Friday, November 20, 2009

Tritiated Steam, Smoke and Mirrors

One thing I learned in reading the news is to be aware of the source of your information. Often, special interest groups have a way of skewing the facts in a way that suits their purposes. You may think this rich coming from me, but I've been very open about my biases. This news article is not clear in the fact that its 'source' is an organization that is itself biased against nuclear power.

The facts in the article are disturbingly skewed in order to spread fear and misinformation. To set things straight, let me agree with what they say on the following:

Do Canadian nuclear reactors release tritium? Yes.

Can exposure to large quantities of radiation cause cancer? Yes.

Are levels of radiation around nuclear power plants higher than elsewhere? Yes. Five times in the case of tritium? Probably more in some cases.

Where I disagree with the article and Sierra club is in the danger posed by tritium. First a little bit of physics knowledge about tritium.

Tritium is an isotope of hydrogen, generally references to 'tritium' are usually to 'tritiated water' where a tritium atom has replaced one (or even both) hydrogen atom to form what is abbreviated as HTO, where T stands for tritium. Tritium, is radioactive with a natural half-life of about 12 years. When it decays it emits an extremely low-energy beta particle, also known as an electron. This electron, having an extremely low energy, is unable to pass through a piece of paper or a dead layer of skin and so, while external to your body poses absolutely no danger to your health.

Unfortunately, it behaves identically to water and will get into your body as easily as normal water, where it may pose a threat. This is both good news and bad news. The bad news is that it is inside of your body and can cause damage if you have long term exposure to large quantities. The good news is the tritium becomes spread out in your body and delivers what is known as a 'whole body does' rather than a local dose. On the surface, this sounds bad, but its actually good. Other radioactive isotopes, if ingested will accumulate in particular parts of your body, so even relatively small doses taken over a long period of time can cause serious and specific health problems. Tritium is first diluted by spreading across your whole body and then easily expelled by your body's natural processes. This means that if you ingest a quantity of tritium, it will have a half life in your body of approximately 8 days. After a little over a week, half the tritium will be gone. After a bit over two weeks, only a quarter will remain. After three and a half weeks, only one eighth the original amount will remain. And so on.

To give a similar comparison, it is like Vitamin C as opposed to Vitamin D. If you eat too much Vitamin D, then you will die because it is fat soluble and collects. Vitamin C, being water soluble, is diluted in your body and regularly flushed from your system and so no matter how much Vitamin C you eat, you will not die.

Alright, but I did say that levels of tritium around nuclear power plants can be five times the norm, isn't this dangerous? The answer is unequivocally, no.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission regulates how much radiation a member of the Canadian public is allowed to receive as a result of the operation of a nuclear power plant. They, and the World Health Organization make certain assumptions concerning how much radiation a member of the public receives as a result of tritiated water. Using these assumptions they derived a limit of approximately 7700 Bq/L as a 'safe' limit. The WHO rounds up to 10 000 Bq/L, while the CNSC rounds down to 7000 Bq/L. These limits ensure that the public is exposed to less radiation from tritium than is normal to receive for medical operations and far less than a member of the public would receive from even naturally occurring background radiation! In Europe, after some arbitrary revisions of the initial assumptions concerning how much people should be allowed to be exposed to, they set a limit of 100 Bq/L. Sites around a nuclear power plant must be tested for their radioactivity in order to ensure that they are complying with these limits. Deviations are not tolerated.

Standard background levels range from 0 - 6 Bq/L, depending on where you are. Windsor, Ontario for example has a background tritium level of about 5 Bq/L.

Now, I said that the European standards were arbitrarily chosen, and I meant it. In my opinion, they chose limits not based on scientific analysis of the dangers posed by tritium itself, but on the assumption that any tritium in the water exceeding the limits set would be an indication that there was a release of other more dangerous radioactive particles. Why do they feel this way? Because their nuclear reactors don't produce significant quantities of tritium! So there shouldn't be large quantities of tritium in the water at all. In contrast, Canadian nuclear reactors produce tritiated water under normal operation so there is to be expected more tritium under normal circumstances.

That being said, Canadian nuclear power plants operate in a way that easily satisfies even the European standards. As this table shows.

Figure 1: Tritium levels around selected nuclear sites in Canada (see reference for all)

The highest value in that list there? Roughly 60 Bq/L. Which is well even the European levels. Only one site (Pickering) has any value that exceeds the European standards of 100 Bq/L. But even that one has a range of reported values from 1.9 Bq/L to 120 Bq/L.

Even still, that value is one hundredth the safety limit recommended by the WHO and easily an order of magnitude lower than that recommended by the CNSC. But "Canadian Nuclear Power Plants Easily Satisfy Stringent Safety Limits" wouldn't make a good headline.


"Standards and Guidelines for Tritium in Drinking Water", Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, January 2008. [pdf]

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Out of the Pan...

.. and into the fire.

The world lurches from one crisis to the next.

India, Canada and Trade

India's nuclear power plants run at reduced power because they lack uranium.

Canada is one of the world's three biggest exporters of uranium.

Demand, meet supply.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Following Up On A Previous Conversation

The other day I mentioned the interesting topic regarding first names and Japanese culture, today I will mention Obama's faux pas regarding bowing.

Honestly, I know that among some this is a big deal. I find it irritating more that he is hypocritical. He does not bow to the Queen in this way and allows a ridiculous breach in protocol by his wife but then practically kisses his toes when speaking to the Emperor of Japan and the King of Saudi Arabia.

In any case, I used to live in Japan and when I saw Obama's bow I instinctively knew that something was wrong with the handshake and the deep bow at the same time. I saw it as an embarassing gaffe for someone who considers themselves to be "America's first Pacific President".

