NWMO Ought to be More Up-Front

When it comes to nuclear energy and the seemingly relentless path it’s now taking toward more, rather than less, I hate to say I told you so. But I will, just in passing though, because the sun is shining, there’s a warm breeze blowing up from the southwest, spring has arrived and so have my seeds, and there’s a patch of ground waiting patiently for me to plant them. In other words, the cycle of life is still turning, spring is here again, the juices are rising in the trees, the leaves will be out soon, the crocus and clouds of daffodils are blooming. This is all good, and cause for celebration. It is the furthest thing from nuclear waste, no matter where it’s buried or stored, whether deep in the distant hard rock of the Canadian Shield or right here, in the sedimentary bedrock under much of southern Ontario, including Bruce and Grey counties. 

Yes, I told you so, right here in this space two years ago: That the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), prompted by its senior partner Ontario Power Generation, was seriously looking at sedimentary rock formations under southern Ontario as among the best places for the long-term storage of highly radioactive nuclear waste.

I suggested in a March, 2005 column that the NWMO ought to be more up-front about it, go out of its way to tell the general public, especially the millions of people who live in southern Ontario, just how seriously that high-level nuclear waste storage option was being considered. So when I noticed a Canadian Press article in Tuesday’s issue of The Sun Times I could only shake my head and wonder why it sometimes takes such important “news” so long to see the big, bright light of day.

Canadians are supposedly very worried about environmental issues, hence the remarkable “greening“ of Canada‘s minority Conservative government under that great champion of open, accountable democracy, Prime Minister Stephen Harper. But somehow the idea of burying huge quantities of nuclear waste in the rock under one of the most populous parts of the country, in the midst of the Great Lakes basin, has garnered little public attention. I note that even now, in this area where nuclear energy tends to get treated like something akin to a sacred cow, the Canadian Press article in The Sun Times that caught my attention was tucked away on an inside page, when it arguably merited the front.

Let’s see if we can make this as plain and clear as possible: The organization that’s been given the job of determining the best place and way to store dangerously radioactive nuclear waste forever thinks the bedrock under southern Ontario looks pretty good. No offence, dear reader, but you knew that, right?

Under the headline “Southern Ontario safe for nuclear waste dump, report says,” the article in Tuesday’s Sun Times said the idea of burying high-level nuclear waste in the sedimentary rock formations like those found under much of southern Ontario has become the focus of the NWMO’s technical research work, according to the organization’s 2006 annual report to the federal government.

The NWMO was set up under federal law in 2002 to study the alternatives for the long-term storage of high-level nuclear waste, especially the used uranium fuel used to power Canadian nuclear reactors, mostly located in Ontario. Its partners are the three Canadian operators of nuclear plants generating electricity, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, with Ontario being the senior partner because it has by far the most nuclear plants. Ontario Power Generation’s Ken Nash, senior vice-president of OPG’s Nuclear Waste Management Division, is the NWMO’s current President and past Chair of its board of directors.

The Nuclear Fuel Waste Act ordered the NWMO to study at least three options for long-term nuclear waste management: Deep geological disposal in the Canadian Shield, continued storage at nuclear reactor sites, or centralized storage above or below ground anywhere in Canada.

In late 2005 the organization sent its final study report to the federal government, where it remains, awaiting a decision about whether or not to accept the NWMO recommendations. In brief, they call for centralized containment in an “appropriate” deep rock formation; phased and flexible implementation and decision-making over several decades to confirm the approach will work, optional shallow storage at the yet-to-be-selected central site, just in case it won’t, continuous monitoring for many years, the ability to retrieve the vast quantities of nuclear waste from the underground caverns, in case of problems, and continued public consultation.

The NWMO likes to brag about its public consultation during the study, its holding of public meetings across the country, including in Owen Sound. It likes to say it got input from thousands of Canadians, including 2,500 aboriginal people. But, in fact, it reached a tiny fraction of the Canadian public, less than half of one percent, and very few of them knew the sedimentary rock formations under southern Ontario were being seriously considered as a long-term storage option as far back as 2003.

“Far be it from me to say Ontario Power Generation (OPG) and perhaps even the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) have a hidden agenda to bury used nuclear fuel in the sedimentary rock underlying southern Ontario, possibly even at the Bruce Nuclear site,” I wrote here in March, 2005.

“But now would be a good time for both organizations to come right out and reveal, so everybody can hear, just how seriously that idea has been studied . . . And surely even just the possibility high-level nuclear waste from across Canada could be buried in deep rock vaults somewhere in southern Ontario is something the general public in this area and the rest of the province should have heard about by now.”

I wrote about finding a document prepared by OPG in 2003 on the NWMO web site. In it OPG addressed earlier concerns raised about alternatives to burying nuclear waste in the Canadian Shield. OPG said there were sedimentary formations in Canada that could be suitable and merited further study. Such a study had been started, OPG said, “so there is sufficient information for an assessment of the options.”

In July 2004 OPG received a report from Martin Mazurek of the Institute of Geological Sciences, University of Bern, Switzerland. The geo-scientific assessment examined “the suitability of Palaeozoic sedimentary rock occurring beneath southern Ontario to host a Deep Geological Repository (DGR) for used nuclear fuel.”

That detailed, highly technical report concluded there were many good reasons why the shales and limestones beneath southern Ontario “provide a highly suitable environment to host a deep geological repository for spent fuel . . . From a geo-scientific perspective, the chance of success to complete a convincing safety case is substantial,” the executive summary said. The body of the report also cited the “Bruce Megablock” north of Sarnia as a specific area worthy of further consideration.

At the time I found that report, headed “6-12 Long-Term Used Nuclear Fuel Waste Management – Geo-scientific Review of the Sedimentary Sequence in Southern Ontario,” amid numerous background materials on the NWMO website. Someone in the organization thought it was important enough to take to a Nuclear Waste Management Regional Forum for southern Ontario aboriginal communities in Toronto in the fall of 2004. Copies of the executive summary were distributed to the 19 First Nation Chiefs and other representatives of aboriginal communities on hand.

The Assembly of First Nations submitted a report about the results of the southern Ontario forum to the NWMO on Dec. 17, 2004. The deep geological repository idea was panned: “There was strong opposition to the idea that nuclear fuel waste can be ‘isolated’ from the environment in this way,” There was also a lot of suspicion, an “underlying” feeling that the NWMO, the nuclear energy industry, and even the government, already favour that approach, the AFN said.

I asked the OPG’s Ken Nash about the “6-12” report and how and why it became an important NWMO research paper. He said there were gaps in the information available to the NWMO about other options that needed to be filled, including deep geological storage in sedimentary formations. The NWMO asked for whatever information OPG had about alternative deep geological methods and OPG gave them the report, said Nash, who was vice-chair of the NWMO board of directors at the time.

There is still nowhere near enough public awareness that serious consideration is being given to burying highly radioactive nuclear waste in southern Ontario, including this area. And there certainly has been nowhere near enough public discussion about it. The information gap now has to be filled by Canada’s rapidly greening Harper Conservative government. Let’s see how much he-it really cares about the environment. The sooner he deals with this issue, the better.

Now I’m going to get back to my seeds, and other things that uplift and renew the spirit in this hopeful spring of the year.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2006.

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