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[cdn-nucl-l] "Japanese nuclear buckets could be very scary in Ontario"
FYI, this editorial was posted at
The Toronto Star,
Tuesday, October 5, 1999
Those Japanese nuclear buckets could be very scary in Ontario
TWO INTRIGUING and (let us hope) unrelated stories appeared in the
newspapers in the last few days.
The first had to do with a privately-owned nuclear firm in Japan called JCO
Co. In order to increase productivity and be globally competitive, JCO
instructed its workers processing lethal quantities of highly radioactive
uranium fuel to simply mix it in stainless steel buckets.
Established safety procedures called for the uranium oxide and nitric acid
to be combined by means of an elaborate and time-consuming mechanical
But JCO knew such job-destroying red tape would only hinder its abilities to
create private-sector efficiencies.
So it issued its workers with buckets and the equivalent of a few wooden
spoons instead. They were ordered to dump some uranium oxide into a pailful
of nitric acid, swish it all together and - presto - enriched uranium fuel
For a long time, the old bucket method worked. But then last Thursday a few
workers poured too much uranium into a bucket and caused what the nuclear
industry calls an unfortunate occurrence.
The unfortunate occurrence was a chain reaction, which, in turn, led to an
explosion, the severe radiation poisoning of three workers and the release
into the surrounding neighbourhood of lethal amounts of radioactive
What a mess. Or, as they say in the nuclear industry: Oops.
The second, and one hopes unrelated, story appeared in The Star yesterday.
Reporter Stuart Laidlaw revealed that Ontario Hydro is contemplating the
sale of all or part of the Bruce nuclear generating plant to private foreign
I know; I know. There is absolutely no indication that JCO or its parent
Sumitomo Metal Mining Co. is one of those private foreign firms interested
in - to use Hydro's unfortunate word - ``partnering'' with Bruce. Even if
JCO were interested, its old-pail technology would not necessarily be
transferable - at least not right away.
As nuclear industry officials explained last week, Canadian reactors such as
the Bruce plant on Lake Huron don't use the kind of wet, sloppy, enriched
fuel that blew up in Japan. They use safe, bone-dry, natural uranium. And no
matter how many wooden spoons you have, you can't mix up bone-dry uranium in
an old pail.
So even if JCO/Sumitomo wins the nod to buy Bruce, this argument goes, it is
unlikely it will be able to utilize its state-of-the-art methods here.
(The funny thing - actually, the hilarious thing - is that while it's true
Canadian nuclear reactors don't now use enriched fuel, they soon will.
That's because Canada is involving itself in the international effort to
destroy unwanted U.S. and Russian nuclear bombs. The plutonium from these
bombs will be mixed with depleted uranium oxide to form a mixed oxide or MOX
and shipped to this country to be burned in Canadian reactors. In fact, the
first shipments of MOX are due to arrive in Chalk River, north of Ottawa,
within the next few weeks.)
Still, there is something ironic about the timing of these two apparently
unrelated stories. For while public utilities have not been paragons of
virtue in the nuclear field (Chernobyl was state-owned), the record shows
that they tend to become even worse as they privatize.
In Britain, for instance, the country's largest nuclear reprocessing plant
recently admitted it falsified at least 22 safety checks involved in the
manufacture of MOX for Japan.
British Nuclear Fuels, a government firm that owns the Sellafield
reprocessing plant, is preparing to sell 50 per cent of itself to the
private sector. The move to privatization has been accompanied by what the
Guardian newspaper delicately calls ``fears of lax safety.''
The reason for this is not that privatized firms are somehow less moral.
They are not. But private companies have to make a profit; that is the
primary rule under which the private sector operates.
In the nuclear business, there are only two ways to do this.
One is to raise the price of the final product, the electricity produced by
nuclear plants. But this is as politically unpalatable in Britain or Japan
as it is in Ontario.
The other way to make a profit is to cut costs. In the heavily regulated
nuclear industry, this usually means cutting corners.
This is why JCO's fission-in-a-bucket explosion last week was no anomaly. It
was a perfeclty logical occurrence for a firm trying to make a buck in an
industry where, if all safety rules are followed, the costs stay
inordinately high. And in that sense, yes, it could happen here -
particularly if Ontario Hydro's ``partnering'' plans continue apace.
Thomas Walkom's column appears on Tuesday