Among environmental groups, Greenpeace has a reputation for being hostile to technologies like genetically modified foods and nuclear power, as well as of often saying poorly justified and hyperbolic things about them. As a civil servant, I remember learning never to trust figures or claims found only in a Greenpeace report, but to seek corroboration from someone a lot more credible like the Pembina Institute.
A comment in an article from today about premier elect Doug Ford promising to keep the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station open to 2024 provides a case in point:
“If an accident happened at this station, which we don’t want to happen, it would be way worse than Chernobyl or Fukushima,” said Shawn Patrick Stensil, a spokesperson for Greenpeace Canada.
This is nonsense. Chernobyl had a design massively less safe than any western nuclear power station, and as a consequence the release of radioactivity was far greater than from the three nuclear meltdowns in the General Electric boiling water reactors at Fukushima Daiichi. Those meltdowns happened because a tsunami swamped the emergency diesel generators needed to run pumps to cool fuel rods after an emergency shutdown, and because the on-site electrical distribution system was destroyed by the tsunami. Barring an asteroid impact, nothing comparable is possible at Pickering. Even if a colossal disaster caused similar damage to the plant, the situation would not be comparable to the devastation in Sendai after the tsunami and either emergency power to the pumps or emergency cooling water to the reactor cores would prevent any meltdown. Following Fukushima, North American nuclear operators pre-positioned emergency equipment precisely to deal with such a station blackout.
When environmentalists choose to use fear as a motivator, it’s natural to extend it to hyperbole when people aren’t giving you the reaction you want. It’s also easy to unthinkingly buy into frightening claims when they correspond to your existing ideological viewpoint and preferred policy positions. Such emotional reflexes, however, cannot be allowed to drive our public policy choices when deciding how to address climate change. It may be that nuclear power is not a cost-effective climate change solution, or that the Pickering station doesn’t make sense to keep running. Baseless comparisons to the world’s worst nuclear disasters, however, obscure rather than clarify the issue.