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Just How Radioactive is Uranium Ore?

radiation from bananasI recently stumbled upon a blog by Andrea Jennetta, a nuclear energy communicator with nearly 25 years of work experience in the U.S nuclear industry.

Although many of her blog postings are insightful and thought-provoking, the following post was also extremely timely, what with the BAPE hearings on uranium mining in Quebec currently underway.

One of the main concerns of the BAPE has to do with the dangers of uranium mining, and one of these so-called dangers is exposure to radiation.

Jennetta does a great job of putting radiation due to uranium mining in perspective:

Understanding radiation and its different sources can be a tricky thing. It’s even trickier when uranium mining opponents are intent on deceiving us all into believing that uranium is the most radioactive and dangerous substance known to man.

So, just how radioactive is uranium ore? And, how does it compare to other naturally occurring radioactive substances we are exposed to on a daily basis? Say, bananas for instance.

Well, a handful of raw uranium ore actually has about as much radiation as 10 bananas – a “bunch” that is. But, how could that be? It’s simple really. Banana’s are radioactive because they contain trace amounts of the naturally occurring radioactive isotope potassium–40, just like uranium ore contains trace amounts of the naturally occurring radioactive isotopes uranium-238 and 235. Shocking isn’t it?

But wait, there’s more. Uranium mines and nuclear facilities only account for about 0.1% of the average American’s radiation exposure in a given year. Most of our radiation exposure comes from the sun, the earth, medical procedures, and breathing naturally occurring radon molecules – NOT from nuclear energy or uranium mining. You get radiation from your computer screen, from the Brazil nuts you eat, from the gas burner in your kitchen and from your granite counter tops.

Radiation is natural and all around us, and at a level of 10 bananas-worth per handful, uranium is hardly the most dangerous substance known to man and something smart engineers and scientists are fully capable of managing without harming people or the environment.

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Canadian Nuclear Power Plants Get Top Marks for Safety from CNSC

By Romeo St-Martin
Digital Media Officer
Canadian Nuclear Association

OPG, Bruce Power and NB Power all received high marks for their plant safety from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission last week, proving again that nuclear power in Canada is safe.

The CNSC Staff Integrated Safety Assessment of Canadian Nuclear Power Plants for 2013 concluded that Canada’s nuclear power plant operators “made adequate provision for the protection of the health, safety and security of persons and the environment from the use of nuclear energy.”

The report’s highlights included:

  • there were no serious process failures at the nuclear power plants
  • no member of the public received a radiation dose that exceeded the regulatory limit
  • no worker at any plant received a radiation dose that exceeded the regulatory limits
  • the frequency and severity of non-radiological injuries to workers were minimal
  • no radiological releases to the environment from the stations exceeded the regulatory limits

The CNSC rates nuclear power plant safety performance on 14 criteria using a scale of “Fully Satisfactory,” “Satisfactory,” “Below expectations,” and “Unacceptable.”

All nuclear power plants received scores of either “Fully Satisfactory” or “Satisfactory” for all 14 items, including things such as waste, fitness for service and radiation protection.

In addition, OPG’s Darlington was the only station to receive a “Fully Satisfactory” score – the highest score possible – for its overall plant rating.

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On Defending Black Cats, Fridays, Spiders and the Number Thirteen

By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

Many years ago I took a job with the United States government.

It was about a year and a half into the implementation of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, and my job was to continue that work.

Most of my friends and acquaintances reacted as though I’d sold my soul to Satan. And I felt like I had (but I desperately needed the job).

I was an eastern Canadian liberal born in the 1960’s. My cohort was nursed on big government and Canadian “nonAmericanism.” If there was one thing my generation knew, it was that the United States was bad.

We weren’t all that clear on why the U.S was bad. If questioned, most of us would have said something about how free trade was going to make us in to hewers of wood and drawers of water, and destroy our country’s ability to chart its own course.

Nor were we all that realistic about what we’d rather have instead of the U.S. Even though the Cold War was just ending, the alternative of what it might be like living next door to 200 million Russians never got seriously entertained. We got to live under the Americans’ security umbrella and sell Americans 80 per cent of our exports, while feeling morally superior to them and sneering at all they did.

That the U.S. was just plain bad, and it ought to either go away, or else simply be more like Canada, was something we all just knew with great moral certainty. Rather as some societies just know that if the sheep get bloat, there’s a witch in the village.

Somehow this quietly changed. Ten years later, at the end of the Clinton years, Canada was growing fat on North American free trade, selling cars, jets and telephone systems to the world. Canadian big-government nation-building was sliding out of fashion. And my employment with the U.S. government – where I stayed for 20 years – had become nearly respectable.

As more years have passed, the Canadian intelligentsia seems to have come to view the U.S. with something almost approaching understanding. It’s our troubled neighbour, an ageing but still-great power, struggling with historic challenges of military overreach, entitlement spending and accumulated treaty obligations, rather like Britain did before it.

It turns out free trade didn’t destroy Canada; rather, we did pretty handsomely out of it. If anyone’s turning us back into hewers of wood and drawers of water, it’s more likely to be the Chinese than the Americans.

And as we start to glimpse it, a world without a leading democratic power that takes on international obligations – and draws others to them – doesn’t look so good after all. These days, America is almost – dare I say it? – appreciated.

Four years ago I took a job with the nuclear industry. It was three years after the IPCC’s fourth assessment report on climate change. I could see that nuclear energy had to be an important piece of any serious strategy to fight our planet’s heating.

