Nuclear debate heats up on campus

More than half of Ontario’s energy supplied by nuclear reactors

Dr. Helen Caldicott says the radiation from nuclear reactors can cause cancer.
Dr. Helen Caldicott says the radiation from nuclear reactors can cause cancer.

Ontario’s nuclear power reactors will generate debate when Dr. Helen Caldicott comes to town.

Dr. Caldicott, an anti-nuclear power activist, will be speaking in Etherington Auditorium tomorrow at 8 p.m.

“I was invited to come to Kingston and various places in Ontario to speak to the public about the medical dangers of uranium mining and nuclear power,” she said, adding that she has spoken in Ontario before.

About half of Ontario’s electricity is supplied by nuclear reactors. Nuclear energy is generated by the fission of uranium, a radioactive element, in a reactor.

“Nuclear reactors routinely emit radiation as they operate so people who live in close proximity are in danger of swallowing or breathing in radioactive materials,” she said. “It takes a while to develop cancer or leukemia from it. … It’s an entirely dangerous industry.”

Dr. Caldicott said countries that purchase uranium could use it to make nuclear weapons.

“We’re talking about two things—the threat of nuclear war or the threat from all the aspects of nuclear power,” she said.

Dr. Caldicott, who’s from Australia, said she became interested in nuclear power when she was 19.

“I read a book … and it was about a nuclear war and everyone died,” she said. “Later on, because Australia is like Canada and is full of uranium, I found out about nuclear power.”

She made a documentary called If You Love This Planet, which won the Academy Award for best documentary (short subject) in 1983. The film talks about the consequences of nuclear war and calls for nuclear disarmament.

Dr. Caldicott said nuclear power advocates say nuclear energy’s an answer to global warming because uranium doesn’t release greenhouse gases the same way fossil fuels do.

“You have to mine millions of tonnes of uranium using fossil fuels,” she said. “The whole industrial infrastructure does produce global warming gases.” Richard Holt, mechanical and materials engineering professor and senior chair of the Nuclear Materials Research Group at Queen’s, said there are about 20 countries worldwide where nuclear power is used as an electrical energy source.

About 15 per cent of Canada’s electricity comes from nuclear reactors, he said, adding that Ontario’s nuclear power is generated by a private company, Bruce Power, and the publicly-owned Ontario Power Generation.

Holt said he thinks nuclear reactors are a good source of power if they’re dealt with properly.

There have been nuclear accidents worldwide, including the Chernobyl accident in Ukraine in 1986.

More than 600,000 people have been exposed to radiation from the explosion since the 1980s that may have caused genetic disorders, cancers and respiratory illnesses. Two people died in the initial explosion. “The type of accident like Chernobyl, that happened under a political regime where people did what they were told without worrying about the consequences, and they were told to run their reactors in an unsafe way,” he said.

Holt said the scientific basis for nuclear power is well-established.

“Most of these people that know the technical issues don’t think [the reactors] are an issue.”

He said there are regulations to make sure nuclear reactor operation is safe.

“The technical solution is that you don’t produce a lot of dust that workers inhale while they’re mining the uranium because that potentially causes lung cancer,” he said. “And you contain the waste products properly.”

He said nuclear energy is an economically competitive industry.

“To build a power plant costs a lot of money but if you run it a long time at high capacity factor, it gets cheaper and cheaper,” he said.

The nuclear industry in Canada is worth about $10 billion annually, he said, adding that more than 30,000 people work in the industry.

“That’s from mining to building nuclear reactors to operating them and producing electricity,” he said. “It’s certainly cheaper than, for example, using oil to produce electricity, which is one of the more expensive ways.”

Holt said he has heard of Dr. Caldicott’s work.

“She may be right about certain things but you have to take it with a grain of salt,” he said. “You have to take what I say with a grain of salt too.”

Sean Haberle, MA ’08 and Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG) co-ordinator, said every few years there’s an attempt by governments to bring in more nuclear energy because it’s cheaper than other sources of power.

“The health risks are fairly humongous compared to alternative energy that’s available,” he said. “A wind power generator doesn’t have the capacity to melt down. … Imagine sitting on Wolfe Island and looking at a nuclear generator and how you would feel.”

Haberle said he hopes the talk will encourage people to push local politicians to think of alternatives to nuclear reactors.

“Maybe there’s other methods and maybe those methods aren’t cost-effective,” he said. “Just because it’s cheap doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.”

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