Lord, acting on the advice of the NB Power Corporation, decided last
summer to authorize the refurbishment of the Point Lepreau reactor at an
estimated cost of 1.4 billion dollars. In 2002, the Public Utilities
Board, after weighing the evidence from all sides, found that the
project was not economically wise even when the cost estimate was
"only" $825 million.
Evidently, money is no object when nuclear power is the
objective. Premier Lord maintains that any unanticipated cost over-runs
will be covered by the contractor, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited.
But what about the workers and their families? Are they being
properly protected? In June 2005, the US National Academy of Sciences
published a comprehensive report on the health risks of low-level
radiation exposure. This report confirmed that there is no such thing as
a safe dose of radiation. Exposures to even very low doses of atomic
radiation, far below the "permissible" doses assigned by
Canada's regulatory agency can cause fatal cancers.
Within weeks, the International Agency for Research on Cancer
published another report summarizing the results of a 15-country
international study of workers at nuclear facilities. It showed that
approximately 1 out of every 100 fatal cancers experienced by atomic
workers has been caused by their exposure to penetrating radiation on
the job. More than 400,000 workers were studied; about 6,700 fatal
cancers have been observed to date. The study deliberately excluded
workers who had suffered significant internal contamination from
radioactive substances such as plutonium or tritium.
So some workers are dying due to their radiation exposures. It is
almost impossible, however, for a dying worker or his widow to prove
that his particular cancer was caused by radiation exposure ten or
twenty or thirty years earlier, because there are other pollutants and
other factors that can cause cancer too.
It's the perfect crime. We know that people have been killed by
radiation exposure. We know who did it. We know the lethal weapon. But
we cannot prove that any particular individual was actually killed in
No Fault Insurance
The only fair practice in this situation is to offer no-fault
insurance to all workers who are exposed to radioactivity during the
refurbishment or during the operational period following the
refurbishment. If such a worker contracts cancer later on, he and his
family should be compensated automatically with no questions asked. The
same benefit should be extended retroactively to all workers who have
worked in a radioactive environment at Point Lepreau in the past. This
cost should be considered as just another cost of doing business in the
The US Government has adopted such a policy for workers who worked in
the uranium enrichment plant (now permanently closed) at Fernald, Ohio.
It is urgent that such a policy be put in place before refurbishment
begins. The intensity of the radiation fields inside the Point Lepreau
reactor during refurbishment will be far greater than anything
previously anticipated for radioactive demolition work in CANDU
reactors. It can be very costly to some of the workers and their
families if radiation induced cancers or other illnesses are the result.
The only fair
practice is to
insurance to all
100 Times Greater Exposure
Until recently, the only large demolition work planned for CANDUs was
the final dismantlement of the radioactive structures after the reactor
is permanently shut down. Dismantlement will cost several hundred
million dollars, possibly as much as a billion dollars or more, and will
produce yet another category of radioactive waste materials that nobody
has planned for.... thousands of truckloads of radioactive rubble.
Every reactor owner in Canada has presented plans to the Canadian
Nuclear Safety Commission recommending at least 30 or 40 years delay
after shutdown before commencing radioactive demolition, in order to
reduce the intense radiation fields - and hence radiation exposures of
workers - by a factor of about 100.
By contrast, those working on Lepreau refurbishment will go to work
almost immediately. They will be exposed to radiation fields 100 times
greater than those anticipated with radioactive demolition work.
Moreover, those reactors in Ontario that were recently restarted or
refurbished had been shut down for at least seven years beforehand; thus
Ontario workers were exposed to much less radiation than New Brunswick
workers will be facing. Is it fair that they and their families should
bear the financial risks resulting from death or incapacity resulting
from radiation exposure?
Trouble with Tritium
A recent report (2003) from Britain also reveals that the risks
associated with chronic exposure to tritium (a radioactive form of
hydrogen) may be 15 times greater than currently estimated by the
Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. CANDU reactors produce copious
amounts of tritium, and workers are exposed to it every day.
The "permissible levels" of tritium in Canada are much more
lax than in other countries. In a litre of drinking water, Canadian
authorities allow as much as 7000 becquerels compared with a maximum
permissible level of 100 becquerels in the USA. In California, there is
a proposal to reduce the permissible level to 15 becquerels per litre of
The so-called "background level" of tritium in drinking
water is less than 2 becquerels per litre, but almost all of that comes
from radioactive fallout due to the above-ground testing of nuclear
weapons in the 1940s and 1950s. Thus the Canadian standard for tritium
in drinking water is about 3500 times higher than that caused by bomb
There is overwhelming scientific evidence that tritium is much more
harmful than is estimated by the Canadian nuclear industry. The Ontario
Government asked ACES, the Advisory Council on Environmental Standards,
to examine the health risks from tritium. At that time the drinking
water standard was 40,000 becquerels per litre. The ACES report
recommended that the permissible levels of tritium in drinking water be
lowered immediately to 100 becquerels per litre, to be reduced further
in subsequent years to 20 becquerels per litre.
Instead, the Government of Ontario reduced the standard from 40,000
to 7,000 becquerels per litre -- 70 times higher than what ACES
considered as an interim measure, and 350 times higher than the more
stringent standard recommended by ACES. The same inflated tritium
standard (7,000 becquerels per litre) is being used in New Brunswick.
If New Brunswick is going to invest billions of dollars to prolong
the life of the decrepit Point Lepreau reactor, let us at least ensure
that workers and their families are not forced to bear a
disproportionate share of the burden. Providing no-fault insurance for
the workers and their families is the least we can do.
Gordon Edwards, Ph.D., teaches Mathematics at Vanier College in
Montreal and is President of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear
Responsibility, Dr. Edwards has also served as an expert consultant on
nuclear issues to governmental and non-governmental organizations across
Canada for 30 years.