Canada’s plan to bury nuclear waste called “deeply flawed”

One of the world’s leading experts on nuclear safety says the current process leading to the deep-rock burial of Canada’s growing stockpile of highly radioactive, used nuclear fuel is “deeply flawed.”

“There are too many unanswered questions, including about the science, or lack of it, underlying the Nuclear Waste Management’s (NWMO) Adaptive Phased Management Plan to build a Deep Geological Repository for the long-term storage of  millions of used fuel bundles, Dr. Gordon Edwards, co-founder of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility (CCNR) told a crowd of 300 people in the Lake Huron shoreline town of Southampton.

Southampton is part of the municipality of Saugeen Shores, which also includes Port Elgin and the former Saugeen Township. Saugeen Shores is a short distance north of the Bruce Nuclear plant, one of the world’s largest nuclear-powered generating stations.

The Bruce site is also home to Ontario Power Generation’s (OPG) Western Waste Management Facility (WWMF) where “low and intermediate” radioactive level nuclear waste from the provincial power utility’s Darlington and Pickering is trucked to be stored, along with similar waste from Bruce Nuclear.

OPG is planning and hopes to waste next year. The NWMO is working closely with OPG on the planning and  efforts to gain final, regulatory approval for that project which OPG hopes to start building next year.

Meanwhile, the NWMO has begun a “site selection” process to find a “willing” host community for its planned DGR, in an area with a “suitable” rock formation.

So far, five communities in Bruce County, are among the 19 in Canada that have formally told the NWMO of their “interest” in being involved in the site-selection process. That’s the first step in a lengthy, nine-step process leading to the actual construction of the DGR.

Besides Saugeen Shores, the other Bruce communities that have taken that first step are South Bruce, Huron-Kinloss, Brockton (Walkerton), and Arran-Elderslie in the Chesley/Tara area.

A citizens’ group, Save Our Saugeen Shores (SOS) has been set up to raise concerns about the possibility the DGR could end up being located there. It has been pressuring the local municipal council, and the NWMO, to hold town-hall style meetings where the pros and cons of the idea could be aired. So far that hasn’t happened. Instead, the NWMO has held open house-style meetings critics regard as one-sided, “public relations” exercises.

The SOS group organized its own town-hall style meeting, held this past weekend and among others, invited the NWMO to participate in a panel discussion. But the organization did not send a representative. One member of the local council, Taun Frosst, was at the meeting and on the panel which also included John Jackson, co-founder of Great Lakes United, a coalition of citizens’ group with an interest in protecting the environment of the Great Lakes.

“We are not anti-nuclear; however, we oppose the burial of all Canada’s high-level nuclear waste along the shores of the Great Lakes,” Cheryl Grace told about 300 people at the Southampton Curling Club. Chairs for twice that number had been set out. Several local reporters were on hand, but no one from the big-city or national media.

Dr. Edwards participated in the panel discussion after a lengthy power-point presentation in which he explored the many questions and issues he said need to be raised in connection with the NWMO’s plan and site selection process.

He said researchers spent 15 years examining the possibility of the deep-rock burial of used nuclear fuel in the granite rock of the Canadian Shield at a research facility in northern Manitoba. But the NWMO shut down that facility a couple of years into its mandate.

“Now they’re talking about putting it beside Lake Huron. It’s astounding,” Edwards said during his presentation.

“I believe this is a deeply flawed process,” he added later in a question and answer session with the audience. He said there are “too many unanswered questions” in the science, or lack of it, in the idea of burying highly radioactive used nuclear fuel in rock for the many thousands, even millions, of years it will take the radiation to decay.

If the Egyptian pyramids were nuclear waste dumps “we’d all be dead. They’ve all been looted.”

Edwards said the lack of science justifying the deep-rock burial option suggests the proposed DGR is “politically” motivated, to give the impression that Canada has found a solution to the problem of long-term storage of nuclear waste, when it really hasn’t.

“Let’s frankly admit we don’t know how to deal with this,” he said, calling for the plan to be put on hold, and a moratorium on the development of new, Canadian nuclear plants.”

“But there are obviously political advantages to making it appear the problems have been dealt with. This is why we need an unbiased organization.”

The NWMO was set up in 2002 by the former federal Liberal government of the day to study all options for the long-term storage of used nuclear fuel. Because most Canadian nuclear plants are in Ontario, OPG has a majority on the NWMO board. Other members are from Quebec and New Brunswick, each with one relatively small, single-reactor nuclear plant.

Before 2002 it was widely thought that used nuclear fuel would eventually be buried somewhere in the hard, and very old granite rock of the Canadian Shield. In fact, just such a plan was drawn up by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), reviewed in the 1990s, by the federally-appointed Seaborn Panel.

The panel suggested an organization be created “quickly” to do an exhaustive study of that and other options, and come up with a long-awaited plan of action. The panel’s first recommendation was that the organization should be “arm’s length” from the utilities that operate the nuclear plants.

But when the NWMO was set up in 2002 by the former Liberal government of Jean Chretien its board of management was composed of representatives of the utilities, with OPG in the majority position.

