Ten Years After Chernobyl: What Prospects for the Nuclear Option?

By Kristen Ostling

Chernobyl: April 26, 1996 marked the tenth anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, one of the worst environmental disasters in history. What happened at Chernobyl 10 years ago? On April 26, 1986 at 1:23 a.m. during experiments at Unit 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power station in Ukraine, a combination of human error and faulty technology resulted in a massive reactor explosion. Another explosion moments later destroyed part of the building and spewed highly radioactive pieces of the reactor into the atmosphere.

The fire burned for 10 days. A plume containing iodine 131, strontium 90 and cesium 137 moved with the winds and rained radioactive particles on areas thousands of miles away.

Countries affected by Chernobyl include Belarus, Russia, Georgia, Poland, Sweden, Germany, Turkey, Austria, and Hungary. Regions as far away as the U.S., Canada, and Japan also received measurable radiation.

The destroyed reactor released 200 times more radiation than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs combined, and about a million times more radiation than was released from the 1979 Three Mile Island accident. The Chernobyl accident was comparable, in terms of radiation released, to a medium-size nuclear strike.

The 30-kilometre exclusion zone around the Chernobyl accident site is one of the most radioactive places on Earth. According to official Ukrainian estimates, the zone contains more than 335 million tons of radioactive waste, including land, buildings and vegetation. One hundred and eighty five tons of nuclear fuel and 35 tons of radioactive dust are contained in the crumbling concrete sarcophagus currently encasing the destroyed reactor.

Experts at a November 1995 World Health Organization (WHO) conference agreed that radiation from Chernobyl is to blame for dramatic increases in cancer rates in the three states nearest Chernobyl. Researchers from the former Soviet Union argue that radiation from Chernobyl is also responsible for a range of non-cancerous diseases, including cataracts, cardiovascular disease and hyperactive thyroid glands. Radiation released as a result of the accident will continue to have an impact for generations.

Global Prospects for Nuclear Power

What are the prospects for nuclear power ten years after Chernobyl? According to a recent report issued by the Washington-based Safe Energy Communication Council (SECC), the accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986 helped encourage an international trend away from nuclear power. The report concludes that: increasing costs, intractable waste disposal issues, and safer, more economical energy alternatives have resulted in a stagnation of new plant orders and a gradual global marketplace rejection of the technology.

SECCs new study documents a worldwide trend of nuclear decline. As of Jan. 1, 1996:

Only 34 nuclear power plants remained under active construction.

84 reactors have been permanently shutdown. The average reactor operating lifespan was less than half of its predicted lifespan of 40 years.

434 commercial nuclear power plants were in operation. This represents an increase of only nine more than were in operation in 1990.

SECC emphasizes that there is a strong connection between the development of nuclear power and nuclear weapons. For example, through its export of nuclear technology, Canada helped India and Pakistan gain nuclear weapons capability.

Despite nuclear power's anemic growth and the lingering global repercussions of the Chernobyl catastrophe, governments continue to underwrite the industry, funneling large amounts of taxpayer funds into research and development and other subsidies, while supporting efforts to export potentially dual-use nuclear technologies.

Canada's Declining Nuclear Industry

Canada's experience fits the worldwide decline in the nuclear industry. The Campaign for Nuclear Phaseout, an alliance of environmental groups, recently released a study entitled, "Nuclear Sunset: The Economic Costs of the Canadian Nuclear Industry."

The study characterizes the nuclear industry as a "sunset industry." Activity and employment peaked around 1980 and have declined steadily since. Foreign sales have largely failed to materialize and nuclear construction proposals in Canada have been cancelled.

"Nuclear Sunset" estimates that when calculated in real, 1995 dollars, total federal funding to Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL) since its creation in 1952 until March 31, 1995, has been $13 billion.

According to the co-authors of "Nuclear Sunset," researcher David Martin of the Nuclear Awareness Project, and economist David Argue, Canada's economy would have been much better off if the government had simply used the AECL subsidies to reduce the national debt. There are far more cost-effective electricity sources than nuclear power. AECL's legacy includes higher taxes, higher electricity rates and high level nuclear waste.

Ottawa's decision to subsidize AECL for the last 42 years has added significantly to our national debt. Recent research establishes that if AECL subsidies had gone to pay off the national debt, Canada's debt would be $33 billion lower than it is today.

The federal government faces a decision on whether to renew its commitment to nuclear subsidies when the seven-year Memorandum of Under-standing between the federal government, Ontario, Québec and New Brunswick on funding for AECL expires in March 1997. This agreement is known as the CANDU Owners Group or COG agreement.

