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False Statements and the Interconnectedness of Uranium Fuel Cycle Issues

John Etches
Peterborough, Ontario

I am making this presentation on behalf of the advocacy group Safe And Green Energy Peterborough, also known as SAGE. We would like to thank all involved for organizing this inquiry and the opportunity to bring issues related to uranium forward in a meaningful way.

I would like to highlight the interconnectedness of uranium fuel cycle issues in regard to false statements that are commonly made concerning nuclear energy. Although the following arguments may be considered as obvious, they are important enough that we feel they need to be stated and widely acknowledged.

Due to the characteristic of radioactivity, uranium is undeniably a source of energy. However, this same characteristic prompts a long list of interrelated problems that are specific to radio-nuclides such as uranium. The radioactivity of uranium prompts different realities surrounding the mining, the processing, the handling and the use of uranium. Therefore, uranium is different from all other mined commodities such as copper and zinc. Due to this difference, uranium exists within a unique context. That context is the uranium fuel cycle.

Specifically, I would like to call attention to statements made by pronuclear agencies that take a singular aspect of the uranium fuel cycle out of context from all the other associated issues. This severing of context is carried out while it can be shown that any singular aspect of the uranium fuel cycle is directly connected to all other issues.

In particular, I am referring to the removal of context in statements used to promote the generation of electricity using nuclear energy.

The following are common statements about nuclear energy that stand as examples of isolating a single concept from the context of other interrelated issues. When the full spectrum of impacts and problems that arise at every stage of the uranium fuel cycle are brought to light, the full context of these statements is revealed, and the statements become false.

Statement #1: Nuclear energy is a solution to climate change

This is the flagship claim of nuclear energy proponents. This statement is out of context. It is true that at the point at which the actual nuclear energy is released to heat the steam that in turn produces the electricity, there are no greenhouse gases emitted. However, greenhouse gases are released at every other stage of the uranium fuel cycle including facility construction and maintenance, uranium mining, milling, refining, conversion and fuel fabrication. Additional releases will occur in the course of facility decommissioning and the management of nuclear wastes. Recent estimates in relation to the use of nuclear power in Canada suggest a minimum of 840,000 tonnes of CO2 per year. CO2 emissions and other environmental impacts would increase substantially if lower grade uranium ores are used as the basis of nuclear fuel.

Turning to nuclear power to address climate change would mean trading the problem of greenhouse gas emissions, for which a wide range of other solutions exist, for several complex problems for which solutions are generally much more costly and difficult — if they exist at all. Nuclear energy presents security, weapons proliferation and accident risks that are not shared by any other options for addressing climate change. In addition, the history of poor performance, high costs and declining reliability that has been the real history of the CANDU nuclear program in Canada. This makes the idea of re-investing billions of dollars in nuclear energy look much less attractive than a simple comparison might first suggest.

Therefore, within the inclusive context of all associated issues and impacts of the uranium fuel cycle, saying that nuclear energy is a solution to climate change is a false statement.

Statement #2: Nuclear energy is environmentally friendly

This statement is often made in reference to the false claim of nuclear power being greenhouse gas emission-free. It is out of context. The truth is that there are few commodities more harmful to the environment than uranium. The documented environmental impacts of the uranium fuel cycle are severe. Radioactive wastes are produced at each stage of the uranium fuel cycle that are extremely toxic to the environment. This includes uranium mining and milling, refining and conversion operations, power plant operation and the decommissioning of reactors. There is also a host of other non-radioactive toxic substances that are released to air and water including hydrazine, dioxins and furans. Water pollution in surface and ground waters from uranium mines and mills was found by Health Canada and Environment Canada to be toxic for the purposes of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act in 2004.

Within the corrected, inclusive context of all associated issues and impacts of the uranium fuel cycle, saying that nuclear energy is environmentally friendly is a false statement.

Statement #3: Nuclear Energy Is Safe

The nuclear industry in Canada states that the generation of electricity using nuclear energy is safe. This statement is out of context; the safety of nuclear energy is arguable at all levels.

In 2005, the National Academies of Science released the report, “Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation”. It reconfirmed the previous knowledge that there is no safe level of exposure to ionizing radiation. Even exposure to background radiation causes some cancers. Additional exposures cause additional risks. Risks from low dose radiation are equal or greater than previously thought.

Locally, the Pickering nuclear facility has had multiple, major spills of radioactive tritium over the years causing a nearby drinking water plant to shut down and elevated tritium levels in Toronto drinking water. During spills, the level of radioactive tritium in local drinking water has at times reached 100 times background levels.

