Let’s have the nuclear pill at last

Acknowledging the need for easy public access to potassium iodide (KI) pills is a further acceptance of the reality that nuclear accidents could happen in Canada.

Until the Fukushima accident the policy of Canada’s nuclear industry to KI pills was that they shouldn’t be distributed to populations near reactors because it might unnecessarily alarm people and give credence to charges that nuclear power was dangerous.  Similar opinions were held on alerting siren systems, online real time radiation data, evacuation rehearsals, and other accident mitigation measures, all then regarded as talking points for ant-nuclear critics. Thankfully, these opinions of the DOUGS (Dumb Old Utility Guys) had been fading since the Chernobyl accident and have basically disappeared since Fukushima.

We need to understand what KI pills are and what they do.  The thyroid gland in the neck regulates many important functions of our bodies such as “how quickly the body uses energy, makes proteins, and controls how sensitive the body is to other hormones” (quote from Wikipedia).    To function properly, the thyroid needs iodine which is taken up from various food sources or, in places where sufficient iodine isn’t available in the local diet, from iodized table salt. Not surprisingly adequate iodine is also essential for the normal intellectual development of children.The iodizing of salt by adding compounds such as KI to it has proved a very cheap and effective public health measure in most countries of the world.

In a nuclear accident radioactive iodine is released as a gas which can readily be inhaled and so taken up in the thyroid and then can eventually cause thyroid cancer especially in children. By taking KI pills you can load up your thyroid with harmless (non-radioactive) iodine so when exposed to the radioactive type your already iodine-saturated thyroid won’t absorb it. For this to work you need to take the KI pill before any significant release of reactor iodine gets to you. This means you have to have pills on hand and ready to use as soon as you know an accident is happening.

KI pills are very good for protecting thyroids and preventing thyroid cancer in children – both very worthy objectives.  However, they should not be viewed as a preventative or a cure-all for all types of radiation sickness as some uninformed people believe.

KI pills should be distributed to all homes within, say a 20 km radius, of reactors. Not as has been the case for example at Pickering where in a compromise scheme KI pills were stock piled in drugstores. Presumably, you go to your local pharmacy in case of a nuclear accident. There were also pills at local schools but I suppose if there were an accident outside of school hours you have to send your kids to the drugstore. Not only should the pills be in homes but there must also be an effective warning system that tells people living near reactors to take their KI pills.

The regulator and our nuclear utilities are finally considering doing exactly that after knowing since the 1950’s that it was feasible and done in other countries. There can be no excuse for any more foot dragging in providing KI pills to homes around Canadian reactors.

Canada’s nuclear industry needs leadership

Strong leadership will be needed for our nuclear industry to survive the coming decade.

The problems of the nuclear industry are often portrayed by its members as originating in public fear fanned by hostile critics and the media. Certainly there’s some truth in that but in my opinion that neglects the main reasons for its decline namely a lack of influential politicians willing to go to bat for the industry and the fact that there are very few nuclear leaders in Canada.

Dr. David Keyes was one such leader. During the world’s first major nuclear accident at Chalk River’s NRX reactor in 1952, Keyes stood at the lab’s gatehouse calmly smoking his pipe and greeting workers by name as they evacuated. As the leader of the lab, his actions damped down any panic that could have occurred and in fact he remained on site for most of the accident. Although Keyes had long departed by the time I arrived in the late 1960’s, old-timers still remembered “daddy Keyes” with respect and affection as an avuncular but strong leader.

Other industry leaders emerged in the years after Keyes who developed the CANDU reactor and pioneered its adoption by the utilities. We had politicians both federal and provincial that backed nuclear energy and pushed its growth in spite of the objections of anti-nuclear organizations as is now happening in places like Korea, Taiwan and India but that’s all gone now in Canada.

The privatization in 2001 of eight nuclear reactors of the former Ontario Hydro to form Bruce Power has proved very successful, achieving excellent performance primarily based on the strong effective leadership of Duncan Hawthorne. He has transformed the former corporate culture of Ontario Hydro to a profitable business model, has driven its high safety record, has earned the loyalty and respect of his employees and brought the unions in as partners instead of adversaries all the while keeping his shareholders happy. Although I certainly don’t agree with some of his moves, overall he remains the only credible spokesperson for the nuclear industry in Canada and its only real leader.

On the other hand the nuclear component of OPG (Ontario Power Generation) is badly in need of leadership. To be fair OPG operates in a public service environment where leadership is only the prerogative of politicians advised by legions of know-nothing fart catchers who qualified for their jobs by putting up signs and handing out literature during the minister du jour’s election campaign. Unlike Bruce Power OPG can’t lobby politicians or advertise at Maple Leaf games. Also different is the domination of OPG by rapacious unions resulting in lavish salaries and many redundant jobs. The OPG hierarchy gives me the impression of being transient and mercenary. For example, how many of the OPG imported brass have shown a commitment to this country by becoming Canadian citizens?

The coming refurbishments of ten reactors (six at Bruce and four at OPG’s Darlington station) will entail intense competition for limited resources that I called the “choke point” in a previous post. My bet is Bruce power will run rings around OPG in the contest. OPG’s reaction is the great refurbishment plan exercise by OPG documented elsewhere on this blog, an exercise in bureaucracy that proves my point that OPG management is only able to administer rather than lead. The coming refurbishments will require a high degree of cooperation and coordination that simply won’t happen between competing nuclear entities. By the way it was just announced that the plan is already more than $200 million over budget before implementation even starts in 2016

The shutdown of the six other reactors at Pickering by 2020 will cause massive layoffs that even the OPG unions with the greatest possible degree of splitting existing jobs into multiple new ones (“feather bedding”) will be unable to avert. In most cases the axed employees will not have the skill set or experience to contribute to the refurbishments. For the good of the industry one would like to see the best employees retained but this can only happen in a nuclear entity combing both Bruce Power and OPG. After 2020, OPG with four reactors will be the tail to Bruce Power’s dog with eight

For all of these reasons the only practical solution I can see to avoid future chaos is to merge the nuclear parts of OPG into Bruce Power by leasing the four Darlington reactors to them. This should have been done years ago and whether the politicians can overcome their ideological differences enough to do it remains to be seen