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The Number Thirteen and Other Evils

By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

Imagine you’re a freshman math student, and you’re meeting the head of your university’s mathematics department.

You ask him to set a tough problem for you.

“Well,” he says, “we’re in great need of a number to put between twelve and fourteen. It has to be the sum of ten and three, and it also has to be half of twenty-six.”

2+2

You pause before replying, wondering where the trick is. “Um. Wouldn’t that be thirteen?”

“Don’t say that.”

“What?”

“What you just said.”

“Thirteen?”

“Ssshhh.”

“Why not?”

“It’s bad.”

“Why?”

“Always been. Inherently dangerous number. Killed thousands. Toxic legacy. That question’s settled. Now back to our problem.”

“Okay,” you say. “Where do we stand so far?”`

“I’d like you to take a look at four and a half. There’s a big constituency for four and a half around here. Always has been. We think it can be the solution… just needs a bit of work.”

“What kind of work?”

“We think some help from eight will be enough.”

“Four and a half with help from eight?  Isn’t that twelve and a half?”

“We don’t put it that way.”

“Why?”

“That would be almost you-know-what, and we’re just not going there. Anyway, now we’re getting a subsidy for eight, so we really want to keep eight in the picture.”

“Do you really think four and a half with help from eight is going to satisfy the specifications of the problem?”

“It’s between twelve and fourteen.”

“Well, yes, but it’s two numbers, not one. It’s not equal to ten plus three, and it’s not half of twenty-six.”

“I understand your point, but there are bound to be a few gaps. We think users of the number system are ready for change. With education, lots of them will accept four and a half.”

“What if they don’t? What if they only care whether it works? They’ll expect it to equal ten plus three. They’ll expect it to be half of twenty-six.”

“What would you suggest, then, smart guy?”

“I suggested thirteen a while ago.”

find x“SSSHHH!  You trying to get us both in trouble? Listen, maybe you have a point. But we need to keep this department working as a team. This you-know-what, it’s too divisive. We can’t shake them up like that.”

“How about you let me work on you-know-what, as long as I don’t say it?”

“No need. A bunch of us are already working on it.”

“Thirt—”

“SSSSHHHH! Yeah, that. We’ve got an action team. Anytime anyone mentions it, we tell them it’s bad.”

“Are they developing mathematical proofs that show it’s not between twelve and fourteen? Or that it’s not equal to ten plus three, or that it’s not half of twenty-six? You said something about it killing thousands, something about a toxic legacy – how about a straight-up factual comparison between you-know-what and four and a half?”

“We could, but we don’t need much of that.”

“Why not?”

“People have been hearing it’s bad all their lives. We’re mathematicians. They’ll take our word for it.”

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The Thousand Islands Energy Research Forum

By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

The Thousand Islands Energy Research Forum took place at the University of Ottawa this past weekend. CNA took advantage of this great opportunity to present the recent Hatch life cycle emission study, which had been launched on October 8 at our Toronto fall seminar.

John Stewart presentation

TIERF, an annual academic event that mixes energy policy and technology, drew about 40 university, government and industry participants this year. They brought presentations and technical posters on energy technology research, ranging from shale gas to geothermal to nuclear.

CNA director of research and policy John Stewart delivered a summary of the Hatch study along with CNA’s key messages from it. While nuclear is roughly as clean-emitting as wind for power generation, wind cannot stand alone due to its intermittency, and any assessment of wind’s environmental effects must include the impact of managing that intermittency.

In Ontario today, new wind farms are only generating about 20% of their capacity, and when the wind fails to blow, the difference is generally made up by burning natural gas, a fossil fuel. This means that building new wind capacity means building in more, not less, GHG emissions to Ontario’s supply mix – undoing some of the benefits of the province’s successful exit from coal.

CNA’s presentation on October 25 was preceded by an excellent analysis by u of O’s Olayinka Willliams on “The Integration of Wind Power Generation with Hydroelectricity in an Electric Grid,” which expounded the many problems of bringing randomly intermittent wind power into a grid, even when hydro is available to back it up.

GHG emissions by energy type

According to the Electric Power Research Institute, “the existing electric power grid, especially its distribution systems, was not designed to accommodate a high penetration of distributed energy resources while sustaining high levels of electric quality and reliability.” (“The Integrated Grid,” February 2014). Bollen and Hassan’s 2011 engineering text Integration of Distributed Generation in the Power System says the problems include increased risk of overload and increased losses; increased risk of overvoltages; increased levels of power-quality disturbances; and impacts on power-system stability and operation.

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Nuclear Fear is Unscientific

Nuclear energy is safer than most people think, yet a fear factor persists.

A great new talking point in the media and politics in recent years has been the use of the term “evidence-based” policy.

The concept of evidence-based policy is taken from the scientific and medical world and argues that all government, social and economic policy should be based on rigorous empirical study, not popular public opinion.

