Nuclear Safety and the Energy Future—Are Our Nuclear Reactors Safe?
Publication
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 30 Mar 1989, p. 310-318
Description
Speaker
Hare, Dr. Kenneth, Speaker
Media Type
Text
Item Type
Speeches
Description
Some numbers about electric power which comes from nuclear reactors. Some events in that field, including the explosion and fire at Chernobyl. The appointment of the speaker, in 1986, by the Government of Ontario as sole Commissioner of a safety review to answer the question: "Are the reactors safe?" The five things on which safety is dependent. A review of all five points in some detail. An exploration of accidents that have happened, and that could happen. A key to safety through effective regulation by an agency independent of the utilities. The Atomic Energy Control Board Act. Recommendations for the AECB. An overall judgment that reactors are being operated safely and at a high level of competence. Recommendations for further review. No safety grounds for abandoning the nuclear option, with provisos. The need for Canada to listen to their technically competent scientists, physicians and engineers in matters of this kind, and to assess as objectively as possible the claims and counterclaims about dangerous technology such as nuclear fission.
Date of Original
30 Mar 1989
Subject(s)
Language of Item
English
Copyright Statement
The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Full Text
NUCLEAR SAFETY AND THE ENERGY FUTURE - ARE OUR NUCLEAR REACTORS SAFE?
Dr. Kenneth Hare Chancellor, Trent University
Chairman: A.A. van Straubenzee President

Introduction:

My father-in-law, Archbishop Clark, had a stroke in 1970. He was the retired Anglican Primate of Canada. He was also Chancellor of Trinity College at the University of Toronto and chairman of the search committee to find a new Provost for the College.

In the search business, you are on edge until you find at least one winner. When the Archbishop relaxed, we knew they'd landed a big fish. That fish is a combination of a beautiful fighting salmon, a stubborn trout, a delicious Dover sole, and he is capable of operating in a fish bowl, like a goldfish.

But more important, he made his Chancellor feel important and, completely rehabilitated, that Chancellor worked 10 more years and told me how much he loved working with Ken Hare.

And after the Chancellor died, the frantically busy Provost chaired a fundraising drive for a scholarship fund in Clarke's memory.

And when Margaret Lawson tragically became a paraplegic the summer before she was to be Head Girl of St. Hilda's, Ken Hare was right there offering support.

And when he was asked to thank a British MP who had given a speech to a private dinner, Dr. Hare was so eloquent one of my guests said the luncheon was worth attending just to hear the thank you speech. David Neelands at Trinity said:

We had to outfit "der Provost bunker" in "der basement" to shield "der insomniac Provost from raucous students and ubiquitous fire alarms." And, apparently, our guest speaker is afraid of thunderstorms which, for a meteorologist and climatologist, is something.

Neelands went on to say:

"What has been the secret of the Hare's success? Mainly an oldfashioned four-letter word - WORK."

Kenneth Hare is Chancellor of Trent University, Professor Emeritus in Geography at the University of Toronto and Chairman of the Climate Program Planning Board in Canada.

Leafing through Science Dimension, I found an article in a 1985 issue that read as follows:

Hare says he can't make plans for retirement because people keep asking him to do things, such as becoming chairman of an enquiry into the effects of lead in the environment or President of Sigma Xi, the scientific research society.

Dr. Hare is a world renowned climatologist and science policy adviser in demand by universities, government, research journalists and industry. But for anyone who has studied geography or meteorology in Canada, he is simply the Guru of Canadian climatology.

He has been involved in developing public policy for many environmental issues and sees acid rain, the destruction of our forests and pollution among the environmental problems in our country.

Ken Hare was educated at the University of London (King's College and the London School of Economics) where he received his BSc in 1939. During the Second World War, he worked with the British Air Ministry as a meteorologist. After the war, he was offered a job as assistant professor of geography at McGill University and emigrated to Canada in 1945.

He has a string of honorary degrees from Laurentian University, McGill University, Memorial University, the National Defence College of Canada, Queen's University, Trent University, University of Toronto, University of Western Ontario, York University and the University of Adelaide.

