2004 September 18
Dear Mr. McDonald:
I found your Sept. 18 show on nuclear waste to be on the whole fairly
balanced, with opinions covering most positions in this contentious debate.
While it was necessary to hear from Norman Rubin of Energy Probe, I found it
unfortunate that he wasn’t identified as a professional anti-nuclear
activist, since, as you pointed out later in the show, opposition to nuclear
power does tend to colour one’s viewpoint on nuclear waste management.
I found less relevance in Paul Kennedy’s entirely unrealistic “what-if”
scenarios, which seemed intended to scare rather than to inform. I address
By way of providing balance to Mr. Kennedy’s vision of doom, may I suggest
the following alternate scenario:
- Not only is it difficult to envision a terrorist bomb doing much damage
to a spent fuel storage container (as you subsequently pointed out), but it
is not likely that success in such a venture would achieve much for the
terrorists. A high radiation field around the rubble would inhibit
fire-fighting and other emergency measures, but effects on the surrounding
public would likely be minimal. Any kind of intended explosive dispersal of
contamination would be hampered by the heavy materials involved, which would
absorb much of the overpressure shockwave. Radiation fields in the
surrounding community would undoubtedly be measurably higher, but not likely
high enough to cause a health effect. As the Tokai-Mura accident in Japan
demonstrated, of course, the very existence of elevated radiation levels
would be enough to cause mass panic, and this is perhaps where the
terrorists might make some gains.
- The thought that a future militant society might mine a nuclear waste
repository for its plutonium content, for the purposes of making nuclear
weapons, is not credible. The reactor-grade plutonium found in spent
reactor fuel would make only a crude, unreliable weapon, and only then at
considerable expense and health risk to the perpetrators (see my article at
http://www.nuclearfaq.ca/cnf_sectionF.htm#x2 for more discussion). It is
not likely that a sub-national or national group would pursue this route to
military supremacy, when other more effective and cheaper options exist. It
is very likely, on the other hand, that future generations might mine a
nuclear waste repository, regardless of its intended level of permanence,
for its bountiful energy content.
Thank you, and keep up the good work.
“It is the year 2200. There is no world hunger and dictatorships are few
and short-lasted. Society has achieved a global equalization of wealth, but
only through a massive scale-up and equalization of energy usage on all
continents. This has taxed the planet’s natural resources. Natural gas is
gone. Coal and oil burning are restricted. New uranium deposits are being
found only at depths of several kilometres, and uranium extraction from sea
water, while promising a virtually infinite supply, is proving expensive.
The fusion prototype reactors have had most of their teething problems
fixed, but another 30 to 50 years is needed before commercial units will
“The various governments turn to their nuclear spent-fuel repositories, and
begin to extract plutonium fuel from the material left there over two
centuries ago. They are grateful that their antecedents had the foresight
to entomb this valuable resource in a manner that isolated it indefinitely,
and yet left it available for use by future generations.
“At the same time they are bewildered at how a people that so casually
bequeathed a litany of other, far more dangerous, hazards and toxic detritus
to its descendents -- perhaps understandable in an age of unprecedented
industrial advancement -- could have taken the time to address the long-term
disposition of this one toxic legacy. If only they had acted as responsibly
in all sectors of their industry!”