The hope or belief is that such a method will result in the best possible public policy outcomes.

Perhaps no technology has to deal with the lack of evidence-based policy like nuclear energy.

Nuclear is safe, yet it is feared and in some cases hated. The industry is well aware of this.

In a recent blog post on Brave New Climate, Australian environmental writer Martin Nicholson explained it perfectly.

“When people express their nuclear hatred, they usually argue about: the dangers from radiation leaks, the risk of weapons proliferation, the nuclear waste problem, that nuclear power is too expensive and in any case we just don’t need it!,” he wrote.

“None of these reasons have solid scientific backing. If they did, countries around the world (like USA, UK, France, Finland, Russia, China, India, South Korea, UAE) would not continue to build new nuclear power plants to supply their growing need for energy.”

Nicholson’s blog post examined the issue of risk perception and nuclear based on a 2010 book by risk consultant David Ropeik.

In short, Ropeik argues that often times fear overcomes the facts based on a number of psychological factors and internal individual questions, such as “Is the risk natural or manmade?” (Solar radiation vs. nuclear radiation) or “Can it happen to me?”

According to Nicholson, the book tells us that risk perception is “an intrinsic, biologically rooted, inescapable part of how the human animal behaves.”

This gives environmentalists opposed to nuclear energy an edge in the public and media debate.

Many would have you believe that nuclear energy is the most dangerous or deadly energy source, when the facts show otherwise.

In June, Forbes columnist James Conca wrote about an energy source’s “death print,” which he defined as “the number of people killed by one kind of energy or another per kWhr produce.”

Based on research done by Next Big Future, when you factor in direct deaths and epidemiological estimates based on pollutants released, coal has by far the worst death print and wind and nuclear have the best.

The data shows that for every person killed by nuclear power generation, 4,025 will die due to coal based on energy produced.

Evidence-based policy would favour nuclear because TWh for TWh it is one of the safest energy sources.

Deaths per TWh of power produced

Deaths per TWh of power produced

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Nuclear Power Plants Safe from Terrorist Attacks

PlaneSince 2001, much of the Western world has been living with what’s been called the “New Normal,” which came in the shadow of the 9/11 attacks.

Increased security at airports, borders and major public events is part of this new way of life.

Being part of critical infrastructure, the nuclear power industry is often cited in media stories as a potential terrorist target.

Shortly after 9/11, there was much media speculation, especially in the U.S., about the possibility of terrorists hijacking a commercial airliner and flying it into a nuclear reactor causing a meltdown.

In 2002, the U.S. Nuclear Energy Institute released a study that concluded, “The structures that house reactor fuel are robust and protect the fuel from impacts of large commercial aircraft.”

In Canada, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has also examined the issue of an airliner attack on a nuclear plant and concluded that the public would not be at risk to radiation exposure as a result of such an event.

“Robustness design covers the physical design of nuclear facilities for sufficient robustness against anticipated threats, such as protection against a malevolent aircraft crash,” the CNSC said in a 2013 report.

“The assessment and ratings for this specific area are based on licensee performance in meeting the commitments provided to CNSC staff through an exchange of correspondence, including the submission of detailed aircraft impact assessments.  Licensees have demonstrated, through analysis using conservative initial assumptions and significant safety margins, that vital areas and critical SSCs (structures systems and components) are protected to the extent that no offsite consequences are expected for general aviation aircraft impact.”

Even before 9/11, nuclear reactors in the U.S. were designed and built with thick concrete walls to withstand strong earthquakes and hurricane force winds.

In 1989, Sandia National Labs in New Mexico conducted a test that sent a rocket-propelled F-4 fighter jet into a containment wall at 480 miles per hour. The jet exploded but there were less than three inches of penetration of the wall. And there’s video to prove it.

Okay, so a plane cannot penetrate a reactor from the side. But what if it made a precise nose dive into the top of the reactor?

The NEI study examined that scenario. Here’s its conclusion.

“The wing span of the Boeing 767-400 (170 feet) – the aircraft used in the analyses – is slightly longer than the diameter of a typical containment building (140 feet). The aircraft engines are physically separated by approximately 50 feet. This makes it impossible for both an engine and the fuselage to strike the centerline of the containment building,” the NEI study concluded.

“As a result, two analyses were performed. One analysis evaluated the ‘local’ impact of an engine on the structure. The second analysis evaluated the ‘global’ impact from the entire mass of the aircraft on the structure. In both cases, the analysis conservatively assumed that the engine and the fuselage strike perpendicular to the centerline of the structure. This results in the maximum force upon impact to the structure for each case.

“The analyses indicated that no parts of the engine, the fuselage or the wings – nor the jet fuel – entered the containment buildings. The robust containment structure was not breached, although there was some crushing and spalling (chipping of material at the impact point) of the concrete.”

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Uranium Mines and Mills Subject to Strict Regulations

A radiation technician

A radiation technician checking to make sure radiation levels are below regulatory limits.

