What did Fukushima Mean for Canadians?

November 26, 2013

By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

The other day I had a call from a company wanting to import used machines from Japan to Alberta. The machines had been operating 500 km away from Fukushima Daiichi – well on the other side of Tokyo from the disabled nuclear plant.

The company were concerned that their new (old) hardware might be so contaminated with radiation that it won’t be admitted to Canada.

I told them even the resident evacuation zone near Fukushima was only 20 to 30 km wide – and many now think that was a costly overreaction.

Chinook salmon moving upstream (Credit: Dan Cook, Wikimedia Commons)

Chinook salmon moving upstream (Credit: Dan Cook, Wikimedia Commons)

However overcautious my callers were, their fears were less far-fetched than saying Canadians might be harmed by (for example) trace radiation in ocean debris or in migrating salmon.

The trans-Pacific distances are so immense, the dilution so great, the source so comparatively modest, our intakes so diversified, as to make this virtually impossible.

Canadian residents, even West Coast shore-dwellers, are at greater risk from the radiation in sunlight than from Fukushima. Rather than wishing Ottawa would rad-test your salmon, put on a hat.

Debris-radiation dread in turn has much more fright value than our country’s nuclear generating plants. That’s a story that was really tough to make scary.

Darlington Nuclear Generating Station (Credit: Ontario Power Generation)

Darlington Nuclear Generating Station (Credit: Ontario Power Generation)

Canada’s power reactors caused no radiation harm in fifty years of operation, and are different from Daiichi in all major respects – different fuel, core axis, moderator, containment, and geological zone.

Not just that; but Canada’s response to Fukushima was world-leading.

After the 2011 tsunami, Canada’s nuclear regulators staffed a 24/7 emergency operations centre. They inspected all plants and other facilities, checking readiness of earthquake preparedness, firefighting capability, backup power, hydrogen management and fuel cooling bays. And they had operators review all the lessons they could from the Daiichi accident.

Meanwhile the regulators, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), created a task force to study how plants would deal with events more extreme than they’d considered before, and how their capabilities would stand up.

Not only did the CNSC task force determine that Canada’s nuclear plants are safe; one year after Fukushima, the International Atomic Energy Agency said the CNSC’s response was prompt, robust, comprehensive, and a good model for other regulatory bodies.

No, for Canadians, if there is a post-Fukushima story, it isn’t trans-Pacific radiation. And it’s sure not reactor safety.
Rather, the story – one it’s time we heard more about — is in the role Canadian people and organizations played in global efforts to make this industry better and safer.

wano-logoFor example, Tom Mitchell, CEO of Ontario Power Generation, chaired the World Association of Nuclear Operators’ (WANO’s) Post-Fukushima Commission. WANO is the foremost safety organization of the people who actually operate nuclear plants.

Under Tom Mitchell’s leadership, the Commission has driven WANO to:

  • Expand its activities in emergency preparedness and severe accident management
  • Develop a world-wide integrated event response strategy
  • Strengthen the peer review process for nuclear plants
  • Strengthen WANO’s own internal reviews.

Tom Mitchell is not the only Canadian showing leadership in the world’s nuclear industry. Tim Gitzel, CEO of Saskatoon-based Cameco, is Chair of the World Nuclear Association. Dr. John Barrett, now President of the Canadian Nuclear Association, was until recently Chair of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the world’s chief nuclear watchdog.

The global response to Fukushima is part of the relentless drive to strengthen the world’s nuclear governance. This is another example of an area where Canada has demonstrated competence, punched above its weight, and helped the world get better and safer.

That’s not something to worry over. It’s something to feel proud of and good about.

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