His career is illustrious and has included appointments as Dean of Arts and Science, McGill University; Master of Birbeck College, University of London; President of the University of British Columbia; Director of the Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Toronto and Provost of Trinity College at U of T.

He is a companion of the Order of Canada and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He has been awarded the Massey Medal by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.

He has done important research, written numerous articles and books, and has lectured extensively.

Kenneth Hare:

Thank you for the opportunity of talking about nuclear safety before Canada's best known speakers' platform. I never expected to follow Ronald Reagan at any podium, but you have given me that chance. I am afraid you will find me a bit less entertaining.

I am delivering this address with the aid of electric power coming largely from nuclear reactors. Ontario Hydro operates 16 power reactors at Pickering and Bruce Nuclear Generating Stations. By 1993 when Darlington NGS comes fully on stream, this will rise to 20 reactors. In 1988, half the electric power produced by Ontario Hydro came from these reactors. By 1993 that fraction will be about 70 per cent. Among the world's sovereign powers only France and Belgium outdo us. The U.S., at 16 per cent, and the United Kingdom at 20 per cent, are mere pikers. Ontario is in the biggest nuclear league. Moreover, the reactors supply most of the base-load, the power that is needed continuously.

In 1986 the disastrous explosion and fire at Chernobyl intensified public anxieties about the safety of power reactors. An efficient anti-nuclear lobby has argued that such accidents are inevitable. Sooner or later, it is said, an accident, possibly a meltdown, will spread radioactive material in a large metropolitan area, with huge immediate casualty lists and deferred cancer deaths. Some individuals maintain that even the routine, accident-free operation of reactors poses hidden (perhaps deliberately concealed) hazards to people living nearby. Since the Golden Horseshoe is ringed by reactors, Ontarian and American, these fears have created understandable worry about our situation.

Late that same year, 1986, the Government of Ontario appointed me sole Commissioner of a safety review to answer the question: Are the reactors safe? I was an amateur in the field, but I had the help of the Royal Society of Canada, which appointed advisory and review panels, and was able to engage an array of consultants. It also financed submissions from a large number of concerned groups and individuals. I had access to a review of operating standards of Pickering NGS carried out by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Ontario Hydro and Atomic Energy of Canada collaborated to the full, though they must have been fed up at the prospect of a non-engineer like myself judging their professional competence and responsibility. I reported to the Minister (who was then the Hon. Robert Wong) on February 29th, 1988.

A reactor is safe enough until you use it, just as your car will hurt no one if you leave it in the garage. Once you start up, however, in both cases safety is dependent on five things:

(1) Was the reactor (or car) well designed and well built?
(2) Were the operators well trained, and do they operate under clearly defined rules?
(3) Is the corporate operating system effective, and is safety a permanent consideration at all levels?
(4) Is the system of legal regulation effective?
(5) Is there an adequate emergency system in place?

We looked at all five points. The CANDU reactors operated by Hydro have been developed from design teams in Atomic Energy of Canada Limited and Hydro itself, with help from Canadian General Electric and other engineering concerns. They use natural, unenriched uranium straight from the refiners, so that we avoid the expensive enrichment process required by most other reactors. We have to use heavy water, extracted from Lake Huron at Bruce NPD, as moderator and coolant. The reactor vessel is pierced by numerous pressure tubes of zirconium alloy, within which the fuel is actually fissioned and cooled, whereas U.S. reactors, for example, use large pressure vessels, in which light-water moderator and coolant are not separated.

We achieve efficient burn-up of the fuel, but at two major costs: the direct cost of the complex reactor core, and the indirect cost of having to accept the risk of rapid power excursions if there is a major break in the cooling system. This requires that our reactors have efficient computerized control systems, as they do, and fast acting shut-down and core cooling systems, at high cost.

