Draft Study Released by the NWMO

Most of us get up in the morning, flick all the switches that power our modern, materialistic lifestyle, and don’t give a moment’s thought to the fact we’re creating a monster. Every day, every push of a button or turn of a knob that sets yet another gadget or game in motion makes the monster a little bigger and a little more dangerous. 

The monster is the growing pile of highly radioactive used nuclear fuel we’re accumulating, especially here in Ontario where 20 of Canada’s 22 nuclear reactors powering electrical generating plants are located. The other two are in Quebec and New Brunswick. For the time being, and in the “near term” of time measured in decades, the experts assure us the monster is safely tied down and being carefully watched. But beyond that, and keeping in mind its deadly radioactive life span is measured in tens of thousands of years, there are no safety and security certainties.

That sobering admission is at the heart of the draft study report released this week by the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO).

“We don’t have all the answers, either about technology or about the future of society,” said NWMO President Elizabeth Dowdeswell, in explaining the “Adaptive Phased Management” approach to long-term nuclear fuel waste management the organization is suggesting. She described it as “a commitment to continuous learning today to assist decision-making tomorrow.”

The NWMO was set up under Canada’s Nuclear Fuel Waste Act (2002) to find a long-term solution to the management and storage of used nuclear fuel. It’s supposed to present a final report and recommendation to the federal government by Nov. 15 this year. The organization’s board of directors includes representatives from the public corporations in three provinces that use nuclear energy to generate electricity. Because most of Canada’s nuclear powered generating plants are in Ontario, Ontario Power Generation (OPG) has the biggest stake by far in the NWMO. You might say it has a controlling interest, because it does.

In her comments on the release of the draft study, titled Choosing a Way Forward, Dowdeswell also said, “We were forever mindful of the unique time dimension of this public policy issue. After all, we are contemplating designing and licensing a system for periods of time longer than recorded history.

“And our knowledge is not complete,” she added. “We do not know what technologies may be available to succeeding generations. Nor do we know what use, if any, they may have for the used fuel we have generated. We do not know what the capacity of future generations will be to take an active role in managing the waste. And, although we can predict with some confidence, we do not know with certainty how the technologies we put in place today will perform over this very long period of time.

“So what does responsible action look like when the potential risk to society spans so long a period?”

Good question. Here’s an answer some have suggested and which I personally find appealing: lock up all the nuclear waste produced so far in the world somewhere as safe and secure as possible, and throw away the key. Then produce no more of the stuff. Shut down all the nuclear power plants; use only sustainable energy resources like wind, water and solar power. And, most important of all, change the way we live so we don’t equate happiness to the accumulation of wealth and things because that’s where the nuclear waste problem begins.

That’s what should happen. But admittedly it seems like a not a very realistic approach. The use of nuclear energy is expanding around the world, not shrinking. Here in Ontario there’s talk of rehabilitating more mothballed reactors and maybe even building new ones to meet the province’s energy needs. The atomic Genie is out of the bottle and won’t be put back any time soon. The best we can do is keep it under wraps as best we can and hope – or pray – that it doesn’t break loose ten, a hundred, or a thousand years from now. Or is it?

The NWMO spent more than two years going across the country trying to find out what people thought Canada should do with its growing stockpile of used nuclear fuel. Some people said that question couldn’t be separated from the larger question about the continued use of nuclear power to generate electricity. But an organization arguably heavily weighted on the side of nuclear energy chose not to go there. “The NWMO has not examined nor is it making a judgement about the appropriate role of nuclear power generation in Canada,“ the draft report says. “We suggest that those future decisions should be the subject of their own assessment and public process. Used fuel exists today and requires management for the long term. Our study process and evaluation of options was intended neither to promote nor penalize Canada’s decisions regarding the future of nuclear power.”

That was a mistake, and maybe helps explain why the draft report ends up leaving the impression the NWMO and its experts left themselves trying to find a long-term solution to an unsolvable problem. The point is the bigger the monster gets the harder it is to control. At some point for the sake of future generations someone has to say loud and clear enough is enough. And it might as well be Canada.

By not making that statement as part of its suggested long-term nuclear waste management strategy, the NWMO has effectively given the green light to the continued use of nuclear energy to produce electricity, even to the expansion of it. And yet to a large extent its “adaptive phased management” approach stems from a serious concern that there may not be a safe and secure long-term storage method after all. The key question, the NWMO itself admits, is who’s going to be around over “tens of thousands of years” to make sure everything is okay.

So it’s suggesting many more years of further study are needed to finally decide one way or another if burying the waste in deep rock vaults at some central location, in the Canadian shield or elsewhere, really is the way to go. It envisions a three-phase process, extending over more than 60 years. In the first phase, over a period of 30 years, used nuclear fuel would remain “safely managed at nuclear reactor sites.“ Meanwhile, a central location with a “willing community” would be found where an underground research laboratory would be built to “confirm suitability of the site and the technology for a deep repository.” A temporary shallow underground storage facility might also be built at the same site.

In phase two over another 30 years used fuel could be transported to the central site for interim storage in the shallow underground vaults. “Throughout this period the program of research and demonstration could continue.” The deep rock vault could then be built and used nuclear fuel stored there in phase three, beginning around the 60th year of the suggested project.

“Future generations would decide in phase three whether and when to close the repository, and what kind of post-closure monitoring would be required,” NWMO said.

It’s safe to assume whatever “post-closure monitoring” is started, there won’t be anything left of it in “tens of thousands of years.”

If history is any indication, our so-called civilization will be long gone in 10,000 years. Some new civilization will have arisen by then, if the human race and life on earth have managed to survive the present epoch of self-destruction. Perhaps a team of future archaeologists will stumble on the entrance to a “deep geological repository” for used nuclear fuel.

Let’s hope for their sake, as they open that door, they have some idea what they’re getting into. We sure didn’t.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2006.

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