Censorship and Safety: Health Canada and the Nuclear Information Blackout
By Zach Ruiter
It was our uranium. It was mined on the shores of Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories. And in August 1945, it exploded over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, instantly killing thousands and leaving a legacy of radiation-related health effects. Fifty-three years later, in 1998, members of the Dene Sahtu First Nation of Great Bear Lake travelled to Japan. On behalf of their people and land, they apologized to the survivors of the atomic bombs.
Fast forward to Fukushima, the nuclear power plant that reached meltdown proportions after Japan's eastern coastline was pummeled by a massive, 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. Aileen Mioko Smith, a Japanese anti-nuclear activist and director of Green Action, was in San Francisco when Fukushima exploded. Following her return, she observed the following: "The situation in Fukushima remains unstable and very dangerous. The status quo persists. The media are still ignoring citizen efforts, the TV programs are stacked with pro-nuclear spokespeople, and there are very few signs of real change. I worry about what will happen when the eyes of the world turn away from the Fukushima crisis, as soon as some other crisis erupts."
Growing evidence suggests an on-going international news media blackout on information critical of nuclear energy. The Guardian newspaper revealed in July that the U.K. government colluded with the nuclear industry to suppress information and downplay the effects of the Fukushima disaster.
In June, the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Station in Nebraska sat flooded under the Missouri River. A fire in the electrical switch room cut power supply, resulting in a temporary loss of cooling. Later, Russia's Federal Atomic Energy Agency leaked a memo received from the International Atomic Energy Agency revealing that President Obama had ordered a "total and complete" news blackout on any information regarding the Fort Calhoun emergency. The report also divulged that Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) ordered a "no-fly zone" over the plant. Finally, an ABC news affiliate in Omaha retracted a story informing citizens of a 10-mile evacuation zone around the plant.
Immediately after the Fukushima catastrophe, the Canadian government went into damage-control. Information on the unfolding nuclear catastrophe in Japan had clearly ignited the fears of many Canadians, as reports surfaced that Vancouver residents were flocking to drug stores to purchase potassium iodide in an effort to protect themselves from the effects of radiation. In an effort to assuage public opinion, Health Canada's Dr. Paul Gully hastily stated on CBC news "that the risk to Canadians in Canada is negligible and will remain negligible, even in the worst-case scenario".
Yet, despite such definitive claims by government officials, Alex Roslin, a writer for Vancouver's Georgia Straight, investigated Health Canada's data and found that radiation from Fukushima had traveled through the atmosphere to Canada's west coast, exposing Canadians to harmful levels of contamination. "For 22 days, a Health Canada monitoring station in Sidney detected iodine-131 levels in the air that were up to 300 times above the normal background levels. Radioactive iodine levels shot up as high as nearly 1,000 times background levels in the air at Resolute Bay, Nunavut."
The trail of conflicting data continued. On March 19th, Kryzysztof Starosta, a chemist at Simon Fraser University, tested the rainwater in Burnaby and found readings as high as 13 becquerels of iodine-131 per litre. Health Canada's allowable limit of 6 becquerels per litre of drinking water is 54 times higher than the limits set by the American Environmental Protection Agency.
Health Canada's Radiation Monitoring Data website has censored readings from the Canadian Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Monitoring Stations, set up to test the atmosphere for the radioactive traces of nuclear test explosions. The readings from these stations are sent automatically to the UN's Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization offices in Vienna. According to Kristen Haupt, the organization's public information officer, only member states have access and discretion to release the data.
Roy Brady of the Council of Canadians and SAGE (Safe and Green Energy Peterborough) notes that Health Canada chose to limit the data from the Canadian test-ban monitoring stations to "one day per week, beginning in May, just when the results could actually be increasing in harm." Health Canada provides no readings for the entire month of July; in tables where the data should be reported, each reading is represented by a hyphen, which according to the chart's table means the data was "not measured or not detected."
After spamming Health Canada and the CNSC with requests to access the data, I received a response from Eric Pellerin of Health Canada's Radiation Protection Bureau. Pellerin wrote "effective August 11th we will be actually completely discontinuing the posting of monitoring data on Health Canada's web site." Pellerin offered as rationale for the decision that "the conditions of the plants in Japan are under better control and emissions are low," and "all radiation measurements over the last few months have been within the range of normal background levels". This stands in contrast to Roslin's findings in the article mentioned above, which found levels of radioactive iodine rose above the federal government's allowable limits numerous times. Mr. Pellerin suggested I pursue an access to information request with the Radiation Protection Bureau (RPB), but also informed me that employees of the RPB had been instructed "not to deal directly with specific public requests."
I asked Arthur Schafer, the Director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba, to put this into perspective. Schafer, who sat on the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) Roundtable on Ethics wrote in return that he had "no knowledge about Health Canada's postings or the rationale for changing their reporting method," adding that, given his knowledge of Health Canada, "their prime concern is not the health of Canadians or the duty to provide timely and accurate information to the public."
In a recent telephone interview, Australian physician and anti-nuclear crusader Dr. Helen Caldicott reaffirmed Schafer's conjecture about the government agency. "I actually wouldn't trust Health Canada," she said. "From the previous record they have tended to be pro-nuclear." Caldicott draws her assertions from her recent trip to Ontario, where she spoke at a joint federal provincial hearing to warn of the dangers of low-level ionizing radiation exposure to populations living near nuclear plants. During the hearing, Health Canada presented in favor of a planned $35billion expansion of Ontario's Darlington Nuclear Power Station.
On March 16th, 73,000 litres of tritium laced de-mineralized water, in a leak caused by a faulty pump seal, poured into Lake Ontario from Pickering's Nuclear Power Station. According to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the federal agency tasked with protecting the health, safety and security of Canadians and the environment, "The radiological risk to the environment and people's health is negligible".
The nuclear industry and its governmental regulatory agencies in Canada have a long track record of relying on engineering expertise to minimize the perception of accidents, but do they have any plans or experience in disaster control? The Canadian Medical Association Journal published an article, titled ‘Canada Ill-Prepared for Radiation Emergencies," on June 14th 2011. There, the author's state that "Most Canadian hospitals are ill-prepared to handle the surge of patients that could result from a large-scale radiation emergency... The ongoing radiation threat in Japan, the result of damage to a nuclear power plant during the country's recent earthquake, has rekindled concerns about the lackadaisical approach to preparing for such an event in Canada."
Mining in Northern Saskatchewan's Athabasca Basin makes Canada the largest exporter of uranium, accounting for 40 per cent of the global supply. By fiercely protecting industry at all costs, the Canadian government promotes the use of nuclear power to the detriment of transparency and the health and wellbeing of its own citizens.
In the words of Aileen Mioko Smith, "We will have to step up our efforts. What more can we do? Should we take to the streets?"
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