Nuclear power Q&A

Publication - April 1, 2008
Nuclear power is dirty, dangerous and expensive. With cancer-causing emissions and radioactive waste, nuclear power is not a clean alternative to fossil fuels. Greenpeace supports a phase-out of nuclear power in Canada.

How many nuclear plants are there in Canada?

There are 22 nuclear power reactors in Canada: 20 in Ontario, one in Quebec and one in New Brunswick. Eight of the 20 reactors in Ontario were shut down in 1997 due to poor performance and safety problems. Since then, several reactors have been restarted at high-costs. After massive cost overruns during the restart of two of the reactors at the Pickering A nuclear station, the remaining two reactors were permanently deactivated in August 2005.

How is the nuclear industry funded in Canada?

Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) is the federal Crown corporation that designs and markets CANDU reactors. Since it was founded in 1952, AECL has received over $20 billion in taxpayer subsidies. Since 2000, AECL has been given over a billion dollars in subsidies. In addition, the Ontario government has indirectly subsidized Ontario Power Generation’s nuclear power plants by relieving it of billions of dollars of debt.

What is radioactive waste?

Radioactive waste is created at each step in production of nuclear power — from uranium mining in Saskatchewan to the closure and decommissioning of nuclear stations.

What is often referred to as high-level radioactive waste is the spent fuel from nuclear plants. It contains more than 100 different radioactive isotopes that cause cancer and other health problems. This waste is lethal and must be kept isolated from the environment for hundreds of thousands of years.

Low and intermediate wastes are non-fuel radioactive wastes created by nuclear energy, including everything from radioactive clothes contaminated at nuclear stations to the reactor components that will remain a threat for thousands of years.

Mining and processing uranium for reactor fuel produces wastes known as tailings. There are over 200 million tons of uranium tailings in Ontario and Saskatchewan. These wastes remain a hazard for thousands of years and contain carcinogens, such as radium, radon gas and thorium.

What happens to nuclear waste in Canada?

Nuclear waste cannot be safely disposed of or destroyed. There are about 40,000 tonnes of high-level radioactive waste (spent fuel) in Canada, with more than 30,000 tonnes in Ontario. Most of Canada’s nuclear fuel waste is stored at the nuclear plants where it has been produced.

What is the government’s long-term plan for nuclear waste?

In 2002, the Canadian government mandated a nuclear industry-controlled agency called the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) to propose a long-term solution for the disposal of high-level nuclear waste. The nuclear industry has always advocated the burial of high-level nuclear waste in the granite formations of the Canadian Shield.

The federal government gave NWMO a three-year mandate to choose between three radioactive waste management alternatives: deep geological disposal in the Canadian Shield, storage at nuclear sites or centralized storage. In 2005, the NWMO asked the federal government for permission to proceed with a proposal that combined all three flawed waste management alternatives called adaptive phased management. The 300-year, $24-billion phased approach moves used nuclear fuel wastes from storage at nuclear plants to centralized storage and finally to deep rock disposal. It says the high-level radioactive waste dump should be located in Quebec, Ontario or Saskatchewan.

The nuclear industry is moving forward with proposals to bury non-fuel radioactive wastes as well. Ontario Power Generation plans to bury so-called low and intermediate-level waste at the Bruce site on the shore of Lake Huron. Atomic Energy of Canada Limited has proposed to build deep geological repository for its radioactive wastes at its Chalk River Laboratories on the shore of Ottawa River, 100 kilometres north of Ottawa. Neither New Brunswick Power nor Hydro-Quebec has a proposal for how they will safely management their radioactive wastes for thousands of years.

What is the Greenpeace position on radioactive waste?

Radioactive waste remains dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years and deep rock burial cannot guarantee it will remain isolated from the environment. Radioactive waste should be left on or near the earth’s surface and in closely monitored storage facilities.

Is the Canadian nuclear industry correct when it says that a Chernobyl-type accident is not possible in Canada?

No. Canada’s CANDU nuclear reactor is no safer than any other reactor design. Human error, terrorist attack or technical failure could cause a meltdown at any of Canada’s nuclear stations.

Is the nuclear industry confident that a nuclear accident will never happen in Canada?

No. Despite nuclear industry claims that a Chernobyl-type accident is not possible in Canada, the nuclear industry requires special financial liability protection from the federal government in case of a major nuclear accident. The federal Nuclear Liability Act limits that amount of financial liability of any nuclear reactor operator to $75 million — a miniscule fraction of the likely actual cost of a nuclear disaster.

Is the Canadian nuclear industry correct to say that a Chernobyl-type accident could happen in Canada because of Canada’s CANDU technology?

No. CANDU reactors also share the following similarities with the RBMK reactors at Chernobyl:

  • Ontario’s nuclear stations and Chernobyl are four-reactor stations with shared safety systems. Sharing of safety systems reduces redundancy and increases the risk of radiation release.
  • Both reactor designs employ fuel channels (as opposed to one large pressurized reactor vessel), including pressure tubes made of the same alloy. These tubes incorporate hydrogen over time, causing tubes to become brittle and breakable.
  • While most reactors have to be shut down every year or two for refuelling, CANDU and RBMK reactor designs allow for online refuelling. This has the potential to improve performance, but it can also increase the length of time without inspection or maintenance. Chernobyl reactor 4 had been operating for over two years non-stop when it exploded.
  • CANDU is the only reactor design outside the former Soviet Union that like the RBMK, has a positive void effect. Steam formation in the reactor core increases reactivity (more nuclear fissions taking place), increasing power levels, causing more steam formation and resulting in a loss of regulation accident.

What have other countries done to avoid a Chernobyl-type accident?

In 2000, Germany committed to phasing out nuclear power and phasing in clean, green renewable energy. In a referendum following Chernobyl accident, Italy voted to abandon nuclear power completely in 1987. Italy subsequently closed all of its reactors and placed a moratorium on the construction of new nuclear stations.

What is Greenpeace doing?

Greenpeace is working to end government subsidies to the nuclear industry and phase out nuclear power. We are lobbying to prevent the restart and reconstruction of old reactors and to stop the deep rock burial of radioactive waste.