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Japan, Alberta and the risks of nuclear power: 'Never believe anything till it's officially denied'

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Long before the full radioactive magnitude of the Japanese seismic crisis was known, the news agency with the appropriately doom-laden appellation Postmedia News swiftly published a story assuring readers that atomic energy is really, really safe, especially the way it's likely to be generated in Canada.

"As Japanese officials scrambled to evacuate citizens living near a nuclear plant that declared a state of emergency following a massive earthquake, Canadian nuclear officials say our country's reactor sites were safely constructed with worst-case scenarios in mind," said the March 11 Postmedia News story that appeared in most if not all of the company's newspapers across Canada.

Here in Alberta, where for years there's been endless talk and growing pressure applied through various propaganda campaigns to construct a $6-billion-plus nuke in the Peace River Country to help squeeze oil from the tarsands, this should make nervous citizens feel so much better.

Indeed, the Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. media spin on which the Postmedia story was based had all the hallmarks of a damage-control measure rushed out to soothe the bumpkins back to sleep. "Our country's nuclear sites are always built on sturdy foundations," it explained calmingly. (This is not good news for Alberta, alas, seeing as we do indeed have "seismically stable" potential sites deemed suitable for locating sturdy foundations.)

The story went on: "Robin Forbes, AECL spokesman, said that risk assessments are conducted and multiple safety barriers are put in place so nuclear plants can withstand hurricanes and earthquakes." Not like those crazy Japanese, eh? Practically a Third World country, building their nuke plants just any old place! Oh… wait…

Yes, Canadian nuclear plants have "strong concrete floors," plus "safety security systems," and "among the most robust designs in the world." Obviously, if you're not feeling better by now, you're as mentally unstable as a physician who dares to criticize the Alberta health-care system!

Surprisingly, the Postmedia story didn't reassure readers that CANDU reactors, the type built by AECL, are safer than all the other kinds of nuclear reactors, but stand by to hear that yarn soon too.

There's enough truth to that one to make it dangerous -- because safer doesn't translate to safe, back-up systems, thick concrete floors and all.

Propaganda notwithstanding, the fact is that CANDU reactors are not risk-free. Never mind that in some locations they may free up plutonium from other sources to make atomic bombs -- presumably not a problem in Alberta, at least until the Wildrose Alliance forms the government.

However, according to a study commissioned by Greenpeace, dangers associated with this design include unplanned releases of radioactive materials, the potential for explosive power pulses, overconfidence in shutdown systems, inadequate protection against terrorist attacks and unintended diversion of radioactive spent fuel, which is said to hold five to 10 times the long-lived radioactivity of fuel in the reactor core.

CANDU reactors' propensity for problems associated with corroded pipes is well known; their massive thirst for clean water in an increasingly water-short region is less so.

Moreover, according to Greenpeace, the studies on which the frequently heard safety claims about the CANDU are based are not available for unbiased scientific review. Recent studies, the report says, suggest research supporting the two-part shutdown system hyped as a major factor in the CANDU design's safety may be flawed.

On top of all that, never forget the fact that there is no guarantee, yet anyway, that any nuclear plant built in Alberta would be a CANDU design.

Last weekend, writing on Counterpunch.org, the British-born, California-based journalist Alexander Cockburn quoted his late father Claude's sage advice "never to believe anything till it's officially denied."

"Perhaps the news that Japanese nuclear reactors have been damaged and that clouds of official deception are already rising above them will cool the revival of enthusiasm for building new nuclear plants here in the U.S.," Cockburn hopefully wrote.

Here in Alberta too, this is profoundly to be hoped. As the Edmonton Journal reluctantly conceded in a 2007 editorial calling for the "nuclear alternative" to be "explored," "Albertans have every right to be cautious."

But don't bet on it. Pressure to build one of these massively expensive, high-risk, environmentally unsustainable white elephants out here in the great aspen parkland of North America is likely to continue with the enthusiastic backing of the provincial government.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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