Author Archives: Michelle Leslie

Why We Say Nuclear Is Safe – And Why We Shouldn’t

Very few products market their safety.

For example, airlines do not advertise how many days it’s been since their last crash. In recent presentations, UK nuclear advocate Malcolm Grimston has taken the nuclear industry to task for its safety messaging approach.  He says safety is not the product. In a recent speech, he compared the nuclear industry that uses only facts to the Brexit Remain campaign, unable to counter the emotional arguments of the Leave side. In the case of the Brexit “Remain” vote, the facts were not enough.

Grimston is not alone. There is much research and literature on the perils of exclusively communicating facts. On some level, fear of nuclear can be a psychological phenomenon. Risk communication expert Peter Sandman says the risks likely to kill people are not necessarily the risks that concern them. There seems to be no correlation between the likelihood and severity of hazard and public fear. Many risks make people outraged but do little harm and other risks result in millions of deaths each year with little public outcry.

Then there is the backfire effect, which alarmingly shows that facts often don’t matter.  A Dartmouth experiment showed subjects two news stories – one with a misleading claim from President George W. Bush and the other with the claim plus a correction. Conservatives who read a news story which suggested Iraq had WMDs followed by a correction from a CIA study that indicated the opposite were more likely to believe Iraq had WMDs than Conservatives who read the story without the correction.  The research found that the effect of a correction is dependent upon one’s ideological predisposition. People engage in motivated reasoning. That’s because humans are goal-driven information processors, which means they interpret any information, positive or negative, to support their bias. Hence the backfire effect.

Despite what Grimston implies, the nuclear industry isn’t putting out facts about safety because it wants to. This is not happening in an experimental vacuum. A good deal of the safety messaging is to counter media coverage. Most people are aware of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. As this is written, a simple Google News search shows “Three Mile Island and nuclear” has a result from five hours ago, “Chernobyl and nuclear” has a result from two hours ago, and “Fukushima and nuclear” has a story from three hours ago. Nuclear energy runs 24/7, but so does news coverage of accidents that happened as far back as 38 years ago.

There is also the problem of frequency. People may perceive a greater probability of risk in something of which they are reminded on regular basis, whether it be by friends or the media.

In the mid-1960s, polling showed that a decrease in the amount of news coverage about nuclear power resulted in a decrease in opposition. But in 1968, news coverage of siting controversies increased the percentage of people opposed to nuclear. This trend was also seen in 1979 after the incident at Three Mile Island. Opposition increased in the two months after the accident in the spring, then steadily declined over the summer only to increase again in October and November when the media covered the Congressional report on the accident.

The media practice of featuring dueling experts in stories or on TV panels can have a negative impact on the nuclear industry’s safety message. This type of format leads to the public often concluding, “Well, if experts can’t agree then nuclear energy probably isn’t safe.”

Syracuse University sociologist Allan Mazur has found expert debates on technical subjects only increase public opposition to a technology. This means the media’s need to have a balance in coverage leads to a misconception that nuclear is not safe. Much like U.S. cable news networks have been criticized by environmentalists for giving too big a platform to climate change skeptics, an over exposure to the public of opposing views without factoring the scientific consensus can skew coverage of climate change or nuclear safety. “Thus truth in journalism is quite different from truth in science,” as Sandman has written.

Given this, what can those of us in the nuclear industry do?  Grimston’s advice to extol the benefits of nuclear can be effective. Polling conducted for the CNA has shown that providing respondents with positive information about nuclear in addition to safety, such as its role in climate change mitigation and how it can help those living in energy poverty or remote communities, can change opinions. Pre-information, 22 per cent of respondents supported nuclear, 31 per cent opposed and 47 per cent were undecided. Post information the number increased to 37 per cent in favour. While most of those opposed remained opposed, seven per cent of them supported nuclear post information and 36 per cent moved into the undecided group.

Powering Space Missions with Nuclear Science

Recently, the Trump administration inked its commitment to future space missions with a $19.5 billion dollar budget announcement to the U.S. Space Agency. Among the projects NASA has slated include a human mission to Mars sometime after 2030 and a Canada-U.S. partnership could help to provide the power to get there.

