Darlington: Final thoughts on the hearings

The Darlington hearings gave a good snapshot of the current state of issues important to Canada’s nuclear industry. The CNSC decision to proceed with the Darlington refurbishment was made some time ago and can be best summarized by the following imaginary but typical dialogue.

There’s a thunder storm outside the hearing room. An intervenor points out that it’s raining but OPG staff denies it. CNSC staff says that rain is beyond the scope of the hearing: the Commission agrees and from then on ignores the rain issue.

The CNSC report on its decision that the refurbishment won’t harm the environment is similar in tone to those problems in elementary logic courses that start with “A always tells the truth, B always lies…” In this case A is OPG and B is all the 690 intervenors who participated. If the CNSC was smart, it would throw an occasional bone to the intervenors but they don’t because as we have seen their public communications skills are seriously underdeveloped. Maybe a better analogy would be to a highly stylized Kabuki play that must be presented every time when major nuclear decisions are to be taken.

Don’t get the wrong idea from my comments. Personally I’m happy that the refurbishment will proceed since it will preserve our nuclear expertise and keep our nuclear experts busy for at least a generation at which time we’ll probably know where the nuclear industry is headed. A few last thoughts on the hearings are in order here but no doubt I’ll return to some of these topics in future posts.

It seems that the Darlington plant is a Cuisinart for fish in the same way that a wind turbine is a Cuisinart for birds. The reactor cooling water channels suck in lake water containing fish and so ensure their demise. In fact this was purported to be the single serious environmental impact of the Darlington plant. So much handwringing over the fate of the fish by several intervenor groups didn’t make want to picket my local fish market. Personally I don’t like to eat fresh water fish. In my opinion salt water fish are far tastier although I’ll concede trout are pretty good. I can’t imagine eating a fish from Lake Ontario – a “round whitefish”, a “goby”, a “sculpin” or some other loathsome creature. However, if I heard correctly, there is at least one commercial fishing operation on the lake. It was opined that a $20k a year payoff would be sufficient to compensate the local fishing industry for the Darlington fish massacre which the head guy from OPG allowed they were willing to shell out. Suggesting that cooling towers should be used was anathema to the OPG types and the number of “independent” studies against them increased every time they were mentioned. In this case CNSC staff tried to hint that cooling towers weren’t the only choice for avoiding lake water cooling but OPG didn’t want to hear about it. Nothing was achieved and I gather this is a standard bit long familiar to audiences of CNSC hearings.

The anti-radiation types were out in full force drawing their usual foolish conclusions from the discredited Linear No Threshold (LNT) model of radiation effects which I like to think of as the “every little bit hurts” concept. The LNT is nonsense because it ignores the body’s DNA and cell repair mechanisms that are our defence against the background radiation from natural sources we are unavoidably exposed to. Without these defenses many species including humans might have long vanished from the earth as a result of cumulative radiation damage. Much stress was placed on tritium by those opposed to Darlington. With only tiny natural production from cosmic rays and the much larger amount dumped into the atmosphere by nuclear weapons tests in the 1950’s and 1960’s decaying by half every twelve years, it’s true that most of the tritium for example detected in drinking water originates from reactors. CANDU reactors are relatively large tritium producers compared to other reactor types but even so the tritium levels in local drinking water are minuscule and unlikely to have any health effects.

Radiation monitoring is a fiasco in the making because the Ontario Ministry of Labour, Health Canada, OPG, Natural Resources Canada and perhaps some local authorities were monitoring emissions from Darlington but none of them was able or willing to publish results in real time and none was trusted by the public. The guy from Health Canada even said the “politics” was the reason that their measurements weren’t available on line in real time. What happens in cases when the measurements of the agencies involved don’t agree for routine emission or particularly in an emergency? The CNSC solution was that they were going to get into monitoring because (don’t laugh yet) the public would trust them over other institutions. We should have in Canada as system at least as good as the one in France. If you are interested take a look at:
http://sws.irsn.fr/sws/mesure/index

Finally a really important topic that actually was beyond the scope of the hearings was OPG’s capability to successfully carry out the refurbishment. Their track record on such projects has been poor as has that of Canada’s nuclear industry as a whole. For example, I couldn’t believe that OPG was not going to replace the steam generators in the Darlington reactors because their corrosion measurements showed they would last for another 20 years or more. This decision has a high potential for disaster if they discover part way through refurbishment that steam generator replacement is in fact needed. This is a topic I plan to return to in other posts.