Past Events - April 26 1998

Earth Day at the Forks

Morgan Brown, Chair CNS Manitoba Branch

Sunday April 26 1998 was a gloriously warm and sunny day at The Forks, the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers in Winnipeg. A year earlier I had been helping people sand bag their homes against the rising flood waters, but this year the rivers were quite low in comparison, thank goodness. So there was no excuse - I was off to run the Canadian Nuclear Society (CNS) Manitoba Branch booth at the Earth Day trade show.

I took the CNS-MB banner, literature, a CANDU model, a section of fuel channel with an empty fuel bundle, a model dry storage canister, and a Geiger counter and some radioactive samples. I was nervous - what would my fellow exhibitors say, what would the public think, what would the anti-nuclear protesters say, what might people do? I've given many nuclear energy talks to classes from Grade 7 to university, but never had I done anything so very public, so very vulnerable. Would my life insurance broker consider this a risky activity, like alligator wrestling?

I set up my table in the marquee tent for "corporate" sponsors, in between the Manitoba Heavy Construction Association and the Manitoba Trappers Association. In the same tent were the Manitoba government sustainable development group, Manitoba Hydro, the Model Forest, Archaeology in Manitoba, Natural Resources, peace and disarmament groups, Earth First, and a group encouraging the public to sign the organ donation line on their driver licence. It seemed the whole spectrum of possible "environmental" organizations were represented.

The CNS display looked quite good, if I say so myself. The crowds started to flow through, and the outdoor band kicked it off with some LOUD music (what was the risk to my eardrums for the day?). The CANDU model with the fuel channel section on top was a good drawing card, and people were amazed that the eight (simulated) fuel pellets would be enough to supply the typical Canadian home with electricity for a year.

Around noon a group marched into our tent, led by an accordionist and someone with a megaphone, and followed by a couple of TV cameras. They latched onto my neighbour, the trapper. I'd never seen "environantics" until then, as the lead protester brought out a leg-hold trap and set it off with his placard - for the cameras, of course. There were lots of words from the protesters, who took a while to disperse. I'm not wild about fur, but the trapper was a pleasant fellow who was trying to eke out a living off the land - without destroying the environment and thus his livelihood. He told me afterwards that the protesters had used a leg-hold trap - they've been banned for 10 years or so. Nothing like dredging up the past!

Some protesters then latched onto me. When there were only one or two at a time we had good discussions, usually ending up with pleasantries and a handshake. One fellow was evidently concerned that "an evidently smart guy like me" (his words!) could support the use of nuclear technology. When I was faced with half-a-dozen protesters, it ended up being a fun game of "us against him". Lots of questions were fired off, without necessarily waiting for my answer before snickering. I don't think they believed me, that I had pursued a career in the nuclear industry precisely because of my concern for this good and only Earth. One person thought the "corporate tent was really undemocratic" because she didn't get to set up a table to counteract mine! The table cost $50 to rent, dropping our bank account down to all of $250! As you can see, we're a rich society!

Some protesters attacked food irradiation. One young (almost all the protesters seemed SO young) lady told me that she had a 9-year old cookie irradiated by AECL, and it still looked the same as the day she got it. Somehow this was awful because, as one person put it, you couldn't tell if food was bad if there was no mold on it (!!?) I told them I wouldn't eat a nine-year old cookie - they go stale after a few months (I have experimentally derived this conclusion from a large sample). Another person thought that irradiating strawberries was bad because they would get stockpiled in warehouses for later consumption (!!?) There were also concerns that the effects of irradiation had not been monitored over two or three generations of human consumers to observe the effects.

I had a chart comparing the waste generation between nuclear and conventional thermal electrical production for 1994, using the numbers from the federally-appointed Environmental Assessment Panel (EAP) on the Nuclear Fuel Waste Management and Disposal Concept. In 1994 the electricity production from each source was very close to one-fifth of Canada's total electrical production. The waste production, by mass, was much less from nuclear than from coal and oil. One man told me that I could only compare the 2200 tonnes of used nuclear fuel and the 3780 tonnes of heavy metals in the coal ash. To him, the 4,200,000 tonnes of ash, 95,000,000 tonnes of CO2, 542,000 tonnes of SO2 and 168,000 tonnes of NOx (all dispersed into the environment or put in landfills) from coal and oil-fired generation were irrelevant! As an aside, the EAP comparison includes the tailings and waste rock from the uranium mines, but not from the coal mines (nor the sour gas emissions/flaring from the oil wells).

Another woman looked at the map of Canada's reactors and said "Not only does southern Ontario have all that smog, they have to live with all those reactors too!" Hmmm - there would be a lot more smog without the reactors. The only really rude person was a smug teenage boy who picked up a food irradiation pamphlet and intentionally dropped it. I asked him if he would please pick it up, but he pretended not to understand and ground it up with his heel. I guess he likes to litter (I picked up the pamphlet later).

I had many others drop by the booth, asking lots of questions and taking brochures. The kids loved playing with the Geiger counter, and took lots of the "I'm naturally radioactive - so are you" stickers. They made the day so worthwhile.

On Sunday evening I watched the local news and, sure enough, there was lots of footage of the protesters (disproportionate to their number). Their leader was recorded decrying the rental of tables to corporations like "Pine Falls Paper and AECL". What?! I represented CNS on my own time (I spent all Friday in preparation), and CNS paid for the table rental and my mileage. Yes, I work for AECL (Atomic Energy of Canada Limited) and borrowed some of their display items, but so what? My AECL brochures were amongst others from CNS, Nordion, the Atomic Energy Control Board, Canadian Nuclear Association, and the American Nuclear Society. While I am glad to be employed by AECL, my views on nuclear matters would not change whether I was employed by the nuclear business or not.

All in all, a good day. I believe I made nuclear science and technology a little less remote and a little less frightening for many passersby. Maybe I even showed some anti-nuclear protesters that I too am human, I too am very concerned over our planet's future. So consider what you might do for next Earth Day, or sooner- it was challenging at times, but worth the effort!

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