Nuclear is a subject that has generated its fair share of myths throughout the years. An important part of the CNSC's mandate is providing factual information that helps people understand nuclear science and its effects on people.
This section aims to dispel some of the most common misconceptions about nuclear technology and its applications in areas such as:
- Radiation and Health
- Nuclear Power Plants
- Uranium mining and processing
- Industrial and Medical Applications
The CNSC does not promote the use of nuclear technologies or materials – rather, it regulates their use to protect the health, safety and security of Canadians as well as the environment. The CNSC respects Canada's international commitments on the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
Radiation and Health
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines use ionizing radiation to produce detailed images of the body.
Fact: MRI machines do not use ionizing radiation. The technology uses a large, powerful magnet combined with a radio frequency to create an electromagnetic field that constructs an image of the body.
There are other forms of medical imaging that use nuclear substances, like isotopes, to obtain images of the body. Many hospitals and health care facilities in Canada deliver isotopes to specific areas of the body and use Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans to generate images of tissues and organs.
Nuclear medical imaging is used in almost 100 different diagnostic procedures in Canada, and every major organ system can be imaged using these techniques. All imaging procedures that use nuclear substances are required to be carried out under the guidance of a qualified medical practitioner to ensure they are used safely. The amount of radiation that a patient is exposed to is monitored and controlled by a team of health professionals trained in conducting these specialized tests.For more information on MRI machines, please visit the Health Canada Web site.
Meta-analysis studies (Baker and Hoel (2007), Mangano (2008) and Kaatsch (2008)) prove higher incidences of childhood cancer around nuclear power plants (NPPs).
Fact: Meta-analysis is an analytical technique designed to combine and summarize the results of multiple studies to increase the sample size and the statistical power to study the effects of interest. It could be a powerful tool when used properly, but it is not always an appropriate choice and can lead to misleading results.
Meta-analysis studies conducted by Baker and Hoel (2007), Mangano (2008) and Kaatsch (2008) – the KiKK study – each claim to have found elevated rates of leukemia for children living near NPPs. The CNSC joins the scientific community in challenging the results of these studies for misuse of the meta-analysis approach. The following are examples of the weaknesses in these studies:
- Baker and Hoel (2007) themselves noted that they could not establish a causal relationship between risk of leukemia and distance to an NPP. The study was criticized for selection bias and for combining different age groups, types of nuclear facilities and distances.
- The Mangano (2008) study was rejected, for among other things, an inadequate sample size, no population control and the omission of data that did not support the conclusion.
- For the KiKK study (Kaatsch, 2008) study, there is no support for a causal relationship between leukemia and NPPs (SSK, 2008) and similar studies conducted in France, Britain and Switzerland did not find a relationship between distance from an NPP and childhood leukemia (Laurier et al., 2008a, Bithell et al, 2008, 2010, Spycher et al., 2011).
The amount of cesium-137 contained in a "check source" is dangerous.
Fact: A check source is a sealed source containing a small, very low-risk quantity of nuclear substance (like cesium-137) typically used to determine if radiation detection equipment is functioning correctly prior to use. The source itself is about the size of a head of a pin, inside a sealed container no bigger than a loonie. It is designed to be safely handled by hand. The amount of radioactivity in a low-level radiation check source is approximately the same as that found within household smoke detectors.
Because polonium in cigarettes is known to be cancer causing, the polonium-210 (Po-210) contained in uranium will cause cancer in uranium workers and the public living near mines.
Fact: Uranium workers and the public are not at risk from polonium-210 (Po-210) from uranium mining.
Po-210 is a radioactive substance that can be found naturally in small quantities in our bodies and in the environment. While it is a decay product of uranium, it is very rare, and it does not accumulate in the environment around mine sites.
Modern controls and strict radiation protection programs ensure radon and radon progeny (including Po-210) are continuously monitored and controlled in today’s uranium facilities. Studies and monitoring have shown there are no significant impacts to the health of the public living near uranium mines and mills.
