NWMO Asked to Conduct an Initial Screening

I am possibly the least surprised person in the Grey-Bruce area to see local communities near Bruce Nuclear starting to show interest in being picked as the central site for the long-term, underground storage of Canada’s growing pile of highly radioactive, very dangerous used nuclear fuel.

I should qualify that a little: the only surprise is it has taken this long for a municipal council in the largely nuclear-friendly communities of south Bruce in particular to formally ask the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) to conduct “an initial screening” of the community’s suitability as a possible candidate site. But now that Saugeen Shores has made its move, others in the south Bruce area will soon follow suit. You can bet on it.

Saugeen Shores Mayor Mike Smith made it sound like some sort of low-key, almost ho-hum fact-finding mission, after his council passed its motion. “Why? I don’t know,” he was quoted as saying in a news story in this newspaper earlier this week. “From my perspective I think we just need to learn more about it, about the final solution for it, or the ultimate solution for it.”

But make no mistake, a resolution calling for an “initial screening” is the formal, first step in the NWMO-prescribed process for being picked as the site for the Deep Geological Repository (DGR). It will be designed to safely store millions of used nuclear fuel bundles and many thousands of metric tonnes of highly radioactive uranium in deep-rock chambers 500 metres below the surface.

According to NWMO’s own timetable it will be 60 years or more before its DGR is actually in operation. In the interim the used fuel will stay in temporary storage at the nuclear sites where it’s produced. Or – and this is something you don’t hear much about – it might be buried temporarily in a shallow location at the chosen central site.

One would hope responsible mayors and other members of interested municipal councils have already done enough due diligence research on their own to know that sort of thing. It’s readily available and easily accessible on the NWMO website at, www.nwmo.ca.

Also prominently displayed on the NWMO website is its close working relationship with Ontario Power Generation (OPG) in connection with OPG’s plans to build a DGR of its own for low and intermediate level radioactive nuclear waste. It’s to be built at OPG’s Western Waste Management Facility, at the Bruce Nuclear site where low and intermediate level waste from Bruce, as well as Darlington and Pickering are already being stored on an interim basis.

The NWMO is helping OPG get regulatory approval for the building of its DGR. No doubt the experience and the technical information involved in that project will prove to be valuable when NWMO’s hi-level DGR gets into its development phase, especially if it too is located at or near the Bruce site.

OPG has always had a close working relationship with the NWMO, the board of directors of which includes representatives from the various operators of nuclear reactors in Canada – Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Atomic Energy Canada Limited. Currently, three of the nine board members are, or have been, high-ranking OPG executives. The NWMO’s current President and CEO is Ken Nash, the former senior vice-president of OPG’s Nuclear Waste Management Division.

The NWMO was established in 2002 under the federal Nuclear Waste Fuel Act. Prior to that any talk of where Canada might end up storing its used nuclear fuel always focused on the Canadian Shield, a vast area of very old, and very hard igneous rock stretching from southeastern Ontario to, and around, Hudson’s Bay in Canada’s far north.

But in 2003 OPG officials told the NWMO there were suitable sedimentary rock formations in Canada that merited further study. Then in 2004 OPG came to the table with the report of a study done by Martin Mazurek of the University of Bern, Switzerland’s Institute of Geological Studies. It concluded there were many good reasons why the shales and limestones under southern Ontario “provide a highly suitable environment to hose a deep geological repository for spent fuel . . . From a geological perspective the chance of success to complete a convincing safety case is substantial.”

The report also referred to the “Bruce Megablock” as a sedimentary rock formation in this area “worthy of further consideration.”

I have written about the NWMO and its work several times in this space since its operations began. I began to see the hi-level DGR writing on the wall taking shape for this area when I found the Swiss study on the NWMO web site.

Several years later, in an August, 2007 column I noted the federal government had just approved the NWMO’s Adaptive Phased Management approach to nuclear waste management. While the organization sets out a timetable of more than 60 years for siting, planning and development of a hi-level DGR at a chosen central location, it also stresses that the plan is a “living” thing that can be adapted to changing circumstances. For example, the highly radioactive waste will have to be buried so it can be readily “retrieved.” It’s not clear what above-ground circumstances might lead to that happening.

I said then, and I’ll say it again now with even more certainty, “the pieces are falling nicely into place for a high-level nuclear waste DGR at or near the Bruce site.”

The “multi-billion-dollar” project will create “thousands” of jobs in the host region, and “hundreds” in the local, host community, among many other benefits.

That’s a deal that will be hard to refuse. But there are many questions, not the least of which is how highly radioactive and toxic nuclear waste buried “forever” is going to be safely managed for centuries, even millennia, when just 500 metres above anything can happen, and will.

And another question, just to be mischievous: In this area and elsewhere in rural Ontario many people, including municipal politicians, are up in arms over the widespread development of wind turbines and their supposed adverse health effects. Why, so far anyway, aren’t we as concerned about the burial of radioactive nuclear waste of one level or another in our virtual backyard?

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2011.

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