Anxiety over ongoing expansion efforts at the Bruce nuclear facility is running high. Locals were thrown another curve this week when Energy Minister John Baird suggested that troubled reactors at the facility could be pressed into action to help fill any energy gaps facing the province in the future.Baird tossed out the Bruce option as it became apparent Monday that four reactors at Ontario Power Generation's Pickering plant, which generates most of the province's electricity, will not be up and running for months to come -- if ever.
The prospect of hurrying the Bruce facility's notoriously problematic reactors back into service, several of which have been out of commission since 98, has locals and anti-nuke activists worried about the environmental fallout. But Bruce Power (BP), the private company now running the generating station, is getting ready to spark up two of the Bruce A reactors.
Residents have little trust in the old reactors, which have been plagued by technical problems and poor performance. They worry that the reopening will mean even higher levels of the radioactive toxin tritium in their drinking water.
The local Inverhuron Ratepayers Association has documented several "emergency" releases of tritium directly into Lake Huron because of mechanical breakdowns and mishaps over the years. Though considered by some to be a relatively benign radionuclide, tritium has been linked to leukemia and Down's syndrome.
Even BP admits that tritium levels will lilely rise. The company, however, denies that the carcinogen has ever reached harmful levels.
BP spokesperson Steve Cannon says, "Bruce Power only undertook the restart program for Bruce A following the most comprehensive assessment of CANDU reactors ever done."
Locals say BP is downplaying the dangers. Normand de la Chevrotiere, a spokesperson for Inverhuron residents, was dismayed to discover that Health Canada's guideline for the maximum level of tritium in drinking water is 10 times higher than that established more than 30 years ago in the U.S.
"It prompts the question," says de la Chevrotiere, "why are allowable Canadian levels still so much higher than those in the U.S.?"
Norm Rubin of nuke watchdog Energy Probe says the looser standards were put in place to accommodate the fact that the technology used in CANDU reactors produces more tritium.
"Unfortunately, the polluters are powerful enough to make it work that way," says Rubin.
According to the UN Safety Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, Canada's much-vaunted CANDUs actually release up to 20 times more tritium into the environment on a regular basis than comparable U.S. reactors. And with childhood rates of leukemia in the Bruce region 40 times the provincial average, locals are eyeing the toxin as a serious suspect.
But Health Canada spokesperson Andrew Swift says, "Our limit is one-twentieth of what it is possible to be naturally exposed to."
That BP's parent, British Energy, is on the financial rocks, is heightening concerns about safety.
"Would a private firm be tempted to cut corners if it were in economic difficulty? Yes, perhaps," offers Michel Cleroux, a spokesperson for the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC). "However, if ever we saw that a firm was in economic difficulty... we would ensure that none of that would occur."
But Bruce, the notoriously leaky home to all the low- and medium-level waste from 20 of Canada's 22 reactors (nuclear waste is also stored aboveground near the reactors), has already been leaching exceedingly high levels of carcinogenic tritium into nearby groundwater. So much so that the CNSC decided to increase official maximums for the toxin by 500 per cent in order to renew the facility's operating licence in 2000.
Relying on Bruce to pick up the electricity slack may not be in the Tories' best interest, given the potential eco fallout. But the howls of disgruntled consumers about energy costs may preclude a change of heart.