As the world watches in horror, at Japan’s current nuclear wars, we’re all being forced to ask ourselves: could it happen here? In a word, yes. Or perhaps something very much like it.

Today alone, we’ve seen an earthquake in the Ottawa area and leak at the Pickering Reactor (35km from Toronto) which released 72 000 litres of demineralized water into Lake Ontario. That’s just today.

Could a level five nuclear incident happen in Ontario? It already has, in 1952 at Chalk River, 180km up the Ottawa river from our nation’s capitol. A cooling failure and hydrogen explosion led to a containment failure and release of 30kg of isotopes into the surrounding environment. Another incident happened six years later when it underwent a ‘fuel failure’ during core maintenance. And though the nuclear laboratories there sit in a seismically active area, neither was caused by an earthquake, but rather insufficient safeguards and operator error. Since then, both the Chalk River site and have been beset by problems. Shut down in 2007 over safety concerns, the current reactor at Chalk River, was restarted in December on order of Parliament after a worldwide shortage of medical isotopes. Just shy of a year later, heavy water was found to be leaking from the reactor, and it was shut down again. But unable to find the source after it stopped on its own, they restarted it days later. By May of 2009, it had returned and was leaking much faster, leading to another shutdown which lasted over a year. As of last August, though, it is once again operational due to another shortage of medical isotopes, as most of the world’s other producing reactors were also currently offline at the time.

Continuing East from there, one finds Elliot Lake, former heartland of Canadian uranium mining, and home to roughly 200 million tons of un-remediated tailings from mining sites. As with more active mining sites elsewhere in Canada, we’ve also seen ruptures of tailings dams, like one in 1993 which released an estimated two million litres of radioactive liquids into surrounding environments.

Ontario also houses the Bruce Nuclear plant, the largest in North America, and others closer to us, like the Darlington or Pickering reactors. Hamilton houses our own reactor at McMaster University. At least two more proposed plants have been promoted recently for new development.

And of course, in any discussion of the Canadian nuclear industry, we need to mention the larger global role it played. Since the Manhattan project, we’ve been involved in weapons programs, and still are today. AECL has been a major exporter of nuclear technologies, and therefore a major enabler of foreign nuclear weapons programs. We’ve sold reactors to India, Pakistan, China, Korea, Romania (while a member of the Warsaw Pact) and Argentina. Canadian technologies were found to have played a large role in India’s nuclear weapons program, and we certainly haven’t hindered those of others. Our CANDU reactors and other heavy-water types lend themselves easily to producing weaponized materials. In an age where many are urging the sales of reactors to large numbers of new nations in Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, the consequences of these sales need to be considered. Not exporting these technologies in the first place is far easier than invading and occupying nations like Iraq or Iran in order to get them back under our control.

Japan isn’t unique and niether is Ontario. Regions all around the world are now asking themselves these questions, and rediscovering their own ugly histories of nuclear mismanagement. Californians, wary of their reactors like Diablo Canyon, built right atop a fault-line. Germans have already reacted, shutting down seven of it’s seventeen reactors and facing a serious chance of a nationwide moratorium. News like this is rolling in from around the world.

I suspect that from this point onward, it’ll virtually require a cold day in hell to sell a new reactor anywhere that now receives news-feeds. Not that they’ll stop trying, but Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island led to a virtual 30-year freeze on new reactor construction in America and elsewhere. Most of those which exist now are close to or beyond their intended decommissioning date. Another similar freeze, lasting even a decade or two, would see the industry implode over large regions of the globe. And once there’s no reactors to point to as bright, shining examples of the atom’s potential, it’ll be even harder to build new ones. I’m not saying this is the definitive end of nuclear power, but if the industry does crash and burn, this will be the week that historians point to.

No fate is sealed. Those who stand to make fantastic profits off nuclear technologies will continue to downplay the costs and demand new stations, singing songs of progress. But now that we’ve all had a close-up look at what a disaster could look like, we’ve all got a very good reason to question those claims. I’ve seen lots of “direct action” in my day, and it ain’t hard. Show up, sit down, refuse to leave. Lock yourself to something if necessary, climb out of reach, dig in and camp – whatever it takes. If they drag you off, come back. We may not even need to go that far – a believable public statement from a few thousand people that we’re willing to may be enough. The day news of Japan’s crisis hit, 50 000 people showed up to protest at a site in Germany. The collective hopes and fears of the earth’s people may not be able to stop the current crisis in Japan, but we can stop it from ever happening again.

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