As we in South Bruce explore the opportunity to host Canada’s Deep Geological Repository (DGR) for spent nuclear fuel, I think we need to address an important issue. Many people have an unreasonably severe fear of radiation. We can’t see or feel radiation, and people are often naturally afraid of things they can’t sense. Many of us also grew up in the Cold War era, when our popular culture was preoccupied with the threat of atomic warfare, and our science fiction featured entire populations smitten with bizarre genetic mutations, supposedly from radioactive contamination. This is really the stuff of science fiction. Even in studies of the atomic bomb survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no such inter-generational effects were ever observed. But these fears of radiation persist until today in some circles.
A recent study from the World Nuclear Association (https://world-nuclear.org/getmedia/bdfff1aa-1a50-4793-9362-a95119b2307d/recalibrating-risk-report.pdf.aspx) shows that most people greatly overestimate the risks of nuclear power. Many common activities, like riding in a car, engaging in sports or working on a farm are statistically very risky, but we don’t consider them so. Nuclear power is statistically extremely safe, but people think of it as very risky.
It’s important to consider the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster of 1986, which is really a worst case scenario. This terrible accident in Soviet-era Ukraine arose from mismanagement of the power plant, and failure to provide basic safety information to the public in the wake of the accident. The “Chernobyl Forum”, a group of United Nations published their definitive study in 2005, nearly 20 years after the accident. They conclude that, even in this nightmare situation, casualties were comparatively light, with less than 50 deaths from radiation. 28 people died of acute exposure (all first responders), and another 15 people apparently from related thyroid cancer. As terrible as this is, most people perceive it to have been much more devastating, and this false public perception has contributed to the shutting down of well-functioning nuclear plants world-wide. By comparison, the collapse of China’s Banqiao power dam in 1975 is estimated to have killed somewhere between 12,000 and 240,000 people. Yet most of us consider hydroelectric power to be very safe.
There’s no debate that spent fuel from Canada’s nuclear reactors is toxic, and there is broad consensus that encapsulating it and sealing it in the earth’s crust is a way to keep it safely isolated in perpetuity. However, I find that people have widely varying perceptions of just what it is, and just how dangerous it is. For those interested, especially for my neighbours here in South Bruce, I highly recommend a recent video from Decouple Media, entitled “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Nuclear Waste” (go to https://www.decouplemedia.org/watch). This engaging and informative video helps to demystify nuclear waste and put it in perspective. We need to make a serious decision here, and it’s important that we try to rid ourselves of unreasonable fears and to consider the issue with as much clarity as possible.