Trigger Words

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Part 2: Why Fukushima proves nuclear power is safe

In my previous post, I tore a small strip off CBC journalist David Gutnick, for his cringeworthy coverage of the nuclear disaster in Japan. However, there was at least one voice of reason within the CBC, during its reporting of this story.

Bob McDonald, of CBC Radio’s science program “Quirks & Quarks”, was interviewed briefly by Peter Mansbridge, on The National. I didn’t record the conversation, so I can’t tell you exactly what was said.

So, I went one better. I called CBC’s always-helpful communications department, and, within 24 hours, was talking with Bob McDonald. Here’s a slightly condensed transcript of that telephone interview, beginning with a discussion of his interview on The National.

McDonald: I went on The National early on in this thing, saying, ‘Let’s get some perspective here.’ More people die from the fossil fuel industry every year than die from nuclear reactors, or have EVER died in nuclear reactor accidents in the 65 years of the nuclear power industry. More than 10,000 people die every year in the fossil fuel business.

Meeker: So you would say that the situation is not as bad as media coverage indicates?

McDonald: Well, it’s still a very, very serious situation that they have there. The reactor is an old design. It was two weeks away from being decommissioned. It’s a 40-year-old reactor, so it was built in the Seventies and designed in the Sixties. We don’t even have cars on the road that are that old, that run well. And yet, it survived the earthquake. It did what it was supposed to do. It actually shut down, and it was the tsunami that knocked out its backup generators and caused all the problems. The reactor itself was actually quite robust, considering, and was way beyond its design limits – it survived something it wasn’t even designed for.

Yeah, “nuclear” is a trigger word. As soon as you say the words “nuclear” and “radiation,” everybody panics, because they think about either nuclear explosions, or Chernobyl, or radiation hazards... And you have to put these things in perspective, in context, and nuclear reactors are NOT nuclear bombs and can’t become nuclear bombs. The Chernobyl accident… was because of human error. They turned off their safety protocols to do a test. The test went bad. It was a very powerful steam explosion that blew the reactor to bits. It wasn’t some kind of nuclear detonation. It was a very powerful steam explosion… that was so powerful, it blew the whole reactor right up into the sky, so all the fuel material was pulverized, blown up into the stratosphere and formed this huge fallout cloud, that came down. And, yeah, that was horrible. But that’s not what’s going on here. That’s not what happened at Three Mile Island. In this case, even though the reactors are overheating and there’s a danger that the stuff could start to melt, it’s still contained. They’ve still got it contained, right there. There are problems with water leaking out, and getting into water systems and food supply – yes, that’s an issue – but again, it’s all in perspective. When you compare it to how many people die from exploding oil rigs or tanker disasters or coal mine (accidents) or even breathing coal emissions, stuff like that, it’s really quite a safe technology. Yeah, things can go bad. But more people die in airplane accidents. I even heard one statistic that more people have died from burning candles, than from nuclear reactors. So you have to keep it in perspective… three nuclear accidents in 65 years.

(Side note: A 2010 report by the National Fire Protection Association found that candles caused more than 15,000 house fires in the U.S., between 2003 and 2007, resulting in 166 deaths. – GM)

Meeker: On The Sunday Edition this week, and The Current, David Gutnick was in Hiroshima for a few days, and was all over the Hiroshima angle.

McDonald: And, again, that’s an unfair comparison.

Meeker: He was conflating the two, and never explaining that one is very different from the other… He visited the Hiroshima museum and was incredulous about it…

McDonald: No, it’s bullshit. It’s not like that. That was a bomb that incinerated a city and killed 90,000 people. It was a bomb that blew out all its energy at once. A nuclear reactor can’t do that. And even the survivors of Hiroshima did not die because of radiation-caused cancer in the rates that people expected, had predicted.  In Chernobyl, the number of people who died from radiation was less than they were predicting, at the time. But they are very different situations than what’s going on now. Again, I’m not trying to minimize what’s going on now. They’re apples and oranges. But because the terminology is the same – nuclear – people associate them, and it’s really too bad for the nuclear industry that they have that moniker. And the newer reactors, including the Canadian CANDU reactor, are a whole lot safer than the one they are having trouble with in Japan. We have built-in safeguards, and different designs…

Meeker: So you would agree with my view, that this has been blown way out of proportion?

McDonald: Yes, yes.

Meeker: I’ve noticed certain American news outlets interview “experts” who, if you search their names, turn out to be anti-nuclear activists.

McDonald: (laughs) Yes, and they say all nuclear is bad, which is just wrong. And yet, to say that, they’ll be spreading their message by email, which is using a computer that’s using electricity. They’re talking on their cell phones, which need to be charged. They’re going to go home, turn the lights on in their houses and have hot water showers. And where’s all that energy going to come from? In Ontario, half of our electricity comes from nuclear power. If we get rid of that, what do we do, use coal? No, we want to get rid of coal, because it’s bad. Wind? There’s a group in Toronto that’s opposing windmills. So where the hell is all this electricity going to come from, for all these protestors? And all the alternatives will not make it, they just don’t add up when you do the numbers.

Nuclear was just on the verge of a renaissance, as this thing came along. There’s a lot of new technology coming out, and different ways to get power from the atom. And there are no carbon emissions. Everybody is worried about the spent fuel, ‘What do you do with that stuff?’ Sure, there is the longevity issue with some of the fuel. But you can see it all. You can stand there and look at it. It’s all in one spot. Whereas, we will accept gigatonnes of stuff coming out of smokestacks and tailpipes every day. Again, it’s a matter of perspective.

Meeker: That was one of the questions Gutnick kept asking in Hiroshima: should they be rethinking the nuclear power industry.

McDonald: That’s wrong. It’s misleading, sensationalist and wrong… I write about this in my blog. I called it Japan’s Nuclear Success. What they are doing is proving that the industry works. They (the workers) have been doing exactly what they should do, and I think they’ve been incredibly brave, staying on that site and fighting it. How many of those workers who stayed in there to fight this thing, have family members who were taken away by the tsunami, and don’t have homes to go home to? There’s an untold story there, a human story. They are heroes, in my mind.

For more, read Bob McDonald’s blog, here:


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Recent comments

  • Jeff Power
    April 14, 2011 - 17:47

    Top notch.

  • Anton z. Capri
    April 08, 2011 - 11:45

    Bob McDonald is right. The word "nuclear" is a great trigger for the uninformed. As an example "Nuclear magnetic resonance" was changed to "Magnetic resonance imaging" even though it has nothing to do with nuclear energy. WE need more informed voices like that of Bob McDonald.

  • Peter Jackson
    April 06, 2011 - 07:34

    A couple of weeks ago, Brent Bambury (CBC Radio's Day 6) ran an interview with well-known British environmental journalist George Monbiot, who also said his outlook on nuclear energy has become more positive since Fukushima. Same general rationale as McDonald.

  • Ken O'Brien
    April 05, 2011 - 09:43

    When I heard some of the radio story from Hiroshima, I had the same thought: what is this guy going on about? I'm glad to see this perspective from you and from Bob McDonald. We have not yet solved the prioblem of long-term (reallllllly long-term) safe storage of the spent nuclear fuel, but the perspective on safety and loss of lives is important.