10/06/2015 05:33 EDT | Updated 10/06/2016 05:12 EDT

We Still Need to Pay Attention to Nuclear Safety in Quebec


In a vitriolic letter addressed to Mr David Heurtel, Québec Minister for the Environment, Mr. Michael Binder, President of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), questions the conclusions of the report of the Bureau d'audiences publiques sur l'environment (BAPE) concerning the extraction of uranium in Québec.

One can understand his disappointment with the conclusions of the BAPE. But he crosses the line when he declares that ''the decision of of the BAPE to continue questioning the scientific principles and the proven safety record of modern uranium extraction boils down to misleading the people of Québec and Canadians." But isn't it precisely sacred cows like the CNSC that we should be questioning when it comes to safety?

Remember that a few years ago, the Harper government fired Linda Keen, then-president of the CNSC, because she questioned the safety of the Chalk River reactor, which produces bio-medical isotopes. By firing a person who had as her mandate the safety of citizens in nuclear matters, and who had the courage to question the laxity of nuclear industry safety, has the CNSC and the Canadian government truly protected the public? Certainly, patients need these radiology products. But the necessity of safe handling of such dangerous products as radioactive elements should never be challenged, no offence to Mr. Binder.

Mr. Binder states that '' ...the mining of uranium...has been carried on in all safety in Saskatchewan for more than 30 years." Then how do we explain that the mine at Gunner Mining in Saskatchewan closed in 1964, has just been given an additional 10 years for the rehabilitation of the site by CNSC? From 1964 to 2024! Sixty years is a long, a very long time to restore an old uranium mining site. The citizens as well as the First Nations have reason to be worried about the safety surrounding an abandoned uranium mine. We could remind Mr. Binder that this laxity in the nuclear industry does not foster a favourable social consensus.

We should also remember that uranium 238 is not the only radioactive isotope . Radioactivity can cause multiple problems, for example in the case of the niobium mine of St-Lawrence Columbium, at Oka near Montreal, a mine which closed its doors permanently at the beginning of the 1970s. Its closing was significant because emanations of radon, a radioactive gas, causes 16 per cent of deaths by lung cancer. Neither the industry, nor CNSC, nor the government of Canada have compensated the citizens of Kanesatake, Oka and Saint-Joseph-du-Lac for the loss of territory, for the loss of tax revenue, and most of all for the latent threat to their health.

Mr. Binder also maintains that CNSC has ''has participated fully in the public process.'' and has ''provided reliable and well-founded evidence." However, when we refer to the documents on the official CNSC website, we notice the large number of reports which are not available in French. As a branch of the Government of Canada, the CNSC is obliged to accept the federal official languages law, which stipulates that all information should be available in the two official languages of Canada. If the Francophone population of Québec is not adequately informed, aren't the linguistic shortcomings of CNSC in part responsible?

On this 70th anniversary of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we must be conscious of the dangers of the power of the atom. Even in peaceful uses, accidents are possible -- think of Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island and Fukushima. And let's not forget that radioactive material is a tool of choice for a terrorist who wishes to wreak a great deal of damage on an innocent population.

Speaking of security, has the CNSC come up with a definitive solution for the ultimate disposal of nuclear waste? It is not possible to "temporarily" store spent fuel rods in pools for centuries upon centuries! In order to use uranium in a safe way, it is absolutely essential that at the end its life cycle, the radioactive waste be disposed of safely and permanently.

Certainly, Mr. Binder has reason to say that his industry is the most regulated and monitored. It certainly should be, because unlike wind power, solar energy, even hydro-electric generating stations such as LG2, the disastrous consequences of a nuclear accident on living things could be felt for millions of years (uranium 234 has a half-life of 233,000 years).

The population of Québec understands that household waste and chemical waste are a poisoned gift to future generations, but nuclear waste is a poisoned gift even to subsequent civilizations.

It is this recall to reality by the BAPE, which got Mr. Binder so hot under the collar; and it is not the BAPE that is leading the population to incorrect conclusions! That institution is doing its job correctly as Linda Keen, no doubt, was trying to do if she had not been dismissed as she tried to respect the precautionary principle.

By Gérard Montpetit with the help of Guy Rochefort, translated by Ingrid Style.


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