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Why Nuclear Workers Should Be Truthful About Nuclear Power

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I was recently invited to speak at a provincial meeting of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) at Watrous. The other presenter was Dave Shier of the Canadian Nuclear Worker's Council (CNWC). Unlike the Chamber of Commerce, many unions thankfully want to hear "both sides" of the nuclear controversy.

The CNWC formed in 1993 to "to build support for the nuclear industry." Shier opened by saying he'd present "the worker's perspective ". There's no disputing there are high paying jobs in this industry, but defending self-interest isn't a good incentive for balanced inquiry.

Shier's pretense, to provide "practical information" to his "brothers and sisters", was an attempt to make nuclear power seem benign. When talking of cooling the water used to keep reactor core temperatures from reaching 2,700 degrees C, where a meltdown occurs, he said it's "just like the radiator in your car." When discussing complex, layered and sometimes unpredictable safety features in a nuclear plant he said it's like your electrical "breaker box". When discussing decontamination he said it's "just like cleaning water through a sewage plant."

Shier never used the term "radiation" until the end of his talk when he simply asserted that workers are safe. The CNWC's glossy 12-page booklet goes out on a limb, saying "No Canadian nuclear worker or member of the public has been harmed by radiation from a nuclear plant- ever." This is unscientific propaganda. A study of over 400,000 nuclear workers in 15 countries done by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) recently found that Canadian workers had an excess risk of cancer (especially leukemia) even when radiation doses were within permitted limits (e.g. 100 mSv). Exposure from radioactive hydrogen (tritium) from Candu plants may account for this risk being even higher than elsewhere.

Shier admitted there's major loss of energy over long transmission distances, and electricity should be generated close to end uses. Energy efficiency is even used in the CNWC booklet to argue that nuclear power has an advantage over far-away hydro dams. And yet Sask Party Minister Cheveldayoff has admitted that nuclear power makes no sense in Saskatchewan without being part of an export industry, which means there would be major losses of energy.

Shier reiterated the nuclear mantra that renewable energy can't supply baseload electricity. This is either misunderstanding or disinformation, for, as the Chair of the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) recently said "If you can shape your renewables, you don't need fossil fuel or nuclear plants to run all the time. Plants running all the time in your system are an impediment because they're very inflexible. If you have the ability to ramp up and ramp down loads in ways that can shape the entire system, then the concept of baseload becomes an anachronism."

Shier used anti-privatization rhetoric, criticizing Ontario's wind farms because they are "private." When asked who brought him to Saskatchewan he reluctantly admitted the private company Bruce Power was involved. Also, one of the largest unions backing the CNWC, the Power Worker Union (the trade union at the Darlington, Pickering and Bruce Power nuclear plants) is, as the CNWC's website says, "part of the consortium of Bruce Power Inc. shareholders."

Shier's talk was full of such contradiction. He attacked coal-fired plants, the straw-man used to promote nuclear. Yet one of his supporting unions, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), recently signed an agreement to back Bruce Power's push for nuclear power here in return for protecting jobs in the coal plants run by Sask Power.

Workers shouldn't have to engage in such half-truths and untruths to defend jobs in unsustainable industries. Society as a whole must ensure just transition to sustainable technology. The pronuclear propaganda of the CNWC does a disservice to the intelligence of trade unionists and the public at large.