The nuclear disaster unfolding in Japan has provoked horror and sadness around the world, but also relief in those who believe they will never be vulnerable to such a disaster. Manitoba, of course, will never need to fear a Japanese-scale catastrophe, but unknown to most people, it did experience its own severe nuclear event in November 1978.
The WR-1 reactor at Pinawa, which was cooled by a type of oil (terphenyl isomer), experienced a major coolant leak as one of the pipes developed a hole and 2,739 litres of oil leaked.
It took several weeks for workers in protective gear to pinpoint and repair it, according to a Winnipeg Free Press article, (July 30, 1981). Much of the leaked oil was then discharged into the Winnipeg River. According to Dr. Agnes Bishop of the Atomic Energy Control Board, (now the CNSC), the fuel reached high temperatures.
Although the temperature did not hit the meltdown level, it did result in three fuel elements being broken with some fission products being released. The accident, which many would consider significant especially to the health and safety of Manitobans, took several years to be reported to the province.
An attempt was made in 2000 to have the report from this accident made public, but Atomic Energy of Canada refused, and labelled it "Protected."
We may never know what nasty radioactive carcinogens were vented or released into the air and water of our province.
Such is the nature of the beast. Exemptions under Canada's Freedom of Information Act significantly compromise the transparency of the industry in our country. Canada has entrusted its plan for nuclear waste disposal with the corporations who produce the waste, a clear conflict of interest.
Deep geologic disposal is being touted for Ear Falls, Ont., and Creighton, Sask., with Manitoba sitting smack dab in the middle. If this goes ahead as planned you can be sure significant leaks and discharges will be kept from the public.
It is the same worldwide. The public apparently does not have the right to know about the details of nuclear accidents; nor does the body that recommends safety standards have any teeth to make the corporate world adhere to them.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has a mandate to monitor the use of nuclear materials and to ensure the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty is followed, but ironically it is also charged with promoting nuclear power.
The world must put the nuclear industry under closer scrutiny with agencies operating at arm's length. Promoters tend to want to eliminate negative press. Persistent gaffes are inevitable, so keeping the public informed is paramount.
Dave Taylor is a freelance writer.