Guest Column - Denise Carpenter
Political fallout from the Fukushima disaster
By Denise Carpenter
Immediately following the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi station one year ago this month, the nuclear industry in Canada and around the world was subject to intense scrutiny.
As CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association, I am regularly asked if nuclear power in Canada is safe. Each time I answer with complete certainty — yes, it is.
We all recall the details: on March 11 a massive earthquake occurred off the northeast coast of Japan, triggering a tsunami that penetrated several miles inland. Thousands were killed and property, services and infrastructure destroyed. Damage was in the billions of dollars.
In the path of these forces was the six-unit Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Three of its units were already shut down. The other three units were operating.
As the quake was detected, these units automatically shut down. About an hour later, waves as high as 14 metres flooded the site, disabling all but one of the plant’s in-service emergency diesel generators that provided power for cooling the units. With little on-site, back-up power and with all off-site power disabled by the quake, the units could not be adequately cooled, resulting in core damage. What sometimes gets lost in the telling is that the operating units at Fukushima did exactly what they were supposed to do: they shut down as soon as the earthquake was detected. The problem came when the tsunami hit the plant, causing a loss of power.
If the tsunami hadn’t happened, there would not have been a nuclear crisis. And our industry thinks it’s important that people understand that.
Soon after the disaster struck, nuclear operators in Canada launched a thorough assessment of their own systems and operations to confirm they were safe. This included looking at back-up power systems and the ability of nuclear plants to withstand natural disasters that might occur here.
Last October, the Canadian Nuclear Safety commission released the Fukushima Task Force Report. It concluded that all Canadian nuclear power plants are safe, designed to withstand conditions similar to those that triggered the Fukushima disaster. Still, it’s important for the nuclear industry internationally to share valuable lessons learned from the tragedy in Japan and ensure that safety standards and policies reflect current findings.
Canada has high-quality uranium deposits and a highly developed base of nuclear technologies, including power generation, medicine, food safety, mining and processing and materials science. The nation as a whole has 17 operational CANDU reactors that supply 15 per cent of all electricity in the country and more than 50 per cent of Ontario’s electrical needs. The Ontario government sees this role continuing, calling for the addition of two new units and for the mid-life refurbishment of 10 existing reactors in the province. Nuclear units are also installed in New Brunswick (where a mid-life refurbishment is nearing completion) and in Quebec (where a refurbishment decision is due in the near future).
Refurbishing CANDUs at mid-life is popular among utilities that operate the units, as it is a minimal carbon-emissions option that generates large numbers of highly skilled, highly paid jobs for a period of several years. Refurbishing these nuclear units is one of the most effective ways to use public dollars to reduce carbon emissions, maintain generating capacity and create jobs.
Nuclear power is very important for Canada’s future, as it is an energy alternative to fossil fuels. But power generation is only one of the many great things about nuclear power. Our nuclear industry provides a broad spectrum of products and services that benefit not only Canadians but people around the world. Nuclear science provides nuclear medicine and food safety technologies. Innovation in nuclear science is also being applied to address a number of societal challenges such as public health and transportation.
Our nuclear industry is made up of more than 70,000 Canadians employed directly or indirectly in exploring and mining uranium, generating electricity, advancing nuclear medicine and promoting Canada’s worldwide leadership in science and technology innovation. Through the efforts of these Canadians, our nuclear industry is a $6.6 billion annual industry, contributing $1.5 billion in tax revenues and $1.2 billion in export revenues.
Fukushima was a tragedy that caused enormous loss of life and property to Japan. The international nuclear industry is working together to prevent such an event from ever happening again, helping to ensure that the world continues to benefit from nuclear energy.
Denise Carpenter is the president and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association, which promotes the development and growth of nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes.
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