Cathy Vakil Headshot
Éric Notebaert Headshot

The Power Source Threatening Public Health

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This December Quebec will shut down its only nuclear reactor, Gentilly-2. This should give Ontarians pause for thought. As Quebec shutters Gentilly-2, Ontario is looking to spend billions to resuscitate the aging Darlington nuclear station. Like our provincial neighbour and other countries, we should divert those billions into renewable, cleaner and healthier energy sources.

There are many valid reasons for phasing out nuclear power -- it is expensive (every nuclear project has gone massively over budget and undergone significant delays), environmentally destructive (from radioactive tailings ponds from uranium mining at Elliott Lake to radioactive contamination of Port Hope to pollution of Lake Ontario) and so far has created over 40,000 tonnes of highly radioactive toxic waste that we'll need to manage for a million years.

But health risks of the nuclear industry go very much under the radar of governments, policy-makers, and the public. The Ontario government has marketed nuclear energy as "clean" and the answer to climate change, falling for the nuclear industry's promotional literature which tactfully glosses over health concerns. As physicians, it is our duty to serve our communities by treating our patients and by advocating for illness prevention. For these reasons, we have taken the time to understand the implications of nuclear energy from a health perspective. We see nuclear power as a serious threat to public health.

Each stage of nuclear power generation, from uranium mining, refining and day-to-day activity of nuclear reactors, releases small amounts of radioactivity into the environment on an ongoing basis. The nuclear industry claims that these releases are too small to cause any health concerns, but research indicates otherwise.

Since the early 1980s, numerous studies done in North America and Europe on the health impacts of nuclear plants have shown an elevated risk of a number of illnesses in nearby populations, particularly childhood leukemia. In 2008 a well-designed study done by the German government showed that children under 5 years old living within a 5 km radius of all 16 of the country's nuclear plants had an elevated risk of developing leukemia. A similar French study showed children under 15 years old living within 5 km of all 19 of France's reactors had an elevated risk of leukemia.

These studies demonstrate that even during routine reactor operation, nearby populations are exposed to unsafe levels of radiation that are causing serious illnesses.

What does this mean for Canada? It seems government authorities don't want to know. There is not a single large scale case-control study looking at health effects of low level radioactive emissions from Canada's nuclear reactors. So would Canadian children be less at risk than children in Germany and France? Without the appropriate studies, it is reasonable to assume that our reactors are causing illness in Canada.

This is a significant concern. Unlike other countries who build their reactors in rural areas, Ontario's reactors are located in the most populous region of the country -- Toronto. Over 450,000 people live within 20 km of the Darlington nuclear station and over one million around Pickering.

And then there's the Fukushima disaster. While Canadian reactor operators assure us the risk of an accident is insignificant, the world is witnessing a major nuclear accident about once a decade somewhere in the world. Given the massive impact that such an accident would have on our economy, environment and human health, this is no insignificant risk.

The potential enormity of a Fukushima-like accident makes it crucial that we explore and develop alternatives to spending billions to rebuild the Darlington reactors. This is what other countries are doing. Since Fukushima, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and Japan have all decided to phase out nuclear power and invest massively in green energy. These countries are eliminating the risk of nuclear accident, protecting human health, and building a modern energy system.

Meanwhile in Ontario, the government has refused to even consider alternatives to Darlington nuclear station. This is a mistake.

As physicians, it is our duty to advocate preventive medicine to protect human health. In this case, preventive medicine starts with following Quebec's lead, closing Darlington and developing clean energy alternatives.

Dr. Cathy Vakil is a family doctor in Kingston Ontario, and an assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine at Queen's University. She is an active board member of Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and of Physicians for Global Survival.

Dr. Éric Notebaert is an adjunct professor at the School of Medicine, University of Montréal. He is a Science Ambassador for the David Suzuki Foundation and serves on the board of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.