Jeremy Whitlock is an old friend from my earliest days as a web based atomic energy advocate. We first met online in the early to mid 1990s before either of us began publishing our first web sites (his is a terrific resource on CANDU reactors called Canadian Nuclear FAQ). Dr. Whitlock and I have met face to face on several occasions at American Nuclear Society gatherings and I have had the chance to learn a bit about his personal story. He is one of many nukes that I know who is part of the second or third generation within his family to enter into the technological field associated with making good things come from tiny amounts of radioactive material.
Recently in his home town of Ottawa, there was a bit of a media flurry around the discovery that a truckload of sewage sludge from Ottawa had been turned away at the US border because it was found to be radioactive. Within a couple of days, however, investigators found out that the likely source of the contamination was from medical treatments using I-131, and the television media lost interest in the story. Jeremy wrote a letter to the editor of his local paper on the topic that he shared on a mailing list that I subscribe to and I thought it would be worth sharing more widely. He gave me permission to post a copy here.
Radiation is political
The Ottawa Citizen
February 25, 2009
Did anyone else notice how quickly the story of Ottawa’s radioactive sewage sludge disappeared, as soon as it was realized that the contamination likely came from a hospital and not Chalk River Laboratories up the Ottawa River? The story was on talk radio and Parliament Hill when it was suspected that it might put the finger on a government nuclear lab, and specifically the minister in charge of it.
It didn’t matter that the recent “leaks” from Chalk River turned out to not be leaks at all, but responsible environmental stewardship on a scale that probably makes many other industries in the Ottawa area pale in comparison.
It didn’t matter that billions of becquerels of natural radioactivity drift past Ottawa every day in the Ottawa River, and that radioactivity itself is as natural as rocks, water, air, and you and me.
What matters is that radioactivity, quite simply, scares the bejeebers out of people. It apparently doesn’t even help to know that we can measure radioactivity more accurately and more easily than any other environmental agent. Those trucks of sewage sludge carried a potent cocktail of chemicals, but radiation is all you can measure at a distance and through the truck walls, not to mention instantaneously and with great precision. This is, in fact, exactly why radiation has become so effective and indispensable at solving industrial problems, diagnosing disease, and detecting fires in our homes.
But the radioactive poop saga showed that something else matters: where the radiation comes from. Radiation is political. The radiation we bathe in and worship during the summer, and spend big bucks to chase in the winter, is good radiation. The radiation that kills cancer and fights heart disease, is undeniably good radiation.
And radiation associated with nuclear reactors, even in infinitesimal amounts, is bad radiation.
I suggest that folks think about this, and consider that the men and women at Chalk River Laboratories are the same dedicated and ethical creatures you’ll find hard at work all over this planet trying to make it a better place to live.
Past President, Canadian Nuclear Society