Nevertheless, as a foreigner, I doubt he offended the Emperor or anyone else with his ignorance. Japanese people tend to be quite amused by the ignorance of foreigners of their culture and its pretty much expected that a foreigner will not know Japanese culture. It is impressive when they do though.

Friday, November 13, 2009

What's in a Name?

This article was interesting to me for a number of reasons.

One reason was because of this comment by the Japanese Prime Minister

Standing beside Mr. Obama at the Japanese equivalent of the White House, the Kantei, Mr. Hatoyama said, “We’ve come to call each other Barack and Yukio, and gotten quite accustomed to calling each other by our names.”

To westerners this may not seem very significant. So they're on a first name basis, so what? But in Japanese culture, referring to someone by their first name is extremely rude unless you are close friends and of similar social status. For example, a Japanese colleague of mine felt extremely uncomfortable when his English supervisor referred to him by his first name. Even though he was on good terms with his supervisor he felt that it was socially unacceptable to have his professor (someone of higher social status) refer to him by his first name under any circumstances.

Its similar in French where, as I understand it, 'tu' is used as a friendly term while 'vous' is more formal situations. You would not refer to the Premier as 'tu', but as 'vous'. I remember reading a biography of Bourrassa where it was pointed out by the author as being a significant when journalists stopped using 'vous' in addressing their questions to Bourrassa as it demonstrated a loss of respect for him.

In any case, the fact that the Prime Minister of Japan refers to Obama by his first name is significant for perhaps two reasons. Without trying to go too deeply into it, the Japanese Prime Minister did study at Stanford, so it could just be that he recognizes Western culture and understands that westerners see being on a 'first name basis' less seriously. But it could also be taken as an astute political move to demonstrate to the Japanese people that Japan is not a subservient nation to the USA. That the Prime Minister of Japan and the President of the USA are not of unequal social status, which would line up very well with the positions that Hatoyama has taken recently, asserting independence from US policy to an extent not before seen. I could be wrong, but I don't recall reading anywhere that Bush and Koizumi, despite being called 'BFF' by some in the media ever publicly stated that they called each other by their first names.

So while this might be an exercise in putting on a good show for the media, I'm tempted to believe that it reflects Hatoyama's fundamental desire to re-work the USA-Japan alliance to one where Japan is considered more equal.

Friday, November 6, 2009

H1N1: Update

You didn't need to be a medical expert to figure this one out.

But I don't have anything to add to this article.

I will add one thing to this article however. Considering that there are lies, damn lies, and statistics I'll be careful to say too much, but shouldn't we be using last year's statistics as a proper reference rather than last week. It doesn't say much that hospitalizations are up three times from last week when we're in the middle of the typical flu season. What would be far more interesting is if what we are seeing is atypical for the average year.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Say What? Radioactive Coal?

For all the talk that some anti-nuclear environmentalists make about nuclear power plants and the 'dangers' they pose in terms of radiation, coal fired power plants, which emit larger amounts of radiation into the nearby ecosystems largely get a pass on this issue.

One reason is control and government regulations. Nuclear power plants have (and rightly so) an incredible amount of radiation safety procedures that must be followed. Every small quantity of radiation released into the environment is monitored and reported. People entering and leaving the facility are closely tracked and their exposure recorded in a national database. (If you've ever been a Nuclear Energy Worker - you know what I mean)

So, if you're a nation like, Germany, which was planning on eliminating their nuclear power plants and was in the process of building coal fired power plants to replace them, you're actually increasing the radiation you are exposing the public to.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Nuclear Energy, Global Warming and You

Its always fascinating to me the instinctive knee-jerk opposition nuclear energy receives from the most ardent environmentalists. Especially when the same people, in practically the same breath demand that government do something, anything to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions.

If you want to really reduce your carbon emissions, you need to build nuclear power plants. There's no two ways about it. I've blogged about this numerous times, citing sources as varied as the Danish government to the Obama administration. I've pointed out the flaws associated with solar and wind energy and why they, as they exist now, are not true 'alternatives' to coal since they cannot provide constant, on demand electricity. At best, they can reduce our base electricity demands by 10-20% under ideal circumstances. Not a terrible thing, but they cannot replace other sources of electricity.

Hydroelectric dams are probably ideal, but you cannot build them whenever, wherever you want and they can carry huge environmental impacts (think about the Three Gorges Dam).

So for the time being we're left with nuclear power plants as being the only real 'carbon-free' electricity source that can be employed on a large scale, in a cost efficient manner to produce a constant (or nearly so) supply of electricity.

So when governments institute ridiculous taxes on nuclear energy simply for the pleasure of producing electricity in a safe and carbon-free manner it makes me laugh and cry. It also makes me laugh and cry when governments decide against building nuclear power plants for 'environmental reasons' preferring instead to continue using coal fired power plants. (I'm looking at you Germany, Saskatchewan and Alberta).

Sunday, November 1, 2009

This Is Actually Not Unusual

I know how the optics of this look.

But in all honesty I'm not surprised. Its not unusual for some government agencies to only have hard copies of some documents. Or at least to claim they only have hard copies available.

Here's a question though. To arrive at such a number, someone would have had to taken the time to actually count all 4476 pages one at a time. Was that really the best use of their time? Couldn't they just have said 'thousands' of pages?

I suppose that for dramatic effect they need to give an exact number to the newspapers but I don't think any government agency should do something like that just so that the media can have a number to place in their headlines.

Maybe the document was already numbered? If so, then why not send it as a pdf on a USB drive?