Tritium combines with oxygen to form a molecule of radioactive water with significant radio-biological power. It is quickly integrated into our cells, binds to DNA and attacks quickly developing cells, causing mutations, miscarriages, birth defects and cancers in laboratory animals. The levels of tritium allowed in drinking water are very high in Canada (7,000 Bq/L) compared with U.S. (740 Bq/L) and European rates (100 Bq/L). This is unacceptable. Two government studies have recommended lowering the allowable level to 20 Bq/L3, but the standard has still not been updated.

CANDU reactors also have serious design problems that make them dangerous, which was recognized by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, and these problems have yet to be resolved. The reactors have a "positive coefficient of nuclear reactivity" and potential failures of the pressure tubes. These failures can cause a meltdown of the core of the reactor and serious risks of explosion with catastrophic consequences for health and the environment.

The risk of accidents causing acute exposure to radiation will always remain. At the speed with which an accident may occur in a plant, it is impossible to be certain that the emergency systems can react in time to avoid catastrophe4. No other industry exposes us to such enormous risks. Insurance companies actually refuse to protect their customers against nuclear risks.

Need we also recall that terrorist groups have clearly identified nuclear power plants as potential targets? A plane crash on a plant would also have serious environmental and health impacts.

Finally, at the end of the nuclear chain comes the intractable problem of radioactive waste. There is still no satisfactory solution to long-term storage of high radioactive waste, which will remain radioactive for thousands of years. In addition, there are even higher amounts of waste of intermediate- and low-level radioactivity and residues of uranium mines that pose serious health risks.

Nevertheless, we sometimes hear that nuclear reactors are needed to produce radioactive isotopes used in medical imaging. This "promotional" argument put forward by the nuclear industry does not hold water. Cyclotron accelerators located near hospitals may alternatively be constructed for less than a 10th of the cost required by a nuclear reactor. They do not generate nuclear waste and do not use highly enriched uranium.

Nuclear energy is costly not only for the environment but also for taxpayers and electricity consumers. Proponents offer completely unrealistic cost estimates. For example, Hydro-Québec's proposed budget for refurbishment of the Gentilly-2 nuclear power plant is $1.9 billion. This amount does not include the cost of managing radioactive waste. In fact, independent analyses, both from Quebec and abroad, suggest costs will be much higher (three to five times higher, according to some estimates). In Ontario, electricity consumers pay a surcharge to cover the province's $20 billion nuclear debt. Back in 1985, Forbes magazine concluded that nuclear energy was a monumental economic disaster.

One last argument, but not the least: radioactive materials enriched for civilian nuclear pursuits can also be used for military purposes. CANDU technology, in particular, has been fuelling the development of atomic weapons for the past quarter-century.

Thumbnail image for e-Notebaert.jpgDr. Éric Notebaert is an adjunct professor at the School of Medicine, University of Montréal. He is a Science Ambassador for the David Suzuki Foundation and serves on the board of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.


1 Baker PJ et al. Eur J Cancer care 2007;16:355-262; Mangano J et al. Eur J Cancer Care 2008;17:416-418; Katsch P et al. Deutsches Arzeblatt Int. 2008; 105(42):725-732.

2 Clarke E et al. Childhood Leukemia Around Canadian Nuclear Facilities — Phase 1 and 2. Ont Cancer & Treatment Found. May 1989 (Phase 1), June 1991 (Phase 2); McLaughlin J et al. Occupational Exposure of Fathers to Ionizing Radiation and the Risk of Leukemia in Offspring — A Case-Control Study, 1992. Ont Cancer & Treatment Found. AECB Project No. 7.157.1. Aug. 1992; Johnson K et al. Tritium Releases from the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station and Birth Defects and Infant Mortality in Nearby Communities 1971-88. AECB Project No. 7.156.1.1992; Green et al. Risk of Congenital Anomalies in Children of Parents Occupationally Exposed to Low Level Ionising Radiation. Occup & Environ Med. 54:629-635 (1997); Whitby et al. Durham Region Health Department, Radiation and Health in Durham Region, Nov 1996; Zablotska L et al. Analysis of Mortality among Canadian Nuclear Power Industry Workers After Chronic Low-Dose Exposure to Ionizing Radiation. Radiation Research 161: 633-641 (2004).

