Opinion Column

“There we were at Chalk River sounding the alarm”

By Sean Chase, The Daily Observer

Photo courtesy of AECL
Fred Blackstein speaks to government and industry officials about the merits of nuclear power circa the late 1970s. Back in the day, Chalk River Laboratories was at the forefront of cutting edge nuclear research while warning about the perils of global warming.

Photo courtesy of AECL Fred Blackstein speaks to government and industry officials about the merits of nuclear power circa the late 1970s. Back in the day, Chalk River Laboratories was at the forefront of cutting edge nuclear research while warning about the perils of global warming.

When 15,372 scientists from around the world recently issued a dire warning that ongoing destruction of the Earth’s ecosystems is jeopardizing the future of humankind, there were a few retired folks from Chak River Nuclear Laboratories muttering a silent but emphatic “I told you so.”


The Union of Concerned Scientists and more than 1,500 independent scientists, including most of the living Nobel laureates in the sciences, published an article in the Nov. 13 edition of the journal BioScience titled “World Scientists' Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice.” It comes 25 years after their first memo to the planet.

Signed by such prominent voices as Jane Goodall and E.O. Wilson, the warning points out that world governments have failed to adequately limit population growth, reduce greenhouse gases, incentivize renewable energy, protect habitat, halt defaunation, and constrain invasive alien species. The scientists exclaimed that “catastrophic” climate change is a result of burning fossil fuels, deforestation and agricultural production.

The union believes we have unleashed a mass extinction event, the sixth in roughly 540 million years, wherein many current life forms could be annihilated or at least committed to extinction by the end of this century. They note that Only the hole in the ozone layer has improved since the first letter was written.

“Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory, and time is running out,” the letter warns. “We must recognize, in our day-to-day lives and in our governing institutions, that Earth with all its life is our only home.”

It's with some chagrin that Pembroke's Fred Blackstein watches the attention being paid to this unified scientific declaration – for he and his colleagues from Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) reached the same conclusions 30 years ago. This very warning was issued in an April 1982 edition of “The Readers Digest” in a six-page article entitled, “How safe is nuclear power?”

Although he was an engineering physicist at the time, Fred was, and remains, a committed conservationist (holding memberships with the Greenpeace Foundation and Ontario Humane Society among others). A graduate of the University of Waterloo, Fred worked at Chalk River from 1961 to 1985. While Chalk River Laboratories was at the forefront of cutting edge nuclear research and advances in nuclear medicine, they were among the first to warn about the perils of acid rain and global warming. He and his colleagues undertook major projects in environmental research, cancer therapy modalities, physics, genetics and metallurgy. Fred, himself, strived to gain a detailed understanding of the risks and benefits of all our energy sources, including coal, oil, nuclear, wind, biomass and solar. While it's trendy to rail against climate change these days, back then coal was still king.

“There we were at Chalk River sounding the alarm,” Fred says today, now more than three decades removed from his professional life at AECL and speaking as a private citizen. “Almost 40 years ago words like 'greenhouse gases,' 'carbon dioxide' and 'climate change' were coming out of the mouths of the Chalk River scientific community. We were truly voices in the wilderness.”

Coal was a much more known quantity in those days. Nuclear power, developed as a byproduct of the atomic age birthed in the dying days of the Second World War, was a relatively new phenomenon. It was a mystery to so many, including those who lived within reach of Chalk River Laboratories. It was legendary Pembroke Observer managing editor and publisher Bill Higginson who publicly asked from his columnist's pulpit, “What are they doing up at Chalk River?”

“I really do give Bill Higginson credit for pressuring the lab to come out and talk about what we were doing,” recounts Fred. “Bill was the local push on a national issue.”

As he was president of the Rotary Club at the time, “Higgy” invited Blackstein to address the membership as part of their speakers' series. Later, AECL pressed him into service leading a scientific outreach in an attempt to demystify nuclear energy and nuclear science. It was the start of a 10-year long road trip for Blackstein and some of his colleagues. Travelling across Canada and around the world, Fred spoke to governments, universities, other scientific bodies and, of course, the media, about the folly of an endless reliance on coal, while defending nuclear.

“In 10 years, I must have travelled a million kilometres,” he recalls. “I wasn't out there promoting something without factual back-up.”

Those travels took him to almost every U.S. state and most European nations. It also placed him in the public arena squaring off against television and radio interviewers who tried to box him in – one of them being CBC's Fifth Estate and its esteemed questioner Ian Parker. Pouring over a box of video and tape cassettes capturing those interviews, it's a trip down memory lane for Blackstein. There's the CBC Radio Noon interview in Toronto in 1980 where he explained to the skeptical reporter that a coal plant produced 200 railcar loads a day compared to the 3/4 pick-up truck's load of uranium that fuelled your average CANDU reactor. Or the tape of the 1976 interview with a Sault Ste Marie radio station where he noted that coal generated 200 acres of waste as deep as a seven-storey building. A nuclear power plant could fill an Olympic size pool with waste – after 20 years of energy production.

“I was truly honoured to have studied under some of Canada's most distinguished scientists, who urged me to use my multi-disciplinary background to inform the public (taxpayers) about our activities. Armed by my mentors, with this vast array of science/engineering knowledge I travelled extensively both nationally and Internationally. I've lost track of how many radio, TV, newspaper and high profile debates I undertook. I am proud to say that full disclosure of the risks and benefits of all energy sources, was always foremost in my mind.”

In the eyes of coal producers, the Chalk River roadshow were seen as public enemy No. 1. The Prime Minister's Office was flooded with calls from industry executives demanding Blackstein be fired. That pressure was ramped up after the Reader's Digest article which was selected as “The Editor's Choice” for that year and widely circulated to international business leaders. In the interview conducted by Ken Pole, Blackstein stated that three of Ontario's major coal-fired generating stations are among the top 10 Canadian sources of sulfur dioxide, a key ingredient of acid rain, which had killed 100 lakes in Ontario alone. In the article, he warned that “an increase in the global concentration of carbon dioxide which could have serious long-term effects on the world's climate.”

Chalk River also had to dispell myths surrounding nuclear power after the Three Mile Island accident in March 1979 at Dauphin County. It was the most significant in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant history. That same month, “The China Syndrome” came out in theatres starring Jack Lemmon and Jane Fonda (a fictional account of mishaps at a U.S. nuclear plant) fuelling the perception that nuclear power was dangerous. Again, Blackstein answered those questions from the press at the time.

“There is risk, sure, but no energy source is completely without risk. You can have the explosion of a firecracker, hurting no one, or an explosion like the one in Halifax in 1917 that killed nearly 2,000 people. A meltdown with effects like those of the explosion of a gas tanker, or of the collapse of a major hydro dam, would occur only if half a dozen safety systems went haywire at the same time. Then you could, conceivably, have the ultimate meltdown, with your reactor reduced to a large lump of highly radioactive metal. This possibility is so astronomically remote as to be out of the question.”

What many people may not know is that from its early beginnings Chalk River Laboratories was dedicated to studying the effects that energy production had on the world that surrounds us. In 1961, an environmental research facility was established at Perch Lake. Now the letter from 15,000 of the scientific community's best and brightest from 184 countries validates what Fred Blackstein and the men and women of Chalk River were saying decades before pen was put to paper.

“Everything we were doing there as Canadian research scientists was thinking about the future.”




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