KINCARDINE – Don’t touch the canisters.
As you navigate through row after gleaming row of huge white containers — 1,200 of them, so far — the guide’s instruction is unequivocal: Look, don’t touch.
These containers harbour the most hazardous byproducts of nuclear power production in Canada, more than three decades worth of spent nuclear fuel.
Each one safeguards 384 spent fuel bundles inside 50-centimetre-thick, reinforced concrete walls sandwiched between two liners of thick, rolled steel. Welding them shut takes upwards of 16 hours. They weigh 73 tonnes each.
The guide repeatedly describes them as “robust,” designed to last.
But not forever.
Forever is a long time.
Officials from the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) argue that a permanent storage solution, a vault at least 500 metres underground, eventually must replace facilities never intended to last many thousands of years.
And that’s why NWMO offered a rare tour of the dry used-fuel storage buildings at Ontario’s giant Bruce Power nuclear plant, a facility along the shore of Lake Huron in Southwestern Ontario where few among the 4,000 staffers are even allowed to venture.
In the post-9/11 world of super-strict security measures, only federal background checks and pre-authorized approval will allow you deeper into the facility than the public information centre.
The rules inside are clear and inviolable. Hard hats always on, always facing forward.
No candy, gum or lip balm, through which radiation would be ingested if an “incident” were to happen.
Don’t photograph any of the array of security measures.
And don’t touch the canisters.
The fuel bundles that spent their useful life powering entire cities, then needed to cool down for a decade at the bottom of deep water pools, still radiate enough warmth to make heavy coats unnecessary here even on a sub-zero, Bruce County day.
Spokesperson Mike Krizanc explains the outside of the tanks is only slightly warmer than ambient air. Touching one probably — probably — would not be an issue.
But when security includes regular inspections by specialized staff and monitoring by provincial, federal and international nuclear safety specialists, you don’t want to mess with protocols.
This is an other-worldly place.
It is spotless, fanatically so.
Not a mop is out of place. Shoes literally squeak on the shiny, grey-painted floors.
You’re tempted to whisper in the cavernous rooms, where the only other sound is a barely perceptible hum from fluorescent lights.
And all around you, these giant space-age canisters with their deadly innards.
One guide likens a canister to “a big cocoon,” but the metaphor is instantly jarring — a cocoon breaks forth with new life. This must never be allowed to break open, not for a thousand lifetimes.
And there, in a nutshell, is the dilemma for NWMO officials.
Nuclear power must be safe and be seen to be safe.
But nuclear waste, even encapsulated like this, isn’t forever-safe. And they know it and you know it, and what’s left is to make the best of that uncomfortable reality while humankind figures out how to seal near-eternity in a box.
And, illogical as it is, after a three-hour tour, you exhale a breath you didn’t realize you were holding as the radiation detection scanner declares you “clean” and you turn in your hard hat and visitor’s pass.
By Debora Van Brenk, The London Free Press, Friday, April 15, 2016 10:18:26 EDT PM, as posted at http://www.lfpress.com/2016/04/15/permanent-storage-solution-a-must-nuclear-officials-argue