As for the link to smoking, Po-210 is one of the over 70 known carcinogens found in tobacco smoke. Together, they substantially increase the risk of lung and many other types of cancer, and other illnesses (such as heart disease, stroke and respiratory illnesses).
Even one becquerel represents a health risk.
Fact: One becquerel (Bq) does not represent a measurable health risk. It equals one radioactive decay (or disintegration) per second of any radionuclide and is part of a natural process. In fact, most things we eat and drink contain naturally-occurring radioactive elements, like potassium and carbon. For example, 250 g of red meat and 250 g of bananas naturally contain 28 Bq and 33 Bq of potassium-40 respectively.
One becquerel in a woman's ovaries can cause birth defects.
Fact: One becquerel (Bq) does not represent a measurable health risk, and will not cause birth defects. It equals one radioactive decay (or disintegration) per second and is part of a natural process. Studies on nearly 30,000 children of the A-bomb survivors (who were exposed to relatively high levels of radiation) over three generations have shown no increased risk of adverse hereditary effects, such as birth defects, associated with their parents having been exposed.
A becquerel is like a gun shot to the body.
Fact: One becquerel (Bq) does not represent a measurable health risk. It equals one radioactive decay (or disintegration) per second of any radionuclide and is part of a natural process. In fact, we experience nearly 90,000 of these disintegrations every day, as the natural uranium in our bodies decays.
When a large number of people receive a small dose of radiation, often referred to as a “collective dose”, some of those people will develop cancer from that radiation exposure.
Fact: The quantity "collective dose" is often misunderstood and misused. Simply put, it refers to the amount of radiation received by a group of people. It is calculated by adding all individual doses in an exposed population over a given period of time. It is a useful tool for radiation protection purposes, but its function is limited. It should not be used for predicting disease from radiation exposure.
The KiKK Study and other German studies have demonstrated that there is a higher rate of childhood leukaemia in population living close to nuclear power plants.
Fact: These studies have found groups, or “clusters,” of childhood leukemia near nuclear facilities, but clusters have also been found in areas where there are no nuclear facilities.
These studies have not been able to relate the clusters to the dose of radiation emitted by the facilities. Since childhood leukaemia is thought to be caused by several factors, other factors may have been responsible for the observed results.
People in Port Hope are sick as a result of exposure to historical low-level radioactive waste.
Port Hope residents are as healthy as the rest of the Canadian population.
This has been demonstrated by several scientific, peer-reviewed studies conducted over many decades by reputable and independent bodies.
The CNSC recently assessed findings from more than 30 environmental studies and 13 peer-reviewed epidemiological studies. It published a synthesis report that was presented during open houses held in the community.
Findings were compared with 40 international epidemiological studies on similar populations, and the conclusion was clear: the health of Port Hope residents is no different than that of other Canadians.
Nuclear Power Plants
Uranium mining and processing
Uranium mining exploration is governed provincially and does not require a CNSC licence.
Uranium mines and mills increase radon levels in the environment.
Studies have shown that uranium mining and milling activities do not increase radon levels in the environment away from the mine site. The level of radon near uranium mines is similar to natural radon levels monitored in background locations. Radon exposure to members of the public from CNSC-regulated activities is virtually zero.
Uranium mines and mills make communities sick.
Studies and monitoring have shown that there are no significant impacts to the health of the public living near uranium mines and mills. Human exposure to radon and radiation from modern uranium mining is very low and does not increase the risk of cancer.
Uranium miners are exposed to dangerous levels of radiation
The CNSC regulates radon and radon progeny in Canada’s nuclear facilities to protect the health of uranium workers and the public. Concentrations of radon in uranium mines and mills and uranium processing fuel fabrication facilities are strictly controlled and must be monitored. Controls include sophisticated detection and ventilation systems that effectively protect Canadian uranium workers. The average dose for workers at uranium mines and mills in 2007 was about 1 millisievert (mSv), significantly below the regulatory nuclear energy worker limit of 50 mSv per year.