The Peterborough Examiner reported in 2007 that Cameco Corp. was attempting to determine the extent of contamination created by leakage under their Port Hope uranium hexafluoride plant. After drilling 79 wells as of January 8, 2007, the extent of uranium hexafluoride contamination had not been determined. Seeing as the Cameco plant is located directly on the shore of Lake Ontario and within the community of Port Hope, there is a good probability that this radioactive contamination has leaked into the waters of the lake as well as the area surrounding the Cameco facility.

A recent study conducted in Port Hope has shown that town residents and workers alike have been exposed to uranium contamination.

The impacts on the health of uranium mine workers from wind-blown dust containing radionuclides is known. The emission of radon gas in mines and tailings sites is extremely hazardous. While exploring for uranium in the North West Territories and northern Saskatchewan, I would often come across uranium mineralization while mapping and prospecting. Upon breaking apart mineralization with my hammer to obtain a sample, my scintillometer would briefly go off-scale as the stored radon gas was vented off. I learned to hold my breath.

Radon gas is short-lived, decaying quickly to solid radioactive polonium, which deposits on surfaces, including the tissue of lungs that breathe in the gas. The radon gas detectors that we placed in the ground as part of an exploration program had to be systematically cleaned everyday to remove polonium deposited from radon gas. Otherwise, the accumulated polonium would give false radioactivity readings. There is no way I would work in an uranium mine; the threat of radon gas is real.

Add on the risks associated with transporting, handling, long-term storage and security around waste products, and the claim of safety becomes an empty one.

Therefore, within the inclusive context of all associated issues and impacts of the uranium fuel cycle, saying that nuclear energy is safe is a false statement.

Statement #4: Nuclear energy is an economical way of producing energy

This statement is out of context. Calculations that show nuclear energy to be cheaper than alternatives rely on favourable assumptions regarding construction costs and performance rates, as well as omission of various directly related costs. Nuclear energy IS an economical way of producing energy.....if you ignore the mining and processing of uranium fuel, disposal of tailings and depleted uranium, cost over-runs of reactor construction, high security transportation costs, disposal of spent fuel, and the decommissioning of reactors. Examples include the estimated cost of disposing of spent Canadian nuclear fuel alone at $24 billion. In 2005, the Canadian federal government transferred $2.3 billion to Atomic Energy Canada Limited (AECL) for environmental cleanup costs.

Most of these costs are specific to the uranium fuel cycle. According to a 1997 report from the Independent Power Producers' Society of Ontario, at 12 cents per kilowatt hour, nuclear is by far the most expensive power option available. Costs have surely gone up since 1997.

The actual costs of constructing Ontario's five existing nuclear reactors were on average 100 per cent over the original estimates. The current estimate of how much Ontario’s proposed nuclear program is going to cost is at least $40 billion. A 100 per cent cost over-run on this figure is $80 billion.

Therefore, within the corrected, inclusive context of all associated issues and impacts of the uranium fuel cycle, saying that nuclear energy is an economical way of producing electricity is a false statement.

Statement #5: Nuclear energy is not connected to military applications

This statement is false. The generation of electricity using nuclear energy in Ontario IS connected to depleted uranium weapons. Without the demand for uranium, the mining of uranium, and the subsequent enrichment of U235 for use in reactors, there would be no stockpile of U238 , or depleted uranium, which is used in a number of military applications.

According to Alfred Lambremont Webre in a 2007 article in Common Ground, the Government of Canada is in non-compliance with the statutes and regulations of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), prohibiting the use of Canadian uranium in depleted uranium (DU) weapons. Moreover, Canada has a bilateral nuclear co-operation agreement with the US, under which uranium exports to the US may only be used for peaceful purposes, and not in weapons. Dr. Gordon Edwards, president of the Montreal-based Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility (CCNR) says, “Canada may have the policy, but it’s not enforced.”

DU weapons are considered weapons of mass destruction under international law. Thus Canada may be complicit in the US use of weapons of mass destruction in the 1991 Iraq war I, the 1998 Balkans war, the 2001 war in Afghanistan, and the 2003 Iraq war II. In each of these wars, it is likely that depleted uranium in the DU weapons used by the U.S. and the UK comes from Canadian uranium exported to the US and subsequently manufactured into DU weapons. Experts can at least confirm that a substantial portion of the depleted uranium in the DU weapons used by the US in Afghanistan came from Canadian uranium.

Therefore, within the corrected, inclusive context of all associated issues and impacts of the uranium fuel cycle, saying that nuclear energy is not connected to military applications is a false statement.