Canada’s uranium mining sector is a heavily regulated industry, monitored closely by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) to ensure the safety of workers, the environment, and the public.

Every aspect of uranium mining and milling is subject to licensing from the CNSC to ensure that they are operated in accordance with international standards. According to the CNSC website, “The CNSC’s licensing process for uranium mines and mills follows the stages laid out in the Uranium Mines and Mills Regulations, proceeding progressively through site preparation and construction, operating, decommissioning, and abandonment (or release from licensing) phases.”

Here’s a breakdown of the safety measures at each phase.

Site preparation and construction

Before construction of uranium mining or milling operations, site owners or operators must take samples from the nearby soil, water, air, flora, and fauna to document the state of the environment before mining begins. During construction and operation, the operators continue to take samples regularly and check them against original conditions, to ensure that the environment is being protected.

Results of this monitoring are submitted to federal and provincial regulatory authorities for review. Testing by independent agencies of water bodies downstream from uranium operations in northern Saskatchewan demonstrate that there have been no effects on water quality, while local wild foods, such as moose, fish, and berries, continue to be safe to eat.

Mining and milling operations

All uranium mining and milling operations have formal safety and radiation-protection programs and codes of practice, to ensure that workers and the public are safe. These programs require that radiation protection be considered in the design of all facilities and operating procedures. They also provide for systematic monitoring of radiation in work areas, and track the exposures of individual workers, through a combination of monitoring devices and health testing.

water sample

A field technician collecting a water sample from a lake downstream of a uranium mine.

Rigorous safety practices are not limited to the handling of uranium ore and concentrate. Even waste rock from mining operations, which contains very low concentrations of uranium and other metals, is managed to protect the environment. Waste rock is stored on engineered pads and, where necessary, runoff water is collected and treated to remove contaminants before it is released to the environment. Waste rock management facilities are monitored as part of the extensive environmental monitoring program in place at each operating site, to ensure that any issues are identified and addressed.

Similarly, after milling has removed uranium from ore, what is left is called “tailings”, which also contains low levels of matter that could remain radioactive for long periods. Environmental modelling shows that this matter can be managed and secured safely. In Canada, mill operators place the leftover material in tailings facilities, and cover them with water. The active tailings facilities at all of Canada’s uranium mills are state-of-the-art facilities built into large, mined-out ore pits. While the mill is active, operators collect groundwater from a series of wells around the facility. By the time operations cease, the tailings will have become a solid, dense mass. Groundwater will flow around the consolidated tailings, rather than through them, to minimize environmental impact. The facilities are designed to contain the material securely for thousands of years.

All water used in uranium mining and milling processes is treated to remove contaminants before it is released into the environment.

Transportation

Uranium concentrate is safely transported by road, rail, or sea in conventional shipping containers. Handling precautions applied to other potentially hazardous industrial chemicals are sufficient to protect people and the environment. In the event of an accidental spill, the material would be collected by trained personnel and delivered to a licensed facility for repackaging; there would be no significant effect on people or the environment. The CNSC inspects and reviews the transportation of uranium from mining and milling operations to ensure the safety of workers and the public.

Shutdown and decommissioning

waste rock

Trucks hauling uranium ore and waste rock to the surface.

Though decommissioning takes place at the end of the cycle, it is planned and financed from the beginning. “The CNSC requires a licensee to have a financial guarantee in place during all phases of the facility’s lifecycle to cover the cost of decommissioning,” according to the CNSC. “This ensures that decommissioning is included in planning at all stages in a facility’s lifecycle. Decommissioning and reclamation plans for mines and mills must be assessed and approved by the CNSC before work can proceed.”All uranium mining and milling operations must eventually be decommissioned. During this phase, the operators remove all structures, secure and landscape the tailings and waste-rock facilities, fill or flood the open pits, and close the mines, backfilling them with concrete caps. After the physical decommissioning is complete, the sites are subject to an extended monitoring period to ensure that the environment is protected.

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U.N. does not Expect Cancer Increase due to Fukushima Radiation

Thyroid scanWith little media coverage and even less fanfare, the United Nations released a report in April that dispelled one of the most popular myths regarding the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown.

The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) said in a report it did not expect “significant changes” in future cancer rates that could be attributed to radiation exposure from the reactor meltdowns.

“The doses to the general public, both those incurred during the first year and estimated for their lifetimes, are generally low or very low. No discernible increased incidence of radiation-related health effects are expected among exposed members of the public or their descendants,” the report concluded.

While the report clears radiation from negative health impacts, it noted that those in the areas affected by the meltdown were not immune to other health impacts.

“The most important health effect is on mental and social well-being, related to the enormous impact of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident, and the fear and stigma related to the perceived risk of exposure to ionizing radiation,” it said.

“Effects such as depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms have already been reported.”

So fear about the exposure to radiation was more of a health problem than radiation exposure itself.