Absolutely ridiculous

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
November 13, 2002

“The nuclear industry has never claimed to be ‘absolutely safe’,” says AECL PhD Jeremy Whitlock. Never? I guess no one could be that dumb, certainly no one in the worldwide nuclear industry that I wrote about last week. OK, Jeremy. I apologize. And I apologize to you, too, John Sutherland. You sure nailed it. “No one that I know in the industry” would ever, ever say nuclear power was “absolutely safe.” What a fool I was John, not checking with you first, to confirm the nuclear industry’s precision and rectitude. How could I think the brain-trust that keep the lights on and us safe – how could I think that even a single one of you noble nuclear folk – could be reckless with language when you’re so cautious – too cautious, you tell us – safeguarding us from radiation. Nothing is absolute. Everyone in the nuclear industry knows that. Now I understand that, too.

Oh, wait! Oliver Kingsley, the vice-president of Exelon Corporation, America’s largest nuclear power operator, told PBS NewsHour last year. “These plants are absolutely safe,” Maybe it was a slip of the tongue. Wait! He said it again – “absolutely safe.” Maybe his tongue slipped twice in the same interview. Or maybe he meant it. “So we maintain these plants in top-like conditions; we cut no corners at all with these plants. These plants are absolutely safe,” he said for the third time.

But Exelon is only a private corporation. In Canada, real industries are run by governments. Maybe Jeremy and John meant no one in the nuclear industry working for governments could ever be so naive as to say nuclear power is “absolutely safe.” Oops. “Absolutely safe,” pronounced Dale Klein, a leading consultant to the U.S. federal government. “Absolutely safe,” echoed Ed Helminski, who helped develop U.S. federal policy while in several government posts and is now a nuclear consultant and editor of an industry newsletter.

Maybe Jeremy and John meant no one in the worldwide nuclear industry outside America could be so ignorant as to say the nuclear power industry is absolutely safe. “Absolutely safe,” say the Japanese. “Absolutely safe,” say the Russians. “Absolutely safe,” say the Czechs. And the Indians and the Pakistanis?: “Absolutely safe.” Even the Turks, eyeing cut-rate Candus that Jeremy’s AECL was offering, called nuclear technology “absolutely safe.” But they wouldn’t have heard that from Jeremy or John or any one else in the nuclear industry.

Jeremy and John, I hate to break this to you, but your colleagues are positively, absolutely letting you down. Check them out for yourselves using Google: Key in “absolutely safe” and your favourite country and watch Google go. Not only do your colleagues say nuclear power generation is “absolutely safe,” they say nuclear mining is “absolutely safe” and that nuclear waste disposal is “absolutely safe” and that nuclear-powered submarines are “absolutely safe.” Our own federal government – your boss, Jeremy – says transporting plutonium is “absolutely safe.” It’s almost a reflex with these guys. Say “nuclear” and out comes “absolutely safe.”

But don’t be too hard on them, because they mean well. And really, is there any difference between their formula and yours? When you say “Absolutely no human endeavour is absolutely safe” or that nuclear power is “only relatively safe” you really mean that just about nothing is safer than nuclear. Not coal, not oil, not hydro-electricity, not even solar energy, because, nuclear statisticians say, people die like flies installing it. Those in Jeremy and John’s “nuclear-is-not-absolutely-safe” camp say that you get more radiation from sleeping next to your wife than from living next to a nuclear plant. Thanks for putting the risk in perspective, guys. I feel safer, just knowing that my welfare is in your hands.

John, you wonder why the public isn’t clamouring for liability protection from all of the other energy generating options? Because, John, as Jeremy knows, the public is already protected from reckless behaviour by other energy producers. Only nuclear needed government shielding. That’s why it’s called the Nuclear Liability Act, not the Coal Liability Act, not the Hydro or Oil or Windmill Liability Act. Only the GEs and the Westinghouses refused to stand behind their nuclear plants, from fear that a serious accident could bankrupt them.

Jeremy, I’m sure you’re a great nuclear physicist but you have an even greater talent for PR. I like the way you stand logic on its head, say by declaring consumers the winners when the nuclear industry gains protection at the consumers’ expense. A PR flack with a mere BA could never have come up with that one. Or calling the new liability regime “no fault insurance” when consumers wouldn’t be entitled to 1 cent on the dollar in compensation for the property a nuclear accident would destroy. Brilliant. I guess we will save money from all that litigation you refer to. But Jeremy, you still need to explain why, if the reactors are so all-but-absolutely safe, and if accidents are so very unlikely to occur, all that litigation would occur in the first place?

Letters re: Nuclear Risk: Make ’em Pay, Lawrence Solomon
Nov. 6

The nuclear industry has never claimed to be “absolutely safe,” and it would be interesting to know if Mr. Solomon has evidence for his allegation to the contrary.