“That’s not was intended,” Edwards commented.

Early in the NWMO’s work OPG brought a report of a study it had commissioned a geologist at the University of Bern in Switzerland to do. The study, by Martin Mazurek, an expert on rock-water interaction, concluded sedimentary rock formations could be suitable for a DGR. He referred to the “Bruce Megablock” as one such formation.

By 2006 the NWMO said it was focusing on sedimentary rock formations, and had shut down the Canadian Shield research facility.

Currently more than 2.3 million fuel bundles are stored on-site at nuclear plants, either in huge pools of water, or in specially constructed dry storage containers.

The NWMO earlier estimated the cost of building a DGR for high-level waste at $14.9 Billion, based on the need to store 3.6 million used fuel bundles. But its latest estimated, based on 7.2 million bundles if plans to build more reactors proceed, is $24.5 Billion, in current dollars.

Edwards called last year’s earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster a “wake-up call” for the nuclear industry and the world. “We have to change our attitude toward nuclear power,” he said. “Anything can happen. We have to really be prepared for the unexpected.”

But even more to the point, especially for this area, “turns out it was the nuclear waste inside the (four Fukushima) reactors that exploded,” he said. “The damage was due solely to the nuclear waste inside.”

First the main power was knocked out, then the tsunami drowned out the back-up electrical generators. As a result, the pumps that are supposed to keep water circulating around the stored used nuclear fuel to keep it cool stopped working. The fuel began overheating catastrophically. Containment walls melted, hydrogen gas levels rose, and the reactor buildings exploded, releasing dangerous levels of radioactive products like Strontium 90 and Cesium into the environment.

Once inside the human body each radioactive particle emits potentially deadly radiation as it continues its prolonged disintegration, Edwards explained. He illustrated the point with a microscopic photograph of such a particle literally shooting out straight lines of radiation into the surrounding tissue. “They’re just like projectiles that crash into cells and do damage.”

The reactors had been shut off, Edwards said. “But you can’t shut down a nuclear reactor; you can’t turn it off radioactively. You can’t shut off what causes all these problems.”

Edwards said it’s hugely misleading to call used nuclear fuel “spent” as it sometimes is; it’s even too benign to call it “used.” It’s “many times more radioactive” than new fuel bundles before they’re put into reactors and subjected to the atom-splitting, or “fission,” that unleashes huge amounts of energy, and radioactivity.

“That’s what they’re talking about finding a home for,” he said.

Used nuclear fuel buried in deep-rock caverns will continue to produce vast amounts of radiation and heat in the form of “thermal pulses” with the potential to crack the rock for thousands of years, he said.

The NWMO says its Adaptive Phased Management plan for siting and development of the proposed DGR “involves realistic, manageable phases – each marked by explicit decision points with continuing participation by interested Canadians.  It is flexible, allowing for go, no-go decisions at each stage to take answer session with the advantage of new knowledge or changing societal priorities.”

But Edwards said there’s no point in packaging and transporting such dangerous material and burying it underground, and possibly having to re-package and transport it again if problems develop. “All the packaging and repackaging adds to the problem.”

Better to leave it where it is until the science is proven, he said. “There are far too many unanswered questions.

“Let’s frankly admit we don’t know how to deal with this.”

Later in a question and answer session with the audience Edwards called the NWMO’s current plan implementation, still in the early stages of finding a host community for the DGR site, “a deeply flawed process” that appears to be politically motivated to show Canada has solved the used nuclear fuel storage problem when it actually hasn’t. “That’s why we need an unbiased organization.”

Edwards noted the federally commissioned Seaborn Panel in the late 1990s recommended the Canadian government quickly set up an organization to study all the options for the long-term storage of used nuclear fuel. Its first recommendation was that such an organization should be “arm’s length” and free of any conflict of interest involving the utilities that actually own and operate Canada’s nuclear plants.

Not surprisingly, OPG appears to have had a major influence on the direction NWMO study and planning has taken.

Before the NWMO was set up its was widely thought the Canadian Shield, with its hard and very old igneous rock, was the most likely location for the deep-rock burial of Canada’s used nuclear fuel.

The NWMO began looking at the possibility of locating such a facility in sedimentary rock formations, such as those underlying southwestern Ontario, after OPG brought a detailed report of a study on the subject to the table for consideration. The study was done by geologist Martin Mazurek at the University of Bern for OPG. It specifically mentions the Bruce Megablock, the huge area of limestone bedrock underlying Grey-Bruce, as suitable for development of a deep geological repository (DGR) for nuclear waste.

By that time OPG was planning development of a DGR for what it calls low and intermediate-level nuclear waste in the vicinity of its Western Waste Management Facility at the Bruce Nuclear site. OPG is currently seeking final approval from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission(CNSC) for that project which it hopes to begin building next year.

The NWMO is working closely with OPG on that project.

“There’s something fishy going on here,” Edwards commented at one point about the current process.

I couldn’t agree more; I’ve been smelling that fish for years.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2012












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