KINCARDINE – It generates virtually no carbon emissions, is fuelled by an abundant resource and powers half of Ontario.
And its waste products emit radiation for a million years.
Nuclear power held out the promise 50 years ago of being clean, cheap and efficient.
But none of that’s true “until they find a suitable place for the nuclear waste; says environmentalist Mark Mattson, head of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. “It’s sort of the untalked-about part of the industry.;
Now, it’s more than talk.
The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) is looking both for an ideal site and an “informed and willing host” where it can store all of Canada’s highly radioactive fuel bundles, permanently, in one underground vault.
It intends to start drilling test bore holes next year near several of the nine potential sites: Three just east of the Lake Huron shoreline in Southwestern Ontario, and six in northern Ontario.
They’re determined to avoid missteps that doomed the strategy of its predecessor body, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., whose proposal was panned by a 1998 federal review panel as technically sound but lacking public support or First Nations input.
“If it’s not socially acceptable, it’s not going to happen,” says OWMA spokesperson Michael Krizanc. “You’re never going to get unanimity . . . but the potential exists to get broad public consensus.”
Even communities voluntarily part of the process approach the issue warily.
“This is going to be quite contentious” once planning starts to ramp up, says South Bruce Mayor Robert Buckle.
His community is used to having nuclear power on its doorstep — the nearby Bruce Power complex is the world’s largest operating nuclear plant — and contributing to the local economy. But Buckle personally would be more comfortable with the safety of underground storage than above-ground management. It’s also a matter of showing responsibility, he believes.
“If two years from now, if I re-run for mayor and if I get in, I will insist that we have a referendum. Something as important as this I’m not going to let six people (on council) make that decision.”
What’s incontrovertible is that nuclear waste isn’t going away — there are 2.6 million spent fuel bundles today, and 90,000 more each year — and current facilities weren’t designed to last hundreds of years, much less hundreds of millennia.
And though, for some, the debate over a deep repository amounts to a debate about continued use of nuclear power — with Mattson and many others firmly opposed — officials argue that’s not the point of the talks.
“We’re not here to promote or penalize nuclear power . . . We’re here because nuclear power is here and the waste has to be managed,” Krizanc says.
In that case, it should be managed near where it’s produced and far from northern Ontario, says Brennain Lloyd of Northwatch, which has kept a critical eye on the process since the 1970s.
She said the NWMO’s plan amounts to little more than “pack it in, pack it up, walk away.”
She favours bulked-up storage facilities at nuclear power plants to allow continuous monitoring, reduce potential for accidents during transportation and make it easier to reopen if technology were ever developed to use residual energy in the fuel bundles.
Andre Vorauer, senior technical specialist with NWMO, said most countries with nuclear power generation have concluded underground burial in a so-called deep geologic repository, or DGR, is the best option.
Finland is farthest along in the process, having received a construction permit late last year.
But Northwatch’s Lloyd says, “I don’t think anybody needs to be first. I think we can aspire to be the last . . .
“The industry worldwide has not been able to demonstrate safety. None have been able to do what they say — isolate the waste into eternity.”
She’s sharply critical of NWMO’s process including, she says, “cash prizes” already going to communities interested in becoming host sites.
Krizanc says NWMO has provided resource people to municipalities and funnelled $400,000 to each to set up community improvement funds — all intended to recognize that interested places also will be investing their energies in learning more about this, he said.
It has set up community liaison committees, held open house sessions and published reams of printed, graphic, video and electronic information (some of which can be found at nwmo.ca).
“We’re not in a hurry to do this,” he said. “We’re going to take time to do it right.”
Even so, selling the idea of an underground repository will be, figuratively, an uphill battle.
“It takes probably about one million years before the uranium in the fuel bundles has the same level of radiation as the uranium in the ground,” Krizanc notes during a technical briefing.
Just beyond the Bruce plant’s tessellation of tower lines lives one of its biggest critics: Eugene Bourgeois, a director of the local group SOS Great Lakes who once pursued a doctorate in mystical philosophy.
He says creating nuclear power with no plan for its waste “was an incredible, incredible mistake.”
Bourgeois also actively opposes a separate plan — by Ontario Power Generation, not NWMO — for a different deep vault to house Ontario nuclear plants’ mid- and low-level nuclear waste, such as mops and filters, at the Bruce site.
OPG was to provide more information Monday to the environment minister as it seeks federal approval for that plan, but on Friday said it will do so by Dec. 31 and also will consider another site in southern Ontario and one in northern Ontario.
Bourgeois believes all underground vaults will leak, sooner or later leak, and all material should be stored in a high-and-dry place.
“Am I concerned? No. Life is temporary. What matters is not how long you live, but what you do while you’re alive . . . I just don’t see that we need to be foolish in addressing this scourge.”
But, says Krizanc, many Canadians already have weighed in to say this generation is ethically bound to do more than simply store it all temporarily.
“Even if we Canadians have made it clear we have a responsibility to do something, even if we stopped making nuclear waste tomorrow, the waste is here,” he says.
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By Debora Van Brenk, London Free Press, Friday, April 15, 2016 9:35:34 EDT PM, as posted at www.lfpress.com/2016/04/15/decades-of-highly-radioactive-spent-fuel-is-piling-up-at-ontarios-nuclear-plants