Absolutely no human endeavour is absolutely safe, but some are safer than others. The nuclear industry’s record is exemplary; in all probability it is the best of any large-scale electricity generation technology.

The industry’s confidence in the technology is embodied in its capital investment, and the indemnification thereof. A shoddy and unsafe practice will first and foremost lead to loss of assets: about a billion bucks per reactor. Larger utilities (e.g. Ontario Power Generation) self-insure this risk; smaller utilities (e.g. NB Power) obtain private insurance. Suppliers to the nuclear industry are not absolved of liability if their product causes plant damage.

In the case of off-site consequences, the Nuclear Liability Act (NLA) channels all public liability to the operator, and coverage is “no fault.” This avoids a lengthy litigious process and thus directly benefits the consumer. It’s a good deal you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.

In return, the operator’s liability is capped, currently at $75-million per reactor. While the level itself is debatable (and currently under review), the requirement is quite clear: Without restraint, public perception in a litigious society can destroy a good industry. One need only look at the farcical aftermath of Three Mile Island, despite its zero direct off-site consequences, for an example. For obvious reasons, anti-nuclear activists favour an open-ended free-for-all that leverages the fear and loathing they trade in.

The NLA places public damages exceeding the limit in the hands of the government, as would be the case for any large-scale disaster. So the public is most definitely insured against nuclear accidents, although you won’t find it in your homeowner’s coverage. This is often reported, as Mr. Solomon did, as trepidation on the part of the insurance industry, whereas the reasoning lies more in the industry’s distaste for insuring somebody twice.

Jeremy Whitlock, PhD, reactor physicist, AECL.

Death by power

Approximate relative human impact of most energy producing options as derived from world data over several decades (for the same energy output).

Energy Source Relative Human Fatalities*
Nuclear Power 1
Natural Gas 9
Hydro power 80
Wind 100
Solar-Photovoltaic 110
Oil 360
Liquefied Propane 3,100
Coal 3,200

* For the same energy generation

Source: International Atomic Energy Agency (Except Data for Wind and Solar Energy).

Mr. Solomon should be ashamed of himself for attempting to frighten and misinform the general public about nuclear power.

He is only one of several unaccountable so-called environmentalists who are fond of suggesting that the nuclear industry is fond of saying that nuclear power is absolutely safe. What a pity that what he says is not true. No one that I know in the industry says that, as they know that it is only relatively safe, although much safer than any other energy alternative. Many reputable studies over the last few years of collecting data on all significant sources of energy, as well as wind and solar, clearly show that nuclear energy is the safest (relative) source of energy that we have. But having invented this “absolute” straw man, he proceeds to call a group of unidentified, non-existent people outside of his own imagination, scaremongers, ignorant and fools.

When you consider the relative safety of all of our energy options as shown in the table, Mr. Solomon should be asking why the public is not clamouring for liability protection from all of the other energy generating options that are notably much less safe for the public than nuclear power. He won’t of course, as they don’t need any of it, as he well knows. However, that dose of honest perspective would totally defeat the purpose of his emotional diatribe and he would be unable to scare people witless, and thus raise funds for more mayhem for groups like Energy Probe.

John K. Sutherland, a consultant health physicist, is an adjunct professor in engineering at the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton.

The nuclear industry says it never claimed nuclear power is ‘absolutely safe,’ just safer than other sources. Lawrence Solomon says that’s absolute nonsense.

Mr. Solomon has made a number of errors and misrepresentations of fact regarding the nuclear industry and nuclear liability. The topic he addresses is supposedly Bill C-4, but Mr. Solomon in fact devotes most of his attention to the Nuclear Liability Act.

For the record, Bill C-4 has nothing to do with the Nuclear Liability Act or the safety of nuclear power plants, nor does it serve in any way to weaken the obligations placed upon nuclear operators by the Nuclear Safety and Control Act. All it does is to reinforce the Nuclear Liability Act by ensuring that nuclear operators remain solely liable for the consequences of their activity, and that liability cannot be deflected onto creditors. If creditors were required to absorb liability from all activity of those to whom they lend capital, the banking industry would not exist.

The purpose of Bill C-4 is to allow the nuclear industry to function as a normal commercial enterprise, and hence to succeed or fail as any other commercial enterprise. To do so, whether it is in public or in private ownership, any industry must have access to capital which is currently denied to the nuclear industry by Subsection 46(3) of the Nuclear Safety and Control Act.

In fact the only reliable opinion in Mr. Solomon’s column was stated in the first sentence in his description of nuclear energy critics as “scaremongers, the ignorant and fools.”

Colin G. Hunt is director of research and publications at the Canadian Nuclear Association.

Jeremy Whitlock, PhD, reactor physicist, AECL.

To read Lawrence Solomon’s article, “Nuclear risk: Make ’em pay,” click here.

Click here to read a readers response, ” Don’t give me, Absolutely safe”

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