MATHEMATICS FACULTY MEMBER
GORDON EDWARDS

Below is the transcript of his talk, heard May 5, 2005 on the CBC's program "Commentary", where he discusses the disposal of radioactive waste produced by nuclear reactors.


Introduction:
What should Canada do with its tons and tons of nuclear waste? It's been building up for decades from power reactors in Ontario, New Brunswick and Quebec. A report by an organization mandated by Ottawa to look for a solution says bury it deep in stable rock formations like the Canadian Shield. Gordon Edwards is a longtime critic of the nuclear industry. He teaches mathematics at Vanier College in Montreal. On Commentary, he says we'll always have nuclear waste until we shut our reactors down.

Gordon Edwards:
Advocates of nuclear energy like to say that nuclear power's clean. But there is the embarrassing legacy of radioactive waste produced by every nuclear reactor. Nuclear fuel which is irradiated is millions of times more dangerous than fresh nuclear fuel and that's because hundreds of radioactive materials are created inside the reactor. These are man-made materials and they remain dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years.

In the 1970s the nuclear industry spokesmen used to say "Don't worry about it. We'll find a solution. We'll bury it somewhere, perhaps in the Canadian Shield." But in 1993 there was a federal environmental review panel which had looked at this very question of burial in the Canadian Shield and said it's not proven to be acceptably safe.

Now a new report by an industry-led organization, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization, says that Canada should go ahead and do it anyway, but very cautiously, taking all the time needed, even up to 300 years and spending all the money necessary, even up to $24 billion.
Some people think that this new report represents real progress towards finding a solution. They even say we can continue building nuclear reactors if this problem is licked. But consider this: as long as nuclear reactors continue to operate there's no real solution because new wastes are being produced every day. And they're so hot that they have to be cooled for at least ten years; they cannot be removed from the reactor site until they are cool enough. So as long as the reactors are running their toxic inventory is essentially undiminished.

The Chernobyl accident gave us a good indication of what happens when irradiated nuclear fuel is dispersed into the environment. It's a disaster. In 1976, a British royal commission told us that the same thing could happen as the result of conventional warfare. If nuclear reactors are targetted by ordinary bombs you could have uninhabitable regions resulting from that.

So if we keep on building and operating reactors we're not really solving the problem, we're just perpetuating it, and the radioactive shipments over our highways will never cease.

There are other things to think about. What about people in other countries that we sell our reactors to? Have the Romanians been told that they may have to cough up $24 billion to deal with their radioactive waste problem?

And although the nuclear industry doesn't like to talk about it, there is plutonium in the irradiated fuel. This plutonium is very long-lived and it's man-made. Even after 10,000 years any future regime can extract that plutonium from the radioactive waste and make atomic bombs. That's what North Korea's doing today; that's what India and Pakistan did a few years ago, and they're still doing it. This problem is not solved by simply moving the waste to a central repository.

I believe the time has come for Canadians to take the lead in telling our politicians that we should get out of the nuclear business, just as Germany has done, Sweden and Belgium as well. Let's stop producing nuclear waste at home; let's stop exporting our problems abroad.

For Commentary, this is Gordon Edwards in Montreal.


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