JimBobby Sez: Canada’s nuclear waste management plan looks good on paper. Will it ever go beyond the planning stage?

Whooee! Well, friends an’ foes, the other day, I tweeted calling attention to an article in StraightGoods.com, Canadians can’t afford Candu complacency, by Paul McKay. One of my Twitter followers took exception to a number of points in the article and since it’s dang tough to give a detailed response in 140 characters or less, I’m using this blog post to kick off a more in-depth discussion.

The first point of contention relates to a quote from Paul McKay’s artcle:

Some may contend that since our generation has already built two dozen Candu’s that must be entombed some day, and created some 60,000 tonnes of lethal nuclear wastes, adding more is no big deal.

That might be plausible if there was a proven, safe method of dismantling defunct Candu reactors, and permanently isolating nuclear wastes for millenia. But there is not, and virtually no thought or resources are being devoted to such solutions.

Meanwhile, the Canadian inventory of hellishly dangerous radioactive materials grows — and that is a fact for which our grandchildren will almost certainly curse us.

The bold text is the part my Twitter friend took issue with. To dispute the veracity of McKay’s statement, his tweet linked to Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) website. According to the NWMO website, the “Government of Canada (GoC) selected Canada’s plan for the long-term management of used nuclear fuel in June 2007.”

Okay, so there’s a plan. The timing begs a question, though. We’ve been accumulating highly radioactive spent fuel since Canada’s first nuclear power plant (NPP) was commissioned in 1954. In the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s, most of Canada’s nuclear power plants were brought online and began creating 100’s of tonnes of waste annually. Doesn’t 2007 seem a bit late in the game to just be selecting a plan for dealing with such toxic and dangerous waste?

Considering the immediacy and severity of the waste problem, the mere fact that NWMO has a plan does not, at least to me, indicate a significant expenditure of thought or resources. Waiting until 60,000 tonnes of waste have accumulated on site at NPPs in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick before deciding on a plan borders on reckless endangerment… at least that’s how I see it.

So, how’s that plan progressing? Well, stage one of the plan is to find a willing host community that wants to have all of Canada’s nuclear waste stored underground nearby. Although NWMO and the GoC selected a plan back in 2007, they didn’t start actively soliciting for a willing host community until 2010. If – and it’s a big if – a willing host community comes forward and says it is willing to receive all present and future high-level nuclear waste, the geological conditions must be suitable. So, not only do we need a willing host community, that community must be located in an area with very specific physical attributes.

If the elusive willing community is found and if public resistance to harbouring deadly material is overcome, the plan then calls for building the deep geologic repository to safely contain the waste, isolated from ground water, for thousands of years.

Bruce Power’s SWAT Team

Like the current stored spent fuel, the deep geologic repository will need to be kept secure by use of a well-equipped, well-armed security force. SWAT teams are on duty today safe-guarding our 60,000 tonnes of nuclear waste from those who could very easily fashion a dirty bomb from a small quantity of spent fuel.

Another big question: if the deep geologic repository is eventually built, how is highly radioactive waste going to be transported to the facility? Are the public highways and/or waterways to be used for carrying this deadly cargo? Will municipalities do as many European and American municipalities have done and declare themselves nuclear-free zones, thereby prohibiting the transportation of high level radioactive materials on their roads and highways?

Those 60,000 tonnes were created producing electricity that’s been used and paid for. Who pays for the construction of the waste storage facility? Who pays for the centuries of SWAT teams needed to secure that waste? Who pays for the transportation?

The expected lifespan of a nuclear power reactor is 40 years. That said, real life experience has shown that 25-30 years is more accurate. With costly, time-consuming refurbishments, it is conceivable that a reactor could deliver 60 years of service. The waste created during those 60 years, however, requires secure, safe storage for 100’s of years beyond the lifespan of the reactor. When the reactor is decommissioned, it obviously is no longer generating electricity… or revenue. There is a logical disconnect when we create an ongoing expense without creating an ongoing revenue source.

For what it’s worth, I can understand how this waste problem got to where it is. Back in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, the energy sector was brimming with optimism. Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrated that we could derive massive amounts of energy from tiny bits of nearly inexhaustible fuel. Nuclear electricity generation was going to make energy so inexpensive that it would be “too cheap to meter.”

The early investors, developers and scientists were aware of the problem posed by spent nuclear fuel. But they were understandably confident that a solution would be found relatively quickly. After all, the atomic age was upon us. Nuclear weapons proliferation and “Atoms for Peace” were both employing the world’s brightest minds. Remarkable strides had been made in the past 10 years. Einstein was involved, for heaven sakes. Surely, a small problem like spent fuel would be solved in short order. Five years was a widely accepted prediction.

Fast forward 50 years to 2011 – or 2007, if you prefer – and we’re not a whole lot further ahead when it comes to permanently storing waste. We’re keeping it in concrete and steel water-filled tanks and circulating cool water over it for anywhere from 1 to 10 years. At some point, it becomes cool enough to transfer to dry cask storage.  It is these dry casks that will be moved to that deep geologic repository… someday, somewhere, if a suitable location is found.

But hold on a minute. The waste inside the dry casks will remain hazardous to human health for thousands of years. How about the dry casks? How long are they expected to last? The manufacturers of the dry casks say they’re good for 100 years. Nuclear waste management professionals feel that’s a modest estimate and that the casks should be good for at least 150 to 200 years. What then?

I will concede that having a plan is better than not having a plan. But a plan is not a storage solution. It is a storage solution on paper. It requires a whole series of happy events to actually achieve fruition: willing host, suitable geology, continued public investment and perhaps most important, the forgiveness of future generations for saddling them with a radioactive toxic legacy.

The mere existence of a plan is held out by the nuclear industry as proof that the waste issue is being handled. In fact, the waste issue is only being temporarily handled and the permanent disposition of waste is still, almost inexplicably, in a very early stage – the planning stage. A plan is not a solution and, in my opinion, does not constitute justification for building even more NPPs and generating even more high level radioactive waste.

Well, friends an’ foes, I done rambled on longer than I thought I would. You might say my plan for a concise rejoinder didn’t quite come to the quick and easy fruition I planned for. I got more arguments to make against nuclear energy. Next time, I plan to post something about the relationship between nuclear power generation and nuclear weaponry.


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