Studying the solar system is no easy feat. Minimal sunlight and severe weather conditions are just two challenges that face outer space explorations. On Mars, nighttime temperatures can fall below -70 degrees Celsius and violent dust storms can destroy solar panels. Harsh environments and ever evolving missions require an effective power and heat source for spacecraft.

Enter nuclear science and radioisotope power systems.

Billions of miles away from a gas station or electric charging station, radioisotope power systems (RPS) have allowed scientists to research and study the limits of our solar system. Electricity is produced from the decay of the isotope plutonium 238 (Pu-238). As the isotope decays it gives off a tremendous amount of heat energy which is converted into electricity. With a half-life of 88 years, a radioisotope power system is able to provide continuous energy for long term deep space missions. As compared to solar power, an RPS can reach into deep space where solar power is ineffective.

However, there is a limited supply of Pu-238 that is needed for deep space research leaving the future of deep space exploration potentially in the dark.

Enter a Canadian-U.S. collaboration and a proposal to shift space research into high gear. A partnership between Technical Solutions Management (TSM), Ontario Power Generation (OPG), Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) and Pacific Northwest National Labs (PNNL) would support and augment the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) program to renew the production of Pu-238, allowing scientists to continue their exploration of the solar system.

“Our hope is to land a contract to expand the amount of Pu-238 that is available for space exploration,” according to Glen Elliott, Director, Business Development, Ontario Power Generation.

Mars Rover: Curiosity

If approved, the mission could be well on its way to powering future space ventures in the next 5 years, by 2022. The concept would rely on a commercial reactor to produce the necessary isotope, specifically OPG’s Darlington reactor.

“The flexibility of the plan makes it ideal. Depending on the mission requirements, it could be scaled up or down customizing the amount of fuel needed,” according to Elliott. “The Darlington reactor has online fueling capability and an ideal neutron flux so you can precisely control the irradiation time.”

A neutron flux is comprised of two elements; the speed and distance that the neutrons cover. Like football players on a field, the neutron flux is the speed at which the players are running and the total distance of the field that they cover.

The other benefit of the Darlington reactor is that it can produce the fuel needed for radioisotope power systems while performing its primary objective of producing electricity.

“This project is just another example of the broad economic and societal benefits of nuclear power. It provides clean, low-cost power, it helps in the medical world and if successful can be a part of the next generation of space travel,” said Jeff Lyash, President & Chief Executive Officer, Ontario Power Generation.

The proposal would help ensure an adequate global supply of Pu-238 for space missions and strengthen a Canada-U.S. partnership while creating jobs, boosting the economy and advancing the field of science exploration.

Attention environmentalists: Ontario, not Germany, is a clean energy leader

In 2011, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced a radical plan to close all the country’s 17 nuclear plants by 2022.  At the same time, the country plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2020 and up to 95 percent in 2050, compared to 1990 levels.  Many environmentalists and anti-nuclear types viewed this Energiewende (“energy transition”) as good news.

But Germany’s green Energiewende is producing one big not-so-green result. The regressive impact of Germany’s decision to abandon nuclear power has done little to phase out coal-fired electricity.

Despite its ambitious plans, Germany remains the coal capital of Europe.

The German broadcaster Deutsche Welle recently reported the mining company RWE is planning the expansion of some of Europe’s biggest coal mines – Garzweiler and Hambach.

Yet these developments have not stopped advocates enthusiastic about wind and solar at energy conferences in Canada from using Germany as an example of a clean energy leader. This adulation is particularly puzzling, when these people just need to look in their own backyard to find a better example of a low-carbon leader.

In 2016, Ontario’s electricity generation was 90 per cent carbon free, with nuclear accounting for 61 per cent of power generation and coal zero. In contrast, 2016 estimates for Germany show their grid was 42 per cent carbon free (a mix of 13 per cent nuclear and 29 per cent from renewables), and coal still making up 40 per cent of electricity generation.