The CANDU reactor is a Canadian product, and in Ontario Hydro's hands it has proved efficient and highly competitive. Up to June 30, 1987, of the world's 10 most reliable reactors (lifetime availability), seven were CANDU's (including the top six). All but one were operated by Ontario Hydro (the exception being Point Lepreau in New Brunswick). I know of no other world league in which Canada holds the top six places.

Does the normal operation of these plants endanger the public? Radioactive substances are released in quantities permitted by the regulator, the federal Atomic Energy Control Board, at levels that are meant to ensure that the nearby public is exposed only to very small doses. These include tritium. Do these threaten safety?

The review's motto was, let the facts speak for themselves. Unfortunately, the health and mortality of the public near the Hydro stations has not been systematically monitored, so there are no facts. So we turned to a group of people who are monitored, and who are exposed to significant doses - the 30,000 past or present atomic radiation workers, the work forces of Ontario Hydro and AECL, the people who actually man the reactors. We looked at the mortality record of these workers, after one to three decades of exposure to radioactivity. The fear is, of course, that latent cancers will develop as the result of such exposure. So far both groups of workers actually have overall mortality rates below those of the general public, after allowance for age and sex. There is still time for problems to show themselves, but so far the news is good.

These results are not propaganda from the nuclear industry, but are findings analysed and attested to under the aegis of senior staff members of the National Cancer Institute, and the Faculties of Medicine of the Universities of British Columbia and Toronto. We accepted them as proof that the workforces are properly protected, and, by inference, that the public, exposed to far lower doses from the reactors, is better protected.

But what about accidents, like that at Chernobyl? We found that they are extremely unlikely, because of the elaborate safety systems - shutdown systems, emergency core cooling systems, and the massive containment and vacuum (unique to Ontario) systems of the CANDU reactors. Even so, I commissioned studies of a postulated accident at Pickering A, where there is only a single shutdown system. These studies examined the case of a loss-of-coolant accident, the most feared event. They found that such a severe accident would be contained, without significant escape of radioactive material, unlike the outcome at Chernobyl, chiefly because the Dickering reactors have much less steam available for blowdown, and non-inflammable moderator (heavy water, not graphite), and a much lower inventory of dangerous material that might be spread by explosion and fire into the environment.

But accidents have happened in Hydro's reactors, because of ruptures of pressure tubes inside the reactor core. We looked at the entire file of abnormal events which approach 700 per annum. Two of these - one each at Pickering A and Bruce A - were pressure tube failures that caused damage to the reactors involved, though in neither case did any radioactive material escape from containment. In the Pickering case, the operators acted so effectively that the shutdown system was not needed, offering proof of the excellent training and alertness of the Hydro workforce, so lamentably lacking at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Even so, $425 million had to be spent to restore units 1 and 2 at Pickering to production, chiefly in replacement power. Pressure tube performance is a key safety-related challenge to Hydro's engineers, and to the research capabilities of AECL, Hydro and certain corporations - and to the country's metallurgists. But I doubt if it threatens public safety except for a few members of the workforce. What it threatens is the economic viability of the reactors.

A working group of the Solicitor General's department, which is responsible for nuclear emergency preparedness, chaired by my respected colleague, Kenneth McNeill, has reexamined the question of maximum accidents for the CANDU stations, and has concluded that evacuation might be needed and effective in a zone 10 km round the station, considerably less than was forced on the authorities around Chernobyl - again because our reactors have less potential for catastrophic releases of material. Such action is a remote contingency, but since severe accidents are not impossible, they must be planned for. An excellent plan existed on paper for a nuclear emergency in Ontario, but had not been acted on. This situation is now being rectified.

A key to safety is effective regulation by an agency independent of the utilities. In Canada this authority is claimed by the federal government, under the Atomic Energy Control Board Act. The Atomic Energy Control Board in Ottawa, a quiet Canadian if ever there was one, is that agency. It has done its job quietly and effectively for many years, setting the health and safety standards that have to be met, but leaving it to the utilities to meet them. It maintains an active inspection program, and has enforcement powers I consider adequate to its job. The Board, has, however, stuck to technical questions. I encountered demands from various advocacy groups that AECB alter its mode of operation to a model closer to the American concept of regulation - one that leads to enforcement via the courts. I rejected this advice, but agreed that AECB should be more formal in the way it records its decisions, specifying reasons, and should increase its membership and its staff resources so as to enable it to cover environmental, health and socioeconomic concerns more effectively. I believe that this advice is being taken.