Future projections in the 1996 federal budget exceed the term of the present COG agreement. The Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development has recommended that the government "terminate its involvement in the CANDU Owners Group." The federal government should heed that advice.

However, the current government has championed the nuclear industry. Deputy Minister of Natural Resources, Jean McClosky, stated recently that the Minister of Natural Resources, Anne McLellan insists that Canada must maintain a CANDU program. Although the subsidy to AECL has been increased by over $1.5 million for 1996, it will be cut by 72.5 million by 1998-99. In fact, according to Natural Resources Canada, in order to deal with the lower level of subsidization "AECL will focus on maintaining a viable, competitive CANDU business . . ." In a last ditch effort to prop up a dying industry, Canada is focusing on exporting nuclear technology.

Canada's nuclear industry has contributed to nuclear proliferation through its nuclear exports. For example, Canada is the world's largest exporter of uranium - the key ingredient for nuclear weapons. Our biggest customers are countries with nuclear arsenals, such as the U.S. and France. Canadian uranium helped fuel France's nuclear testing program. According to experts, including a federal-provincial panel on uranium mining in Saskatchewan, "no proven method exists for preventing incorporation of Canadian uranium into military applications."

Selling CANDUs to China

Reactors sold overseas create stockpiles of plutonium which can be used anytime in the next 50,000 years to build bombs. Canadian taxpayers have subsidized the sale of reactors to India, Taiwan, Pakistan, South Korea, Argentina and Romania. Canada is currently pursuing a deal to sell China two CANDU reactors. Two-thirds of the $3.5 billion dollar deal will be financed by the Canadian government. China's ongoing nuclear testing program, long-standing human rights violations, and dumping of nuclear waste in Tibet make this deal unconscionable.

Canada is also actively pursuing CANDU reactor sales to South Korea, Turkey and Indonesia. In light of serious safety and security considerations as well as the global decline of the nuclear option, this makes little sense.

A Chernobyl in Canada?

Could a nuclear accident like Chernobyl happen in Canada? A number of official government documents in Canada have not ruled out this possibility. In fact, six years before Chernobyl, a report issued by the Select Committee on Ontario Hydro Affairs concluded that a nuclear disaster could have widespread impact on human and environmental health:

The worst possible accident. . . could involve the spread of radioactive poisons over large areas, killing thousands immediately, killing others through increasing susceptibility to cancer, risking genetic defects that could affect future generations, and possibly contaminating large land areas for future habitation or cultivation.

Every CANDU reactor shares with the Chernobyl reactor the same pressure tube design flaw called positive void coefficient. Positive void coefficient means that when a pipe or a pressure tube breaks in or near the core of the reactor, there is a tendency to have a power surge immediately following.

At a recent hearing on energy in Québec, Dr. Gordon Edwards explained: The problem affects all reactors that use pressure tubes; the Chernobyl reactor, like the CANDU, had pressure tubes inside the core. Apparently, although no one knows for sure, one of the Chernobyl pressure tubes burst and there was a terrific power surge... leading to an explosion which blew the roof off.

Hundreds of Events Every Year

In 1989, the AECB admitted in a submission to the Treasury Board that "CANDU plants cannot be said to be more or less safe than other types." Every year there are hundreds of significant events at Canada's nuclear power plants which are reported to the AECB.

Pressure tube problems have plagued CANDU reactors for decades. The Atomic Energy Control Board states that nearly all of Canada's nuclear reactors share the design flaw that shut down the Pickering generating station in December 1994. The failure of the condenser relief valve led to a 185 tonne spill of radioactive heavy water. The same valve failure occurred again in May 1995, at the Bruce nuclear generating station, releasing 87 tonnes of heavy water. At a CANDU unit exported to South Korea, seven tonnes of heavy water leaked out of the coolant system.

In a post-Chernobyl world, Canadians can no longer afford to ignore the potential for disaster inherent in nuclear power. Dr. Yuri Shcherbak, a medical researcher near Chernobyl at the time of the accident, is now Ambassador of Ukraine to the U.S. Chernobyl, he says, was not simply another disaster of the sort that humankind has experienced throughout history, like a fire, an earthquake, or a flood. It is a global environmental event of a new kind, creating environmental refugees; long term contamination of land, water and air; and possibly irreparable damage to ecosystems.

Kristen Ostling Coordinates the Campaign for Nuclear Phaseout in Ottawa.

Peace Magazine May-June 1996

Peace Magazine May-June 1996, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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