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After Sandy, questions about Canadian nuclear power plant safety

With 26 nuclear power plants in superstorm Sandy's path and an explosion at Con Edison (Con Ed) power plant in New York, Canadian nuclear power plants are on the alert.

"All Canadian nuclear power plants are monitoring the storm," said Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) spokesperson Aurèle Gervais, noting that there are "roughly five or six CNSC staff at each nuclear power plant" to assure that the plants will be ready when the storm hits eastern Canada, where most of Canada's nuclear reactors are located. 

The commission's website assures that nuclear power plant operators have "Severe Weather Emergency Procedures", which call for a plant shutdown if needed.

No way to stop radioactivity 

But Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility president Dr. Gordon Edwards warned that even after a nuclear plant shut down, the situation is not completely safe.  

"You cannot shut them off completely," he said.

"You can shut off the fission reaction, which is the chain reaction that involves splitting uranium atoms – that, they can stop within two seconds – but what they cannot stop is radioactivity [...] there's no way to shut off the radioactivity, so at the moment of shut down, you still have seven per cent of full power heat being generated," he explained. 

Edwards noted that during the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis in Japan, the plant was actually successfully shut down, but that problems arose when the backup power became unavailable.

"The real problem is if you have a complete blackout or complete loss of power, such as they had at Fukushima. They had no electrical power and after a brief period of time, they had no backup electrical supply either.

"As a result of that, the reactors... because they couldn't shut off the radioactive heat, the temperature kept going up, to the point where the fuel actually melted at a very high temperature of about 2,800 degrees Celsius."

While nuclear reactors often have on-site diesel generators in the event of a sudden plant shut-down, he said that these aren't built to last a long time -- not long enough to avoid a meltdown taking place over several days, as was the case for Fukushima Daiichi. One exception is the Gentilly 2 reactor in Quebec (which the Parti Québecois government plans to shut down in December), which has an electricity generating plant within the reactor's exclusion zone to provide power in the event of a shutdown. 

Gervais, meanwhile, said that every onel of Canada's reactors are well-equipped with emergency backup power for cooling in the plant to last for days on end. 

"All Canadian CANDU reactors have two groups of independent and physically separated backup power and cooling water systems typically known as standby generators and emergency power generators," he said.

"Both the standby and emergency power generators are capable of operating for many days without re-supplying them."

The fundamental problem 

He said that while the storm situation is likely nothing to panic over, people should be more concerned about nuclear power generally because of its dangers even when shut down amid dangers such as an earthquake or tsunami, or a giant storm like Sandy. 

"With almost every technology that I'm aware of, there's a master switch that you can shut it off completely so that it can be safe," he said.  

"You cannot do that with a nuclear reactor because of this radioactive decay heat. That's a fundamental problem." 

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