So my overall judgment is that our reactors are being operated safely, and at a high level of competence that is recognized and envied internationally. A corporation with annual revenues of $5.5 billion will never find it easy to be loved. In the technical and safety performance fields, Hydro is one of the world's great utilities, and deserves our congratulations, which it never gets. Even so, I recommended - and this is being worked on now - a further review of the operating system, and the whole business of quality assessment and control in this truly vast enterprise. Safety depends on human performance, and our weaknesses are such that we can have it only if we watch ourselves like hawks.

I am dissatisfied with our approach to the public health issues involved. We have no accessible review and monitoring body for health and safety outside the governmental agencies, and we need one. Although I found no evidence of adverse health impacts near the reactors, I became aware of equivocal but disturbing evidence from British nuclear sites of raised leukemia rates among persons under 25 resident near old established nuclear sites. I recommended - and again this is being acted upon - that we try to conduct such reviews around Pickering NGS and perhaps Chalk River. This is as much a concern for the provincial government as it is for AECB, and for all of us. If the review turns out to be possible, and turns up disturbing evidence, then the view that the normal operation of reactors causes no danger will need reexamination.

Mr. Chairman, Ontario and Canada face crucial issues concerning future power sources. I agree that the best source is conservation and the avoidance of waste, and that cogeneration and the remaining hydraulic sites will help. But if new generating stations are needed in Ontario, the major options are still coal and nuclear. Coal (or any other fossil fuel) means more carbon dioxide emissions, at a time when we are trying to reduce the greenhouse problem. Building more fission reactors - and fusion is still distant - runs into the public anxieties I referred to. In my judgment there are no safety grounds for abandoning the nuclear option, as long as Ontario Hydro can maintain its present high standards. The waste disposal issue, seen by many as a major obstacle, is not, yet again in my personal judgment, good ground for abandoning the CANDU technology. I can say nothing about cost, though much needs to be said. But safety depends on the maintenance of an adequate research infrastructure, at present provided largely by AECL, whose future will have to be guaranteed if our CANDU's are to continue in use.

I have reported on the largely reassuring findings of an expert review, and have had the support of the Royal Society of Canada in coming to my judgments. The country, and this province, badly need to listen to their technically competent scientists, physicians and engineers in matters of this kind - not to make value judgments, but to assess as objectively as possible the claims and counterclaims about any dangerous technology, such as nuclear fission. If we do not learn to do this efficiently, the country will be ill-served by its decisionmakers (if any such exist) who also find it hard to know whom to believe. But, Mr. Chairman, this is another address. So let me close as I began, with thanks for the chance to speak to such a polite, influential and very much nuclear-dependent audience.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Blake C. Goldring, Vice-President, AGF Management Ltd., and a Director of the Empire Club of Canada.

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Nuclear Safety and the Energy Future—Are Our Nuclear Reactors Safe?


Some numbers about electric power which comes from nuclear reactors. Some events in that field, including the explosion and fire at Chernobyl. The appointment of the speaker, in 1986, by the Government of Ontario as sole Commissioner of a safety review to answer the question: "Are the reactors safe?" The five things on which safety is dependent. A review of all five points in some detail. An exploration of accidents that have happened, and that could happen. A key to safety through effective regulation by an agency independent of the utilities. The Atomic Energy Control Board Act. Recommendations for the AECB. An overall judgment that reactors are being operated safely and at a high level of competence. Recommendations for further review. No safety grounds for abandoning the nuclear option, with provisos. The need for Canada to listen to their technically competent scientists, physicians and engineers in matters of this kind, and to assess as objectively as possible the claims and counterclaims about dangerous technology such as nuclear fission.