Can a nuclear accident happen in Canada? - Question and Answer

Page - March 18, 2011
Can a nuclear accident happen in Canada? - Question and Answer

Could an accident leading to radiation release happen here in Canada?

Yes. All reactors operating in Canada are vulnerable to accidents caused by a combination of human error, design flaws and natural disasters.

The nuclear industry and its regulator ignore certain accident possibilities just as the Japanese industry and its regulator ignored the possibility for such a high-level earthquake.

Is the Canada nuclear industry correct when it says that a severe nuclear accident is “not possible in Canada”?

No. Canada’s CANDU nuclear reactor is no safer than any other reactor design.

Following the accident at the American Three Mile Island nuclear station in 1979, an all-party committee of the Ontario Legislature (the Select Committee on Hydro Affairs) investigated Ontario’s nuclear policies. In its 1980 report to the legislature, the committee concluded that:

“It is not right to say that a catastrophic accident (in a CANDU reactor) is impossible ... The worst possible accident could involve the spread of radioactive poisons over large areas, killing thousands immediately, killing others through increasing susceptibility to cancer, risking genetic defects that could affect future generations, and possibly contaminating, for further habitation, large land areas...

Accidents, mistakes and malfunctions do occur in [CANDU] nuclear plants: equipment fails; instrumentation gives improper readings; operators and maintainers make errors and fail to follow instructions; designs are inadequate; events that are considered `incredible' happen...no matter how careful we are, we must anticipate the unexpected.”

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

No. While the Canadian nuclear industry publicly claims significant nuclear accidents like Chernobyl or Fukushima won’t happen here, it believes such accidents are a realistic possibility.

Given the high costs of cleaning up nuclear accidents and compensating victims, the nuclear industry has demanded special legislation from the federal government to protect it from lawsuits in the case of an 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.

The current federal Nuclear Liability Act limits the amount of financial liability any nuclear operator must be insured for to $ 75 million (the Harper government is proposing changing this to $650 million). This is still a miniscule fraction of the likely actual cost of a nuclear disaster.

For instance, if a catastrophic accident occurred at the Pickering nuclear station, just 30 km from downtown Toronto, it would decimate Canada's largest city and displace millions of people. This would cost many tens of billions of dollars.

Do Canadian and international nuclear safety standards guarantee that an accident will not cause a catastrophic release of radiation?

No. Under the weak Canadian standards, old and new designs have significant design flaws that make them liable to a catastrophic accident that would put millions of people at serious risk.

In addition, old reactors cannot withstand terrorist attacks. New reactors won't protect from terrorist attacks either.

What's wrong with nuclear safety standards?

Nuclear safety standards should ensure that Canadians are protected from any possible nuclear accident. What's wrong with Canadian standards is that they pretend that certain types of accidents probably won't happen.

Why do they pretend that such accidents can't happen?

The nuclear industry and its regulators said that Three Mile Island and Chernobyl would not occur. They also said Fukishima would not occur.

Once these accidents happened, nuclear regulators sought to minimize the risk of such accidents happening again. They did not, however, require the redesigning of existing plants to withstand a full range of accidents that could occur.

Worse, proposed standards for new reactors still don't require complete protection from a full range of realistic accidents.

The nuclear industry says there are certain types of "beyond-design-basis" accidents that we don't need to worry about happening. Is this correct?

No. What the nuclear industry is actually saying is that they don't want to redesign their reactors to protect Canadians from the full range of real threats posed by those reactors. Thus, they pretend that such threats are so unlikely that they don't merit attention. This is false.

Are the reactor designs proposed for Ontario resistant to terrorist attacks?

No. Documents acquired by Greenpeace show that, a decade after September 11th, the CNSC has yet to even transparently develop design requirements on what terrorist-type events reactors should be required to withstand.

All reactor designs under consideration for construction at Darlington are vulnerable to a range of possible terrorist attacks.

What type of regulatory rules should be in place?

Greenpeace feels that nuclear standards should protect Canadians from the full range of real accident and terrorist threats posed by nuclear power.

Instead of setting regulatory standards to accommodate design flaws of reactors built in the in 1960s and 1970s, safety standards should be set to ensure that reactors are designed to withstand all events that could plausibly cause a significant release of radiation.

Is the Canada's federal nuclear regulatory agency, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), an independent, trustworthy regulator?

No. According to an independent consultant's report, the CNSC "has in the past put more focus on communicating with licensees than with non-government organizations and the broader public."

In January 2008, The Harper government fired former CNSC president Linda Keen over her insistence that Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) ensure that its NRU reactor meet nuclear safety standards and replaced her with their own political appointee.

Keen called the radioisotope crisis “an excuse” to fire her citing her previous imposition of modern international standards on new reactors designs.

Do Canada’s CANDU reactors have design flaws that could lead to a nuclear accident and release or radiation?

Yes. All CANDU reactors have a design flaw that contributed to the explosion of the Chernobyl reactor, which in turn led to the depopulation of a 30km area around the reactor.

Due to their "positive reactivity," both the CANDU and Chernobyl reactors are prone to experience a rapid increase in reactor power when voids form in the coolant that is used to remove heat from the reactor core. This increase in reactor power makes it difficult to control the reactor, thereby increasing the chance of an explosion and the release of radioactivity.

Positive reactivity contributed to both the Chernobyl accident and the world's first significant international nuclear accident – the explosion of AECL’s NRX reactor in 1952 at Chalk River.

Following the NRX accident most international regulators and vendors decided to shun reactors with positive reactivity due to the inherent hazard of design. The Canadian nuclear industry and its regulator, however, decided to tolerate this design flaw in order to accommodate the CANDU design.

Does the aging of Canada’s nuclear stations pose an increased accident risk?

Yes. All of Ontario's reactors are entering the most dangerous stage of their operational lives and will be more prone to unplanned shutdowns and to increased risk of accidents.

Because new reactors can’t be built quickly enough to replace it, Ontario Power Generation is planning the four Pickering B reactors run reactors beyond the date they would normally be shut down. This will increase the risk of a nuclear accident at Pickering.

What have other countries done to avoid severe nuclear accidents?

In 2000, Germany committed to phasing out nuclear power and phasing in clean, green renewable energy. Germany’s then-Environment Minister Jurgen Trittin said that phasing out nuclear power was “a logical response to Chernobyl.”

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.