Nuclear Energy and NRU

December 12th, 2007 by Potato

I’m in favour of nuclear energy for Canada. While it does have a history of delays and cost-overruns, the delays are often a result of making sure that we implement it safely. Plus even at double the cost, nuclear power is still one of the very cheapest forms of energy available to us, and the only large-scale carbon-free source we can count on for the medium term. There are hazards with nuclear power. The risks are very remote, but when things go wrong, they have the capability to go very wrong (whereas with other sources of power, the risks associated with them occur more frequently, but usually are more minor). However, Canada has a reactor design that is inherently safe, and a strong history of keeping things above-board and putting safety as one of the highest priorities (which is part of where all the crazy budget overruns come from).

…until the Harper government decided to thwart the nuclear regulator in order to bring the NRU reactor in Chalk River up sooner. The NRU shutdown has had a big effect on nuclear medicine scans across the country, and in fact, across the continent. Somehow, this one reactor had come to be the dominant source of molybednum-99 for much of the world, with no backups, anywhere. The shortage has turned the nuclear medicine corridor at my hospital into a ghost town, with the tiny bit of remaining isotopes used strictly for emergency patients. There was a stockpiling process before the reactor went off-line, but since the isotopes break down so quickly that could only last for a few weeks, and as the shutdown stretches on still…

Personally, I think the reactor probably could be turned on for at least a short while to do another round of stockpiling, and then upgrades can be made over the next year a week or two at a time as necessary, while keeping the medical isotopes flowing.

But I must strongly disagree with what the Harper government is doing here. Politicians do not have the expertise necessary to say with any degree of confidence things like:

“There will be no nuclear accident,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper asserted in the House of Commons, saying the government has received independent advice indicating there is no safety concern.

“On the contrary, what we do know is that the continuing actions of the Liberal-appointed Nuclear Safety Commission will jeopardize the health and safety and lives of tens of thousands of Canadians. We do have the responsibility to demand that Parliament step in and fix this situation before the health of more people is put in jeopardy.”

The Harper government has a nasty habit of closing up and relying on “independent advice” without ever sharing its sources with the public, and this is absolutely not the time for that kind of bullshit. Likewise, it’s not time to throw in nasty, probably untrue snipes at the Liberals (Hey, “Canada’s New Government” you’ve been at it for well over a year), especially as the spendiest government in our history has found billions for Quebec, arctic patrol routes, etc, but didn’t bother to throw some money at the new Maple generators until a crisis hit.

This is not an issue that should be politicized: in fact, that’s the sort of thing that makes nuclear reactors dangerous. Design them well, operate them meticulously, listen to the careful watchdogs, and spend the money it takes, and then we can all benefit from nuclear reactors (whether for energy or isotope production).

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