Conceptually, it can be argued that the uranium fuel cycle begins well before even one gram of the element is mined, processed or installed in a reactor core. It begins with the demand for uranium. Other than the demand for nuclear weapons, it is the use of nuclear energy to generate electricity that drives the demand for uranium. In this regard, the following additional context-bending statement raises serious questions about the need for nuclear energy.

Statement #6: Nuclear energy is needed to provide a baseload electricity supply.

This statement is often made by the proponents of nuclear energy, including Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty. The statement is out of context.

Ontario’s actual electricity demand growth rate has fallen from 7.1% per year in the 1960s to 0.5% per year between 2000 and 2006. Despite this steady decline in Ontario’s electricity growth rates, the Ontario Power Authority analysis assumes that Ontario’s rate of electricity growth between 2006 and 2025 will be 1.2% per year. This is more than double its actual growth rate of 0.5% per year.

Artificial demand is a known economic strategy that constitutes demand for a good or service that would not exist in the absence of exposure to a false requirement for that good or service. In the case of Ontario Power Authority’s Integrated Power System Plan, it appears that the 1.2% projected electricity demand growth rate is a case of artificial demand that is providing the justification for the construction of new nuclear generation capacity.

With the real electricity demand growth rate at 0.5% per year, energy conservation becomes an extremely important element of energy debates. Most notably, California has in recent years reduced its electricity demand by 12,000 megawatts, equivalent to three Darlington nuclear power stations. David Suzuki states that California’s actions can serve as a template for Ontario. In a 2003 article in the Toronto Star, Dr. Suzuki commented, “Rather than spend huge amounts of money on more power plants, California elected to push energy conservation. It worked”.

In a Canadian example, Manitoba, with a total population of only 1.2 million, about half that of Toronto, has reduced its electricity demand through energy efficiency by 500 megawatts, or double Toronto’s reduction during Earth Hour. This demonstrates that there is still a lot of room for improvement in Ontario.

Combining conservation with an aggressive renewable energy program could effectively eliminate the need to construct new nuclear generation capacity.

Therefore, within the corrected, inclusive context of all associated issues and impacts of the uranium fuel cycle, saying that nuclear energy is needed to provide the baseload electricity capacity is a false statement.

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In summary, each of the preceding statements about nuclear energy ignores the broader circumstances within which each stated concept undeniably exists. Inaccuracy has been introduced to each statement through the removal of context. It can be shown that all these statements that are in favour of nuclear energy are false.

Due to the false nature of these claims, I would like to suggest that it is time to apply legalistic concepts to any and all promotion of nuclear energy. By not taking into consideration the related issues of the uranium fuel cycle, the advocating of nuclear energy breaches Canadian and provincial law. A brief summary of legalistic arguments that apply to the use of and promotion of nuclear energy includes recklessness, criminal negligence, bait and switch, false statement, fraud and liability.

For example, recklessness usually arises when an accused is actually aware of the potentially adverse consequences of planned actions, but has gone ahead anyway, exposing a particular individual or unknown victim to the risk of suffering the foreseen harm, even if not actually desiring that the victim be hurt. The accused is a social danger because he or she is gambling with the safety of others. This fits the use of nuclear energy perfectly.

The interconnectedness of the problems, issues and impacts of the uranium fuel cycle can be readily demonstrated. Therefore, any agency, government or corporation that advocates the use of nuclear energy is complicit in and culpable for all of the impacts of the uranium fuel cycle from the moment uranium is mined out of the ground right through to the issues and costs of spent reactor fuel and the decommissioning of reactors. Therefore, through their support of nuclear energy in Ontario in the Integrated Power System Plan, the present Liberal provincial government should be held responsible for any costs and impacts related to all activities along the uranium fuel cycle. This becomes even more poignant when other strategies for keeping the lights on are feasible, and widely known.

In closing, the present Liberal provincial government has been given the authority to make decisions on behalf of the Ontario public. The choice to expand Ontario’s nuclear program represents an inappropriate expenditure of public funds, undue costs to human health, and unnecessary impacts on the environment. It is inappropriate on social, environmental and moral levels. In short, the intention to proceed with an expanded nuclear program in Ontario represents a gross breach of trust.

We are asking Premier Dalton McGuinty to immediately rework the Integrated Power System Plan to exclude the use of nuclear energy as part of Ontario’s electricity supply mix, now and in the future, while incorporating an expanded role for energy conservation and renewable energy sources.

Note: a significant portion of the language used to prepare this presentation has been borrowed from Pembina Institute materials on nuclear energy and the uranium fuel cycle.