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We have good reasons to be alarmed about nuclear reactors

Let me tell you about nuclear reactors and me.

Because suddenly, on Sunday, a nuclear calamity was on everybody’s mind, GTA residents jolted into a queasy awareness of the aging Pickering facility when emergency officials “accidentally” issued a false alarm during testing of the alert system.

A vast complex hunkered down on the shore of Lake Ontario which, we learned just a day later — lousy timing — the Doug Ford government now intends to extend the life of the facility beyond its planned 2024 shuttering.

One of the largest nuclear power stations in the world — with six active CANDU reactors — and one of the oldest. Should have been taken offline years ago, as environmentalists urged.

It does not engender much faith in the competence of the nuclear station’s management when they botch a simple communications exercise. Two hours passed before they reversed the erroneous warning. What if it had been a real emergency? Is it seriously possible that Ontario Power Generation is still relying on Amber Alert-type notification for the public’s protection?

Not to scare the bejeezus out of folks, but ...

An ordinary chest x-ray measures 0.1 millisievert (mSv) of radiation. The average person in North America is exposed to about 3 mSv a year — “background doses” — from natural radiation, which includes cosmic radiation from outer space.

Exposure to 4 sieverts of radiation will kill one out every two people. Just 1 sievert can lead to hair loss, cataracts and infertility.

Six years after the 2011 meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima generating station in Japan — caused by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami — a robot was finally able to access a location near the reactor 2 core to measure then-current radiation levels: a jaw-dropping 530 sieverts of radiation per hour.

This is the “clean” energy promoted by many as a substitute for coal-fired plants to reduce emissions causing climate change.

I mention this because, on my way to cover the earthquake within two days of the event, I forced my driver/fixer to detour to the stricken station. A 30-kilometre exclusion and evacuation zone had been imposed. We proceeded to within one kilometre of the facility. Then a blizzard came out of nowhere. The snow chains on the car snapped. We were stuck — for eight hours. That’s how long it took for emergency crews to rescue us.

I could feel my ovaries melting.

Fukushima was the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986, which was the worst in history, though only one of the reactors had exploded — spewing 20,000 roentgens of ionized radiation per hour.

It was entirely due to human error. A flawed Soviet reactor design coupled with serious mistakes made by a plant crew conducting tests within a bureaucratic environment of sloppy safety measures. Five per cent of the radioactive reactive core was released into the atmosphere and cascaded downwind. Two men died that night, another 28 within a few weeks as a result of acute radiation poisoning. We’ll never know — Moscow will never reveal — how many cancers and deaths have since been attributable to the meltdown, though Greenpeace, admittedly not a credible source, predicted an eventual related death total of 93,000. The World Health Organization estimated some 4,000 subsequent deaths.

Cancer rates around Chernobyl are unusually high, 65 times normal according to some reports.

When I went to Chernobyl in 2009, upwards of 4,400 Ukrainian children and adolescents had already undergone operations for thyroid cancer.

Equipped only with a hand-held Geiger counter to measure hot-hot-hot spots around the facility — crippled No. 4 reactor since entombed in a 10-storey sarcophagus of lead-and-steel shielding — and the surrounding, abandoned, postnuclear town of Pripyat, I spent a couple of weird days in the badlands of Chernobyl, most contaminated place on the planet. The fallout was 400 times more radioactive than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Pripyat is a modern-day Pompeii, left in situ when government forced its inhabitants to evacuate lickety split. Within a year of the catastrophe, 400,000 Ukrainians from around the region were relocated.

Yet some of the old folks came back (illegally) to their little farms, willing to risk cancer in familiar and beloved surroundings where the topsoil is so toxic than no produce grown within the 30 kilometre exclusion zone can be sold except to other Pripyat residents. Nor can their domestic animals be sold for meat.

I spent several hours in the company of three babushkas, clinking shot glasses of rotgut, a moonshine made from fermented sugar and potatoes, which the elderly ladies insisted was the best antidote for radiation sickness. Then I slept in a dormitory formerly occupied by Chernobyl scientists — sharing a lump bed with a dozen feral cats.

Spooky town, providing a glimpse of what a postnuclear world would look like. Because rare as generator station accidents may be, they do happen. We delude ourselves into thinking we’ve harnessed the power of God. Then someone presses the wrong button and … whoosh.

So yeah, a wee email booboo at Pickering was nothing to pooh-pooh about. And it’s alarming that the province would quietly approve extending the facility’s lifespan beyond its planned 2024 closure, a story broken Monday by the Star’s Robert Benzie. As Benzie reported, the plant’s operating licence was renewed by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission in August 2018, with $75 million invested in maintenance. It will continue to operate until at least 2025. Then, a further 40 years before the plant is fully decommissioned, done in stages to allow for the safe disposal (storage) of used fuel.

Colour me ashen but I don’t like the sound of “maintenance” for an old crone nuclear plant, as if putting a patch on a bicycle tire. I don’t like nuclear plants at all, smack in the middle of a densely populated urban region. And I really don’t like the move-along nothing-to-see-here reassurances from bureaucrats.

I’ve seen the wreckage.

But maybe you just rolled over on Sunday morning and went back to sleep.



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