Question the Atom

By Irene Kock and David Martin | 1986-08-01 12:00:00

On April 26, 1986, a nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl complex in Ukraine, USSR was being shut down for routine servicing when a power surge occurred, causing an explosion and fire in the reactor core. A radioactive cloud was carried over much of northeastern Europe in a matter of hours, and around the world within days. In Moscow, 299 people were hospitalized, and 26 have died as of this writing. Eighty of these hospitalized are in extremely critical condition and half of them are not expected to survive. Tens of thousands of people received significant doses of radiation and thousands of these will be at risk of dying from radiation-induced diseases or cancer. All species in the affected region will likely experience increased rates of mutations and birth defects.

Within three weeks of the accident, radioactive iodine and cesium had entered the food chain in North America. being detected at above normal levels in milk across Canada and the United States. Public concern reached a peak as radioactivity levels in rainwater and milk were reported daily in the media. The radiation "hot-line" (not toll-free) set up by Health and Welfare Canada in Ottawa received over 600 calls per day and a second number was established to handle the overflow.

Could a Chernobyl Happen Here?

The critical question is: Could a comparable accident occur in Canada? The Chernobyl reactor used graphite, a carbon compound, to "moderate" the chain reaction. As in the disastrous accident at the Windscale reactor in Britain in 1957, the graphite caught fire after a loss of coolant. Canadian nuclear industry advocates have argued that the heavy water moderator of the Canadian CANDU cannot catch fire.

What's more, they argue, CANDU reactors are surrounded by containment buildings. But the grim fact remains that no reactor is immune to meltdown, and no safety system is fool proof, since reactors ultimately depend on people. Containment structures are employed mainly to delay and control the release of radioactivity. Short-lived isotopes are allowed to "decay" within the structure, but the longer-lived isotopes are then released over a period of time. Even containment buildings have active components which can malfunction: Uncontrolled releases of radiation occurred at Three Mile Island despite the containment buildings. In the event of a complete meltdown. the temperatures generated would be sufficient to melt even the steel and concrete containment structures.

Despite the difference in moderators, the CANDU and the Chernobyl reactors have a significant similarity. Both reactors have a unique pressure tube design and the tubes are made from the metal alloy zirconium niobium. The tubes are filled with coolant and bundles of fuel rods. The actual cause of the Chernobyl accident is still not known to us, but there is speculation that it may have been caused by a pressure tube rupture similar to the accidents here in Ontario at Pickering in 1983 and at Bruce in March, 1986. The rupture of pressure tubes leads to a loss of the coolant from the system and a subsequent risk of meltdown. According to the 1978 Porter Commission. the odds of a meltdown happening in a CANDU reactor, like those at Pickering, are 1 in 10,000 per reactor per year. These figures match, by coincidence, the probability of a meltdown at the Chernobyl complex, as stated in February by Mr. Sklydarov, Ukraine's minister of power and electrification.

The Nuclear Market

Like the Three Mile Island accident, Chernobyl may be an historic turning point in the fortunes of the international nuclear power industry. Many governments are under increasing public pressure to end nuclear energy expansion in favor of the efficient use of electricity and the implementation of renewable and environmentally benign electricity sources. While the nuclear industry has expanded quite aggressively under government ownership and subsidy in Canada, France, West Germany, and the Soviet Union, it has stagnated in the United States. Because of this decline in the U.S. market, and the increasing saturation of the European markets, Western nuclear interests have increased their efforts to market reactors in the Third World. In March, 1987, the United Nations will host a conference in Geneva with just that intention. The conference is called the United Nations Conference for the Promotion of International Cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy (PUNE). However, a coalition of antinuclear and nongovernmental development groups have united to form the International Coalition on Energy for Development (ICED) to organize a counter-conference.

In addition to the environmental and health problems of nuclear power, its high capital cost will only increase economic dependency and aggravate the already serious debt problems in the developing nations. This technological colonialism is worsened by the fact that the global distribution of uranium (the basic fuel for reactors) is even less equitable than that of oil. Eighty-five percent of the uranium outside the communist countries is found in Canada, the U.S., Australia. and South Africa.

Nuclear Power and Nuclear Weapons

The darkest side of nuclear power is the connection with nuclear weapons. In 1974, India exploded a nuclear bomb which was made with plutonium produced in a CANDU reactor given to them by Canada for "peaceful" purposes. Canada has been dragged into the nuclear arms race through the "back door" of its nuclear power program. Canada is the world's largest exporter of uranium, and we have no ultimate guarantee that our uranium is not used for nuclear weapons. Waste from our Chalk River reactors goes directly to the U.S military after reprocessing in Savannah River, Georgia. Ontario Hydra plans to begin recovering tritium for export in the fall of this year. Tritium is a key component in all nuclear weapons.

The International Atomic Energy Agency was established under the auspices of the United Nations to promote the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and to design a safeguards system to deter proliferation. However, the safeguards system is not designed to prevent diversion of fissionable materials, only to detect them after they have occurred. The fatal flaw of the IAEA system is that it relies on the goodwill of the state whose facilities are being inspected.

In 1970, the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons came into effect to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, as well as to promote nuclear power, particularly in developing countries. However, like the IAEA system, the NPT is not backed by an effective means of enforcement. For in-stance, it allows for any country to withdraw given three months notice, if the country decides that "extraordinary events related to the subject matter of the Treaty have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country" (Article X). The safeguards agreements apply only to the initial sales of reactors abroad--the country may then duplicate the facilities. The buying country may also initiate agreements for technology transfers. In the final analysis, the IAEA and the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons are incapable of separating the civilian and the military atoms.

The "Atoms for Peace" program announced by Eisenhower in 1957 boasted of the enormous boon to humankind offered by nuclear power: It would make electricity "too cheap to meter." In reality, the program was designed mainly as a facade for the research and development of nuclear weapons, to distract public attention from the Soviet Union's nuclear capability, and to expand America's international economic influence by nuclear trade.

Thirty years after Atoms for Peace, the bloom on the nuclear rose is only beginning to fade. In Ontario, the Liberal government of David Peterson has reversed its pre-election position and decided to proceed with the Darlington nuclear plant despite years of protest. However, there is an increasing consensus in energy and environment circles against nuclear power and in favor of conservation and alternative energy strategies. In the peace movement, there is an increasing consensus that if we wish to live in a world without nuclear weapons, we must learn to live without nuclear power.

Irene Kock and Dave Martin are members of Nuclear Awareness Project, a public interest group which supports disarmament and opposes nuclear power. Contact:730 Bathurst Street, Toronto MSS 2R4 (416) 537-0438.

Peace Magazine Aug-Sep 1986

Peace Magazine Aug-Sep 1986, page 14. Some rights reserved.

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