Dear Dr. Whitlock:
I attended an open house hosted by Energy Alberta in
Brownvale in September. While there, a poster with bold but
questionable claims about CANDU reactors grabbed my
attention. One blatantly false claim stated that the record
for CANDU reactors, worldwide, was that there have been "ZERO
accidental release(s) of radiation" in "Five Hundred Reactor
Years." (I found the same claim at AECL's website at
Since you, a physicist from AECL, were at the meeting, I
confronted you about this error and indicated that I have
lived near a CANDU reactor and that there have, in fact, been
leaks of radioactive tritium from CANDU reactors in Ontario.
I went on to suggest that tritium, being a form of hydrogen,
was dissipated into the environment as water and in organic
compounds and would have been consumed by humans who may thus
have suffered detrimental health effects.
In your reply, you did not acknowledge the error on the
poster. Instead you speculated that low levels of ionizing
radiation might actually be good for our health and that it
might stimulate our immune systems. In fact, most experts in
the field suggest that "there is no safe level of radiation."
I respect your point of view and your right to defend it. But
I must admit that I came away from that meeting with deep
concerns about the manner in which a CANDU reactor is being
promoted in the Peace River community by Energy Alberta and
the AECL. People are hearing flatly contradictory comments
about nuclear power from the pro and con side. Some feel they
don't know whom to believe. Based on what I saw and heard
from you in Brownvale, I have good reasons not to believe the
AECL and Energy Alberta.
The following exchange between Grimshaw resident Jake Binnema and Dr. Jeremy Whitlock concerns a previous speaking engagement in Grimshaw on the subject of the ACR power plant proposed by Energy Alberta:
Dear Mr. Binnema,
I apologize that my response to this question in Brownvale
was insufficient. It sounds like I misunderstood your
question to be about routine (not accidental) releases.
Certainly there was no attempt to avoid the topic of
occasional leaks at CANDU stations, since these are a matter
of public record (each one, in fact, usually makes front page
headlines), and if you look at my website, www.nuclearfaq.ca,
you'll see I freely discuss this aspect of operations.
The poster you refer to did indeed contain an error, and once
recognized, was pulled from further display. Fortunately, in
both our oral presentation and in the handouts the correct
statement appeared: "500 reactor years = zero accidents"
(referring to the operational safety record).
This was probably a case of overzealous editing from a longer
statement about there being no off-site impact from releases
(routine or accidental), which is a fact. The releases we're
talking about here pale next to what other industries and
municipalities pump into the same waterways on a routine
daily basis - both in terms of volume and toxicity - and
CANDU releases only make the news because (a) nuclear is
newsworthy, and (b) the information is readily available.
Tritium itself is considered to be a weak radionuclide, which
is why Health Canada's drinking water limit for tritium (7000
Bq/L) is higher than most other radionuclides. Even then, you
would need to consume at least 20 tonnes of water
contaminated at this maximum level in order to equal your
annual background radiation exposure (which itself is
thousands of times less than levels causing known effects).
And keep in mind, CANDU stations typically emit only 1% of
their release limits, whether routine or accidental. In
short, the effect is negligible - which is why it's permitted.
Radiation in the environment around a nuclear plant is
measured routinely to ensure compliance, and numerous health
studies of the local populations have confirmed the absence
of any effect.
Moreover, to me the accidental releases are a positive story
- i.e. it speaks to the effectiveness of containment that
limited the off-site releases to these negligible levels. In
fact I wish other industries had as many accidental off-site
releases, with as much environmental effect, as the nuclear
industry. The planet would certainly be much cleaner!
Regarding low-level radiation, you ask: "Is it not generally
conceded among experts in the field, that "there is no safe
level of (ionizing) radiation." The answer is an emphatic
"NO". At background radiation levels (which are hundreds to
thousands of times higher than the CANDU emissions,
accidental or routine) there is simply not enough information
to know one way or the other. Conservative safety practice,
however, assumes a level of harm, but there is absolutely no
evidence for this.
I also pointed out in Peace Country that
low levels could even be beneficial to health, similar to
many toxins at low-levels - an effect called "hormesis".
This is supported by a large body of scientific study (e.g.
mice exposed to low radiation levels are healthier and live
longer), although we will likely never know since it is
impossible to see any effect at these levels.
I hope this helps. Please keep in mind that I live in a
small town outside Canada's largest nuclear laboratory, home
to several reactors and other nuclear facilities. So when
I'm in Peace Country discussing what can be expected from a
nuclear facility, I'm describing what I choose to live with
as well, backed by thirty years of immersion in this field of
knowledge, and a professional and personal ethical standard.