Unlike Ontario, which used a combination of nuclear, gas and renewables to phase out coal, Germany has increased renewables, cut nuclear with very little impact on coal.

Not only do these numbers raise doubts about Germany being able to keep its emission reductions commitments, they come at a cost.

An analysis of 257 of 280 coal-fired power plants in the EU found that their 2013 emissions caused over 22,900 deaths. In Germany, 3,630 people died from coal-related illnesses in 2013, the report by the Health and Environment Alliance, Climate Action Network Europe, WWF European Policy Office and Sandbag reported.

Germany’s electricity mix is still comprised of 23 per cent lignite coal, which is often referred to as “brown” coal, which causes the highest CO2 emissions per ton when burned.

Meanwhile in Ontario, nuclear energy played an important role in Ontario’s phase-out of coal in 2014 and ending smog days across the province.

Between 2000 and 2013, nuclear-powered electrical generation rose 20 percent in Ontario, coinciding with a 27 percent drop in coal-fired electricity. During the same period, non-hydro renewables increased to 3.4 percent from one percent.  Bruce Power doubled its fleet of operating reactors from four to eight, becoming the world’s largest nuclear generating station.

While more renewable energy did come on line, Bruce Power estimates they provided 70% of the carbon free energy needed to replace the power from the shutdown of coal plants.

All in all, this major transition to a cleaner Ontario could not have happened without nuclear.

The long-term results of Germany’s Energiewende experiment are not known. Based on current data it should stand as a cautionary tale for governments thinking about replacing low-carbon nuclear energy with carbon-creating fossil fuels.  It should stand as an example of a global clean energy leader.

Nuclear Science & The World’s Water Supply

One the largest contributors to global water pollution, the textile dyeing industry accounts for one-fifth of all industrial wastewater. However, the world’s leading textile producer is hoping to change that thanks to nuclear technology.

China recently announced that it will open its first wastewater treatment plant that will clean and treat water using an electron beam. The announcement made by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) underscores the importance of nuclear science in addressing global water concerns.

“Despite advances in conventional wastewater treatment technology in recent years, radiation remains the only technology that can treat the most stubborn colorants in wastewater,” said Sunil Sabharwal, Radiation Processing Specialist at the IAEA.

The compounds that are used in textile dyes are made up of complex molecules making it impossible for bacteria, traditionally used in wastewater treatment, to break down the chemicals and clean the water for industrial reuse. What bacteria can’t do nuclear radiation technology can. Through the use of an electron beam, these complex chemical bonds are broken down and removed from the water; allowing for it to be reused.

The Chinese investment in the first wastewater electron beam treatment plant is an important step forward. The United Nations through their water agency and World Water Day have been raising awareness on the importance of the world’s water resources and the impacts that lack of water and water-related disasters have on humanity.

Since 2003, the organization has focused on addressing water issues. “Water is at the core of sustainable development. Water resources, and the range of services they provide, underpin poverty reduction, economic growth and environmental sustainability. From food and energy security to human and environmental health, water contributes to improvements in social wellbeing and inclusive growth, affecting the livelihoods of billions.”

As reported on by Chinese journalists, the impact of the clothing dyeing industry on the health of nearby residents is alarming. In Xintang, the denim capital of the world, the pollution from the East River has also contaminated nearby soils and there is concern that the pollution will spill its way to other waterways, being carried by currents.

While China’s new wastewater treatment plant won’t solve the problem completely, it will help to address some of the country’s water problems. The new facility will treat 1500 cubic meters of wastewater per day, slightly smaller than an Olympic sized swimming pool. If the new plant is successful, it could lead to more opportunities to clean up China’s water supply. The country is also considering using nuclear science to clean up the wastewater at pharmaceutical plants.

Carr Supports Nuclear

The CNA’s ongoing dialogue and lobbying efforts with government are underpinned with the message that Canada’s nuclear sector is a strategic advantage for the nation in its capability to enable clean prosperity for all Canadians. Part of this message was reflected back from government in a recent Q&A with Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr in the Hill Times.