3 A Standard for Tritium, Ontario Advisory Committee on Environmental Standards (1994) and Ontario Drinking Water Advisory Council Tritium Standard Review (1999).

4 10-H15.C: Additional report of the staff of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission in the public hearing of December 10, 2010.

January 24, 2011
http://www.davidsuzuki.org/blogs/docs-talk/2011/01/a-few-good-reasons-why-we-should-abandon-nuclear-energy-for-good/

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11 Comments

Oct 15, 2013
7:00 PM

Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi were two incredibly bad Generation II(circa early 1970s) reactor designs. Additionally, the GE boiling water reactors at Fukushima were the worst possible design one could select for installation in a region prone to large earthquakes. To cite these two examples as proof that ALL nuclear reactors are inherently dangerous is as misleading and irresponsible as saying that the Ford Pinto proves ALL cars to be dangerous. Both the pebble bed reactor and the Thorium molten salt reactor have actually been built as proofs of concept. In the event of core damage and/or total loss of power, both these reactors will naturally shut down to a safe condition without any human intervention whatsoever. Incidentally, the molten salt reactor burns 99% of its Thorium fuel, the fission product remaining is almost entirely Plutonium 238 (an isotope that does not exist in nature) — a vital component of the nuclear batteries of NASA deep space probes.

Dec 10, 2012
7:44 PM

NUCLEAR IS THE DIRTIEST AND THE MOST DESTRUCTIVE FUEL , AN EASY TARGET THATS HARD TO TRANSPORT OR STORE ! ALBERTA HAS BEEN NUCLEAR FREE ALWAYS AND IT WOULD BE A CATASTROPHY TO PUT SUCH A HAZARD NEAR GAS PLANTS ! THIS PROVINCE IS A MANUFACTURING POWER HOUSE ,WE SHOULD BE BUILDING WINDMILLS HERE AND PLACING THEM IN THE NORTH OR SOUTH WHERE TREES ARE FEW AND THE WINDS BLOW ENDLESSLY IN ONE REGION OR ANOTHER .FOR THE PEOPLE UP NORTH A REASONABLE RATE AND A GOOD ADDITION TO THE SOUTHERN GRID .THE BATTERIES WE NEED ARE WITHIN OUR GRASP NO GRANT MONEY FOR THAT THOUGH ,OTHER COUNTRYS ARE PROGRESSING ON THIS TECHNOLOGY AND WE WILL PAY THE PRICE FINANCIALY IF WE DONT DEVELOP OUR OWN SYSTEMS !

Jun 18, 2012
1:54 PM

The world must realize that nuclear energy is not the solution to the energy problems the world is facing. Development of a safe and renewable source of energy must be prioritized. Some say that nuclear energy is safe, it is not. Some say it is clean, again it is not. Chernobyl and Fukushima should be enough to convince the world that we need to develop new technology. Imagine how many people were displaced in Fukushima Japan, living in evacuation centers. People as far away as 200 kms live daily in fear and continue to live fearing what the effects will be on our health a few years later.

Feb 19, 2012
9:37 PM

Hello, I applaud any editorial regarding exposure risks linked to nuclear energy, however, your references are unfortunately weak. Two studies within your second reference have no statistical relevance/correlation which are clearly stated within their abstracts!:( I too fight for clean energy, best health and best practices to help carry our pristine legacy for our future generations…but please site prudent, ethical and, sound sources for the non researchers out there. Thank you and cheers, Jill

Aug 12, 2011
1:45 PM

We will need nuclear energy to replace fossil fuel fired power plants. So called ‘renewables’ will not do it. The latest reactor designs such as the US passively safe integral fast reactor will burn what is currently classed as high level waste.

