Let's close the door and our minds to nuclear power
By Licia Corbella, Calgary HeraldMarch 19, 2011
Over the decades, I have tried very hard to be openminded about
nuclear power. I have met with nuclear scientists who work for the nuclear
industry, held editorial board meetings with them, read their literature and
several books that made arguments in favour of building more nuclear power
It was hard work for me. As a teenager, I could often be found protesting
against anything nuclear. Dr. Helen Caldicott was one of my heroes, and I
attended and watched more special screenings of her Academy Award-winning film,
If You Love the Planet, than my friends watched the hunky Harrison Ford in
Raiders of the Lost Ark and all subsequent Indiana Jones movies. The 32nd
anniversary of the partial core meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant
in Pennsylvania is coming up on March 28. Just 12 days prior to that accident,
the 1979 movie, The China Syndrome, starring Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon, opened
to critical acclaim but scientific derision from nuclear experts at the time
saying such an accident was unlikely to ever occur.
Less than two weeks later, they were eating their words, but still pointing
out how exceedingly rare a core meltdown would be.
Then, in 1986, while travelling around Europe, the Chornobyl nuclear power
plant melted down and exploded. Forget about enjoying a nice latte in Piazza San
Marco in Venice. No milk available. It was too radioactive. No lettuce, no
tomatoes -virtually no fresh produce was available, as Europe was coated with
the radioactive dust from the fire caused by that accident that has claimed
thousands of lives and rendered a chunk of Ukraine uninhabitable for about
The Soviet communist government at the time lied constantly to the world and
their own people about the gravity of the risks. Indeed, many of those who died
from thyroid cancer after the explosion likely would have lived much longer had
the communists simply banned the sale of milk.
And now we have Fukushima in Japan. Apparently, the reactors held up
relatively well after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake on March 11. The subsequent,
predictable tsunami is to blame for the nuclear calamity. Some experts now say
that had the backup generators to the six nuclear reactors simply been raised
several storeys out of the basement, none of this would have happened.
That nuclear power plants were allowed to be built in such a volatile
earthquake zone is astonishing. But to then not raise the reactors out of harm's
way of a tsunami is, frankly, criminal.
Reached at a hotel in Montreal on Thursday night, Dr. Helen Caldicott, my old
hero, takes no pleasure in being able to say "I told you so" about her
prediction on page 87 of her 2006 book, Nuclear Power is Not the Answer.
"If you build nuclear reactors on an earthquake fault next to the sea, this
is inevitable and I kept saying it over and over for 35 years. It is also going
to happen in the U.S. sooner rather than later," she said, referring to Diablo
Canyon and San Onofre, two nuclear power plants in California located on
earthquake faults, and susceptible to tsunamis.
Richard Meserve, a former Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman, told The
Wall Street Journal earlier this week that the Japanese reactors experienced a
"one-two punch of events beyond what anyone could expect or what was
Utter nonsense, says Caldicott. "It was inevitable and totally
Indeed, events like the one at Fukushima had been foretold in a 1990 report
by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the U.S. stating that power outages to
the backup diesel generators at nuclear plants in earthquake zones leading to
the failure of the cooling systems would be the "most likely causes" for a
nuclear accident by external events.
"Nuclear reactors are the most dangerous machines mankind has ever built,"
Iouli Andreev, a Russian nuclear accident specialist who was brought in to
help make Chornobyl safer, is slamming the United Nations' International Atomic
Energy Agency (IAEA) and nuclear corporations for dismissing lessons from
Chornobyl to ensure that expansion of the industry continued.
Andreev told Reuters news agency that a fire that released radiation on
Tuesday involved spent fuel rods stored close to the reactors at Fukushima, a
clear example of putting profits before safety.
"The Japanese were very greedy and they used every square inch of the space.
But when you have a dense placing of spent fuel in the basin you have a high
possibility of fire if the water is removed from the basin," Andreev said.
That is exactly what has happened in Japan.
The 25th anniversary of Chornobyl -ranked a level-7 nuclear accident -is
coming up on April 26. Caldicott predicts that Fukushima, currently ranked a six
on the scale of severity, will surpass Chornobyl "by orders of magnitude," by
Chornobyl had only been operating for three months. Fukushima has reactors
that are about 40 years old. "There's a hell of a lot more radiation there than
at Chornobyl," it's leaking and those brave workers who are sacrificing
themselves to prevent a full meltdown are improvising, said Caldicott. Humans
are fallible and nuclear power cannot be. Ultimately, that's what renders it
It's past time to close the door and our minds to nuclear power.
Licia Corbella is a columnist and editorial page editor.