Tailings from uranium mines will remain highly toxic for millions of years and contaminate groundwater.
The safe long-term management of waste rock and uranium mill tailings is an important aspect of the licensing process for uranium mines and mills. Techniques have been developed to safely contain this waste from the environment by using natural and/or man-made barriers to prevent contact between the tailings and groundwater. Tailings are stored and monitored in tailings management facilities, such as tailing ponds or mined-out open pits that are rigorously engineered for long-term storage and stability.
Natural uranium that is removed from a mine and processed into fuel for nuclear reactors simply does not pose such risks.
Natural uranium is only mildly radioactive. If absorbed in large quantities, its main health risks relate to kidney damage.
However, the public is not exposed to any levels that could cause kidney damage as a result of uranium mining and processing activities.
Cumulative monitoring programs in Northern Saskatchewan, where all of Canada's operating uranium mines are located, have confirmed that contaminant levels outside operating mining and milling sites are barely detectable and do not pose a risk for the wildlife.
Many readily available water treatment technologies are used to reduce to safe levels potentially harmful contaminants before effluents are released to the environment.
About historic mine sites - The CNSC and provincial and territorial governments control and monitor releases from mining sites that were built and operated several decades ago.
Most historic mines sites have undergone remediation at this point and the ones that have not are currently under assessment.
The CNSC has since applied lessons learned from the past.
As a result, it has established environmental regulations and programs that are more stringent than any of the other mining sectors in Canada.
Modern industrial techniques neutralize the acidity of tailings. Tailings ponds are also designed to minimize any potential acidification.
As part of the decommissioning process, old mine sites have been evaluated and adequate measures have been or will be implemented to protect the environment against potential acid drainage.
Studies carried out over several decades have repeatedly demonstrated that people who live near these facilities are as healthy as the rest of the general population.
Studies carried out around uranium processing sites in other countries have provided the some conclusion.
The same is true of people who live near nuclear power plants.
Ongoing monitoring has confirmed that releases near uranium mine and mill sites are barely detectable.
About historic mine sites - Some restrictions apply today to fishing in lakes located on historical mining and milling sites.
Those sites were developed at a time in the 1950's when environmental regulations and programs were non-existent, which is very different from the comprehensive oversight in place today.
In some cases, trappers have continued to trap and even live on CNSC-licensed properties for the duration of the uranium mine operations.
In Northern Saskatchewan, where all of Canada's active uranium mining facilities are located, Aboriginal groups and communities are visited and consulted at various steps of the projects' life.
These groups provide valuable input by sharing traditional knowledge and identifying valued plants, animals and traditional activities. This helps the CNSC ensure any potential impacts are eliminated or minimized.
Aboriginal groups also actively participate in collecting samples that are used to conduct environmental monitoring.
Before these projects proceed, Aboriginal rights are always considered.
The CNSC oversees stringent programs to control exposure to radiation and chemical agents, and address any potential health risks to workers.
As a result, members of the public are not exposed to any levels of contamination that could pose health risks.
Since uranium dust is heavy, it does not travel very far in air. As a result, dust concentrations in the air always remain low and are entirely contained within mine and mill sites.
Contact us directly to obtained a more thorough and complex annual reports for each facility.
A financial guarantee is an important condition of a CNSC licence, and the CNSC would never grant a licence to a uranium mining or processing company without one.
In addition, the CNSC reviews proposed activities to reduce the overall footprint of activities and ensure progressive remediation.
Cleanup is conducted at all stages of mining and milling.
Also known as yellowcake, it is not soluble in water and it can easily be recovered in case of a spill.
Federal packaging and transport regulations ensure the safe transport of uranium concentrates.
Control systems and rigorous inspection programs governed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are in place to ensure just that.
All uranium is accounted for, from the moment it leaves a mine until it is eventually disposed of.
Moreover, nuclear warheads in both the United States and Russia are currently being dismantled to produce fuel for civilian nuclear power reactors.
Industrial and Medical Applications