Inside Politics

Government nuclear spin

In the annals of Lake Ontario bathymetry, there is no place more profound than a patch of lake-bed directly between the Scotch-Bonnet Gap and the Duck-Galloo Ridge known as the Rochester Basin. At its deepest, the basin is 802 feet.

That watery pit should give Christian Paradis the heebie-jeebies.

For the last couple of days, Canada's Minister of Natural Resources has been crowing on about how safe Bruce Power's shipment of 16 decommissioned nuclear steam boilers will be.

"The exterior surface of the steam generators has a lower surface dose of radiation than a package of medical isotopes. Such packages are delivered in hospitals every day. Such deliveries are common," waves off Monsieur Paradis. So move along. Nothing to see here. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission did the right thing allowing Bruce Power to ship these school-bus sized suppositories through the Great Lakes, up the Saint Lawrence Seaway and across the Atlantic Ocean to be recycled in Sweden. Really! What's the big fuss?

Again, in the words of our comforting Minister of Rocks and Trees in response to a question from Nathan Cullen of the NDP, "I do not know why the member is once again trying to undermine the credibility of a quasi-judicial organization, which is arm's-length from the government."

Well, Minister, here's the thing. It's not so much what's on the outside of the generators that has everyone glowing with worry. It's what is inside them. That's the real nasty stuff. You know, the plutonium and such... the stuff with a half-life of thousands of years... the stuff with the potential to poison the drinking water of millions of people.

The decommissioned steam boilers are essentially a spaghetti-like mess of tubes inside of a giant steel case. Some of the tubes carry heavy water that has come into direct contact with nuclear fuel. Over time, the insides of these tubes become lined with radioactive deposits.

In fact, the CNSC documented 22 different substances - called radionuclides - that are found inside the steam generators. Among them is Plutonium-239 a particularly nasty isotope that can be used in the production of nuclear weapons and has a half-life 24-thousand years. There are other, less poisonous ones in there, like Curium, Strontium and Technicium but, all told, it's a pretty messy line-up. Now admittedly, there is only about five grams of Plutonium-239 in all 16 units. But I'm pretty sure that's what everyone is concerned about.

Now normally, this wouldn't be such a big deal. The steam generators can deal with an awful lot of exterior water pressure without cracking open. So, if - as alarmists like Nathan Cullen and Gilles Duceppe fear - one of them topples over the side or - God forbid - the ship sinks, well, you just send down a winch and hook, yank them back up and send them on their merry Swedish way.

Unless of course they dive to a depth of 800 feet or greater.

At which point, they crack open.

So, a few words of advice to the member from M√©gantic-L'√Črable:

Steer clear of the Rochester Basin... and the misleading rhetoric.

Max Paris is senior producer of the CBC's Environmental Unit.
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