Mar 26, 2011
11:25 AM

I followed to this article from a comment posted in response to Mr. Gwynne Dyer’s recent article here:

http://www.straight.com/article-382241/vancouver/gwynne-dyer-nuclear-power-debate-amid-japan-crisis-ruled-superstition

I also found Dr. Notebaert’s article misleading. On checking the first citation in in reference one, I find the following in the abstract:

“Caution must be used when interpreting these results. The meta-analysis was able to show an increase in childhood leukaemia near nuclear facilities, but does not support a hypothesis to explain the excess. Each type of model utilized has limitations. Fixed effects models give greater weight to larger studies; however, population density may be a risk factor”

These results need to be compared to rates of childhood leukemia around conventional power stations.

In the wake of Fukushima, the ‘risks’ of nuclear power need to be compared to the alternatives.

Here is my own personal view.

http://www.thewhig.com/ArticleDisplay.aspx?e=3045773

Mar 21, 2011
9:17 PM

“Back in 1985, Forbes magazine concluded that nuclear energy was a monumental economic disaster.”

Science doesn’t “conclude”. Nuclear reactor technology is not anywhere near done. 4th generation reactors will increase efficiency and bring a wider range of fuel options.

in 1981 the Xerox Star, the first desktop computer with a graphical user interface, was an economic disaster. Look at us now.

Mar 18, 2011
10:23 AM

I would also like to see more about thorium use in place of uranium…. I first stumbled on this 6 or 7 years ago when I learned about a company doing active testing of thorium rods in a Russian test reactor. The company has morphed a few times, but I think it’s called Lightbridge now. What caught my attention were the claims that their rods could incorporate plutonium and spent uranium fuel, be used in conventional (existing) reactors and produce waste that is significantly less nasty than what comes out of uranium reactors.

How much is being spend currently, to dispose of the plutonium manufactured for weapons?

To date I have seen very little from folks like David Suzuki about whether thorium is a reasonable option to get us a little further down the road. We learn more every year… solar is becoming more of an option as is wind… people are starting to heat their homes with geo-exchange units… I wouldn’t want to say that Thorium is the fuel we use forever, but it might be a way to get us off oil, at least until we can come up with something better.

Why does being ‘green’ seem to mean you have to be a complete brick wall? There has to be some wiggle room and the ability to opt for the least harmful solution available at the time, rather than simply criticizing them all!

Feb 22, 2011
7:22 PM

I am disappointed that this was published by a medical doctor. The medical profession is seen as a pillar of trust yet when I read the articles listed in the citations for point number 2 I found that every single one came to the exact opposite conclusion that was stated in this article.

The fourth reference is a link to a list of faculty members and appears to have nothing to do with what it is referencing.

If this had been posted on Wikipedia it would have been unreadable because of all of the CITATION NEEDED boxes.

Feb 04, 2011
11:14 AM

As one of the owners of the first wind turbine in Toronto, and a long-standing opponent of nuclear power, I agree entirely with Dr. Notebaert’s position. Aside from the direct threats from meltdown, terrorist attacks, and the like, the idea of having to store reactor waste safely for tens of thousands of years — longer than any civilization has survived on this planet — shows the folly of uranium-based nuclear power.

However, just a few days ago, I came across a brief article and video clips on a liquid-thorium-based nuclear reaction cycle that claims, among other things to have these characteristics:

short-lived waste material (i.e., 10 years of storage, vs. 10s of thousands for uranium)

inherently safe operation under reactor failures

much less mining required — fuel essentially consumed completely

minimal proliferation exposure

continual refueling of reactor possible, and rapid shutdown/startup

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/02/01/chinathoriumbet/

The intro film is informative, and makes it clear that this has already been done, decades ago, but discarded for reasons that they also make clear.

I am very interested in seeing a critical analysis of this proposed technology.

Feb 03, 2011
12:00 AM

As I understand it, worldwide reserves of uranium are quite limited too. I’ve heard that if we could tomorrow switch all of our coal-generated electricity to nuclear-generated, there is only enough uranium to power those generators for 20 years. So at best, it’s only a stop-gap solution. We might as well bite the bullet and develop renewable-energy generation, and that’ll last for ever.

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