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Comparing Canada's nuclear power plants

March 22, 2011 — The recent crisis in Japan has many Canadians comparing the nuclear power plants in Japan with those at home.

Steam drifts from Japan's nuclear reactors
Steam drifts from Japan's nuclear reactors

Dr. John Luxat is part of the Nuclear Safety Analysis at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. In an in-depth interview with The Weather Network's reporter Kelly Noseworthy, Dr. Luxat takes a closer look at the nuclear power plants in Canada and explains how they can withstand natural disasters and weather events.

What is the difference between the way the Japanese plants are built compared to the way ours are built?

Dr. Luxat: There is a major difference between the designs of the two reactors. The Canadian reactors you can imagine them as being a lot of smaller pieces of fuel surrounded by a lot of water in a very large concrete containment building. The Japanese reactors that were affected have a much smaller reactor pressure vessel with less water surrounding the fuel and the containment vessel is smaller, but they have suppression pools to condense steam outside the reactor and that’s been the major difference.

What weather/natural disasters are our power plants prepared for?

Dr. Luxat: The plants here are designed to withstand earthquakes of the magnitude that one would anticipate large earthquakes in this region, certainly not as large as Japan. That area is particularly unique so we would never see a 9.0 earthquake here, but we are designed to withstand earthquakes and we have filtered discharge systems from the containment that would take the containment atmosphere and pass it through filters to remove, for example, radio-iodine so we would minimize any release of radio-iodine through this emergency filter discharge system.

What happens in the case of ice storms or tornadoes?

Dr. Luxat: We have backup power supplies on site as well as the ability to bring power supplies on site. So if you lost the grid connection, which you might expect in an ice storm, it would not result in the loss of the electrical supply to the plant. So in the case of the Japanese problem, there it was the massive nature of the tsunami wave that took out the diesel generators. Just on the coast there was another plant exactly the same design and their diesel generators survived because it did not experience the magnitude of the tsunami wave that the Fukushima Daiichi plant experienced.

Is weather a factor in nuclear safety planning procedures?

Dr. Luxat: That is a very key component in terms of emergency planning to recognize if you have any kind of toxic substance be it a gas, a poisonous gas or whatever that it can be moved by the winds. So the wind direction becomes important as does precipitation. It can wash out toxic material not necessarily just radioactive material, but there are other toxins, chemical toxins that could be hazardous to our health and could be distributed in an industrial accident.

Should we even have nuclear power plants given this situation?

Dr. Luxat: Some people believe we shouldn’t. There are other people who do believe we should and then if you are concerned about long term safety I think the issue of climate change is a much greater threat to the world’s population than nuclear power ever will be! Even the worst disaster we’ve experienced, the worst it could ever get; Chernobyl, has not caused a massive damage to the world’s population. Climate change, if we don’t debate it, has the potential to basically detrimentally affect everybody in the world. I would be more comfortable living next to a nuclear power plant than I would living next to a fossil or coal fired power plant because people don’t realize that from emissions from the coal fired plant you actually experience greater radiation exposure than you do living next to a nuclear plant.

How safe are we in Canada?

Dr. Luxat: We are safe. I know people get concerned, but when you look at nuclear power it is one of the safest options for large scale electricity generation that we have. I don’t believe that we should be getting into any panic mode about safety here. We do constantly review safety to ensure we can maintain adequate levels of safety and we will review the Japanese experience to see what lessons we can learn as will the rest of the world.

Final thoughts...

Dr. Luxat: We were born and evolved in a sea of radiation. We continue to live in a sea of radiation albeit relatively low for background radiation, but we also get significant doses periodically from medical procedures. In the case of a nuclear plant, if we live next to a nuclear plant the radiation that is released there is many thousand times lower than what we get from natural radiation sources. So in the case of an accident it could increase but again, as part of the measures that are taken, if there is a risk, move people away.

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