Like 20 years earlier, many acquaintances acted like I’d sold my soul to Satan – but a different Satan this time. If there’s one thing people know, it’s that nuclear stuff is bad.

They’re not that clear why nuclear is bad. If asked, they might mumble vaguely about “waste” (as if other energy sources don’t emit anything).

But the truth is, the less they know about nuclear stuff, the more sure they are that it’s bad.

Correlation between knowledge of nuclear power and support for it, among general Canadian population.  Source: Innovative Research 2014 Nuclear Attitudes Survey.

Correlation between knowledge of nuclear power and support for it, among general Canadian population. Source: Innovative Research 2014 Nuclear Attitudes Survey.

Nor are they all that realistic about what they’d like instead of nuclear. Nuclear, rather like an unwelcome imperial power, should just go away.

The fact that it supplies most (most, meaning 59 per cent last year in Ontario of my friends’ and neighbours’ electric power, and of the power used by nearly all of our employers and suppliers) isn’t even known, much less thought through.

The fact that the alternatives emit more and/or use more land and/or cost more and/or are less reliable than nuclear – a parallel to the idea that the Russians might be considerably less pleasant to live beside than our American friends – is even farther from their thoughts.

I expect to be in this industry for a while. Concern about climate change is already making nuclear a slightly more respectable place to be. I look forward to the day when it’s appreciated.

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Hill Times Ad Shows Nuclear is Clean Energy

Here is the half-page ad that appeared in the August 11 edition of The Hill Times. It is the last a series of three ads that were selected to run during  the paper’s policy briefing on Canada’s energy sector. 

Hill Times Ad - Renewables

Have a look at the first and second ads! 

CNA Responds Nuclear Energy

Finding Facts in the Fog of Fiction

By John Stewart
Director of Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

Have you seen the email that says, “The nuclear industry doesn’t want you to think about Quebec”? Well, we actually do want you to think about Quebec, because the argument that Ontario could import cheap electricity from Quebec and scrap the refurbishment of the Darlington generating station just doesn’t work.

Commission report on Quebec's energy futureQuebec’s commission on energy policy turned in a report in February 2014 on its public consultations – the same report used as the foundation of the import-from-Quebec argument.

As we pointed out last week, the business case to import Quebec electricity just isn’t there in today’s power market. Don’t just take our word for it. Look at these direct quotes from the commission’s report. (The translation is ours.) It turns out that Quebec is awash in supply that it’s been overpaying for in costly, misplaced efforts to encourage alternatives:

“Electricity demand has flattened…. Despite this, Quebec has added important sources of production: wind, small hydro, biomass…. This reality results in an annual subsidy to electricity producers that will reach $1.2 billion in 2017, at the expense of power consumers and taxpayers.” (p. 21)

“In North America, including Quebec and Ontario, authorities subsidize renewable energy on their own territory… rather than pay a premium for clean energy imported from outside….” (p. 181)

That new supply has been costing Quebec much more than its traditional big hydro. To cover that cost, Hydro Quebec needs to export power at peak periods. Otherwise, it loses money:

“Today, these surpluses can only be disposed of on export markets. The first 10 TWh are exported at peak periods at high prices and are profitable for Quebec. The rest, about 20 TWh, is exported in off-peak periods at an average price of $0.03/KWh. But, the cost of energy from new production sources added since 2008 varies between $0.06/KWh and $0.12/KWh.” (p. 21)

The export channels, or “interconnects,” that export those profitable 10 TWh/year cannot handle a greater load:

“The additional (20 TWh) cannot be sold at peak periods because the current interconnects with neighbouring markets are saturated; it can only be sold in off-peak or base periods at prices that are too low to make recent investments profitable….” (p. 176)

More interconnects are not the answer in this market. Rather, the commission recommends against new export deals, and it calls on the Quebec government to trim the subsidized sources of supply within the province:

“There is no doubt in the Commission’s mind that the government of Quebec must immediately cease new requests for the production of electricity and that it must cancel contracts in the process of renewal….” (p. 184)

As we pointed out last week, this is one reason why actual deals for long-term electric power have been expensive in 2014 (more than 10 cents per KWh in the New England power pool).

Electricity exporters have to earn much more than the average cost of production from their big, efficient base-load generating stations – hydro dams in Quebec, and nuclear energy stations in Ontario. They also have to subsidize pricey alternatives. That’s why they need a sales price that covers production costs plus subsidies.  And any power supply that replaces Darlington must be not only large (over 3,000 MW), but available around the clock – not just off-peak or whenever the interprovincial connections allow it.

The bottom line: facts are facts. The price of power is what people pay for it, and not some made-up number based on flawed assumptions. In today’s market, a profit-seeking Hydro Quebec wouldn’t want to sell electricity to Ontario on a sustained basis below the cost of its most expensive production.

Here’s another fact: nuclear energy safely delivers reliable, low-cost power to Ontario. And, in displacing coal and natural gas from Ontario’s supply mix, nuclear energy reduces Ontario’s greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 90 megatons per year.

You’d think an organization that promotes clean air would celebrate nuclear’s zero-carbon emissions rather than generate a fog of fiction.

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Hill Times Ad Targets the Oil Sands

This is the half-page ad that appeared in the July 28 edition of The Hill Times. It is the second in a series of three ads that were selected to run during  the paper’s policy briefing on Canada’s energy sector.

Hill Times Ad - Oil Sands

Check out the first ad here!