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.
Dr. 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. 188.8.131.522; 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.