Nuclear Dumb and Dumber
The thought “Dumb and Dumber” came to mind as I recorded the work of Canada’s Joint Review Panel Sept. 23 and 24, here in Ontario, on the east end of Lake Huron. The JRP is currently taking comments on a proposal to dump radioactive waste in a deep hole, 1mile from the shore of this magnificent inland sea.
What has to be called just plain dumb, is that the nuclear bomb industry branched out to build nuclear power reactors and, as E.F. Schumacher said, to “accumulate large amounts of highly toxic substances which nobody knows how to make safe and which remain an incalculable danger to the whole of creation for historical or even geological ages.” Unfortunately in the case of radioactive waste this has happened here, in Canada, etc.
Then, the giant Canadian utility Ontario Power Generation (OPG) proposes to bury its radioactive waste in a limestone dug-out, or “deep geologic repository,” one mile from the Great Lake Huron.
This must be considered “dumber”, but you’d be amazed at how much dumber it gets. Listening to the presentations of government regulators and utility propagandists for two long days normally puts reporters to sleep. But the staggering implausibility of some statements and the shockingly cavalier nature of others kept me blindingly awake.
The low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste that could be dumped in a 2,200-foot deep hole here — 200,000 cubic meters of it — contains long-lived, alpha radiation emitters like plutonium, the most toxic substance on Earth, which is dangerous for 240,000 years (10 half-lives).
Yet the reactor operator, Ontario Power Generation, had the nerve to say in a 2008 public handout: “[E]ven if the entire waste volume were to be dissolved into Lake Huron, the corresponding drinking water dose would be a factor of 100 below the regulatory criteria initially, and decreasing with time.”
This flabbergasting assertion prompted me to say to ask the oversight panel, “Why would the government dig a 1-billion-dollar waste repository, when it is safe to throw all the radiation into the lake?” The panel members must have considered my question rhetorical because they didn’t answer.
But it gets dumber.
There is much concern among Canadians over the fact that their government’s allowable limit for radioactive tritium in drinking water is 7,000 becquerels-per-liter. In the U.S., the EPA’s allowable limit is 740 bq/L — a standard almost ten times more strict. (A Becquerel is a single radioactive disintegration per second.) Tritium is the radioactive form of hydrogen, it can’t be filtered out of water, and it is both dumped and vented by operating nuclear reactors, and can leak from radioactive wastes in large amounts.
When the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission staff scientist at the hearing, Dr. Patsy Thompson, was asked why Canada’s allowable contamination was so much higher than the U.S.’s, Thompson said, “The U.S. limit is based on using wrong dose conversion factors from the 1970s that haven’t been corrected.”
This preposterous assertion went unchallenged (because of hearings rules that required questions to be reserved in advance), but it will certainly be contested by Canadian and U.S. who have all learned a lot about tritium hazards since the ‘70s.
Can you believe it got dumber still? Lothar Doehler, Manager of the Radiation Protection Service in the Occupational health and Safety Branch, Ministry of Labor, testified that “To ensure safety after a radiological accident, the labor ministry does monitoring of water, vegetables, soil and other foods.”
I rushed to reserve a question and said for the record, “When the Labor Ministry measures radiation releases in the environment during a radiological accident, those releases have already occurred and exposure to that radiation has already begun. Simply monitoring the extent of radiological contamination does not ‘ensure safety’ from that radiation in any sense. Measuring radiation merely quantifies the harm being done by exposure to what is measured. Does the ministry have the authority to order evacuations from contaminated areas, like in Fukushima? Or to order the replacement of contaminated water with safe water, like in Fukushima? Or to order the cessation of fishing or fish consumption in the event of their contamination, like at Fukushima?”
The Chair of the JRP, Dr. Stella Swanson answered that the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety was responsible for evacuation planning in the event of a disaster. For his part, Mr. Doehler added that he was responsible “… to see that radioactively contaminated food was safe to eat.”
Stupefied by Mr. Doehler’s “blunder,” I missed a direct follow-up question and had to hustle after the man in the parking lot during a break to ask, “Pardon me Mr. Doehler; You didn’t mean to say that eating radioactive contamination in food is safe did you?”
“Oh, no,” Mr. Doehler said, “I apologize if I left that impression” — as he handed me his card.
Now Mr. Doehler is a highly-paid, high-level professional government official and didn’t make a mistake as I’d assumed. He’s not dumb or dumber, but enjoys deliberately misstating the facts when he can get away with it and when it suits his interests — just as Dr. Patsy Thompson does.
No, the sad mistake here is that so many catastrophic government actions can move ahead toward approval because the general public is keeping too quiet, or “playing dumb.”
John LaForge works for Nukewatch, an environmental watchdog group in Wisconsin, and edits its Quarterly newsletter.