How should we think about the situation in Japan?
One can’t imagine the scale of personal and physical devastation visited by the earthquake and tsunami, both natural disasters which, while predicted, cannot be controlled. The unfolding nuclear disaster is different. It is a man-made event, set in play by the decision to build the nuclear plants in the first place.
If the world is lucky, the worst case scenario – a complete core meltdown and breach of containment in one or more reactors – will be avoided. But it will be done so by the physical, mental, and perhaps mortal sacrifice of the core group of plant operators left behind to try to avert total catastrophe.
When such things happen, I can’t help but wish accountability on those responsible. I don’t mean punishment, just an admission of mistakes made and an appeal for redemption – a sort of truth and reconciliation process.
Japan didn’t have to build nuclear plants, just as New Brunswick didn’t. In situations like this, no rationalization sounds plausible, especially “it was better than the alternatives.” No, it wasn’t, and it isn’t.
None of the alternatives have the potential to contaminate virtually for all time vast tracts of land and to deliver sub-lethal and chronically debilitating doses of radiation to millions within the range of the plume which, as we know from Chernobyl, can travel on high air masses halfway across the world. None of the alternatives produce lethally toxic and radioactive wastes that must be isolated from nature for much longer than human civilizations have yet existed.
Even in the face of yet another demonstration of the destructive power of atom-splitting, however, our arrogance knows no bounds. Officials at Point Lepreau calmly say that our nuclear plant is built to withstand a 6.4 magnitude quake right underneath the plant, and that there are back-up systems after back-up systems designed to prevent any release of radiation in the event of an accident. As if the Japanese plants were not designed to withstand earthquakes – of course they were! – and did not have back-up safety systems – of course they did!
As media reports attest, Japan is a highly developed country, the most technologically savvy and best prepared nation in the world to cope with disasters. No nuclear plant contingency plan assumes the failure of all back-up systems, such as we now see in Japan.
Never believe assurances that a major radioactive release could not happen at Point Lepreau. Nothing in the design, the construction, the workforce or the combination of the three can guarantee public safety.
Nuclear plant designers don’t deal in safety, they deal in risk. They can lower the risk, but they can’t make it zero. At some point, a cost-benefit analysis kicks in as the cost per unit of risk lowering becomes too high to justify (it gets beyond the customer’s “willingness to pay”). So some level of risk above zero is settled upon.
Such an approach, touted as rational and scientific, is nothing more than a game of chance. You roll the dice and hope that something doesn’t happen that you didn’t imagine or plan for, that every piece of technology and equipment works as it is supposed to, and that nobody makes a mistake at a critical point.
While the probability of a major accident may be low, the fact that we have an emergency evacuation plan and a stockpile of thyroid-blocking iodine tablets to distribute for the communities around Lepreau (but not Saint John, even though the city is within a reasonable evacuation range) is a overt concession to the possibility of it happening. That concession is nothing less than a political statement by successive premiers since Richard Hatfield that they are willing to permanently contaminate a large chunk of southern New Brunswick and deliver potentially lethal and certainly sub-lethal doses of radiation to every man, woman and child in the path of the plume, whether in this province, P.E.I., Nova Scotia or Maine (depending on the wind direction). And for what? To generate 100 degrees C of heat to boil water to make steam to run a generator to produce electricity.
Every operating nuclear plant has within it the possibility of catastrophe, bar none. People ignore this risk until it happens. The minute it does, it is too late. The clock cannot be turned back; the nuclear genie cannot be put back in the bottle.
The only way to guarantee there will never be a nuclear accident at Point Lepreau is to turn the refurbishment into a permanent decommissioning project – keep the jobs, just change what they are doing. It has to be done at some point; it might as well be now.
Janice Harvey is a freelance columnist and PhD candidate at UNB.