Carr’s reference to nuclear was particularly notable given the fact that his comments were part of a special feature in the Hill Times on climate and renewable energy.

Q: While the government has set a target for the percentage of energy it hopes to draw from renewable sources, are there any source-specific targets? For example, how much energy will be drawn from solar or wind, etc.? Also, is nuclear included as a renewable source in those calculations? If so, what do you make of arguments that until solutions are found for the safe and proper disposal of nuclear waste, it is in fact not a ‘clean’ energy source?

A: “Today, 80 per cent of our electricity comes from non-greenhouse gas-emitting sources, including nuclear energy, and our government’s goal is to put Canada on the pathway to 90 per cent, by 2030, in large part by accelerating the phasing out of coal-powered electricity.

However, power generation falls under provincial jurisdiction and it is the responsibility of the provinces to decide the best ways to green their electricity grids.
“When it comes to producing nuclear energy, waste owners are required, under federal law to implement safe solutions for their waste in both the short and long term. Pursuant to the Nuclear Safety and Control Act, all waste produced from nuclear power generation is currently safely managed at facilities licensed by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

“As I told the Canadian Nuclear Association earlier this year, there is no reason why nuclear energy can’t be a part of the solution. In fact, Canada is one of only nine Mission Innovation countries to include nuclear energy as part of its clean-energy portfolio.

“Why? Because the use of nuclear power throughout the world makes an important contribution to cleaner air and the mitigation of climate change. Over 22 per cent of the uranium used to generate nuclear power around the world is mined in Canada. This displaces the equivalent of between 300 and 600 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions every year compared to electricity that otherwise would have been generated using fossil fuels.”

mvigliotti@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times – July 17, 2017

Nuclear Approach to Cancer Could Save Lives

While Tragically Hip front man Gord Downie may be the most recognized person to be living with glioblastoma, brain cancer affects hundreds of thousands of families every year. A bleak diagnosis, the five-year survival rate for patients aged 45 to 54 sits at just four per cent according to the Canadian Cancer Society.

However, there is reason to be hopeful. New research in nuclear medicine targets cancers like glioblastoma through an inside-out approach, giving patients a new lease on life. These small and mighty cancer fighters are known as alpha-emitting isotopes and unlike traditional radiation therapy, which blasts cells from the outside, alphas attack cancer from the inside, protecting healthy tissues while destroying diseased ones.

“It’s a magic bullet for people in the cancer field because it has the beauty of sparing healthy tissues and finding and weeding out tiny tumors,” according to Dr. Tom Ruth, Special Advisor, Emeritus, TRIUMF.

Recently, The Medical University of Warsaw beat out over 2,000 other submissions to win the Marie Curie Award from the European Association of Nuclear Medicine (EANM) for their work on alpha therapies. Their research indicated that the work of alpha therapies could extend the life of patients with brain cancer by almost two years compared to patients who weren’t treated by alpha radiation. Alpha-emitting isotopes, unlike their beta radiation counterparts, have higher energy and can only travel short distances which makes them ideal cancer fighters.

“Alpha particles fly very short distances so because of short penetration range in tissues you won’t destroy healthy cells,” stated Valery Radchenko, Research Scientist, TRIUMF.

Researchers at TRIUMF are mapping out alpha-emitting isotopes as a way of extending the life of cancer patients or curing them all-together. Alpha-therapy is thought to be especially effective for those with late-stage or metastasized cancers (cancer that has spread from one part of the body to another).

“The key to alpha is to combine them with the right biomolecule to target the cancer cells. If you can find a way to get an alpha-emitting isotope to a tumor you can potentially cure the cancer,” said Radchenko.

While alpha-therapy could be a game changer in the fight against cancer, researchers need wider access to the alpha particles and closer partnerships with the health care system in order to complete the preliminary tests required to bring alpha-therapies to the mainstream market.

“The main problem is lack of facilities for the production of a clinically relevant amount of alpha emitters. There are just several around the world so they aren’t readily available,” stressed Radchenko.