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Ottawa backs nuclear industry on waste

Natural Resources Minister to announce today support of long-term underground storage plan

SHAWN MCCARTHY

GLOBAL ENERGY REPORTER

June 14, 2007

Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn is set to revive a long-stalled plan to bury Canada's nuclear waste in underground storage facilities, a plan seen as crucial to the industry's hoped-for expansion.

Mr. Lunn - a staunch champion of the nuclear industry - is to announce today the government's support for the 2005 report of the Nuclear Waste Management Organization that supported the eventual, long-term underground storage of spent fuel from the country's fleet of Candu reactors, sources said yesterday.

The minister is expected to kick off a process to select an underground storage site, with research and consultations that could take years to complete.

Industry officials say the government's support for the long-term storage plan is an important vote of confidence, as the nuclear sector and the Ontario government gear up for major expansion plans, part of a much-touted global "nuclear renaissance."

"This is most critical for us," said Murray Elston, president of the Canadian Nuclear Association. "It will allow us to answer persuasively those people who say the nuclear industry has no idea what to do long term with the waste."

The nuclear industry has struggled worldwide with the criticism that it produces a waste stream that will remain dangerous for thousands of years, with no adequate means of storing it.

In the U.S., plans for an underground storage site at Yucca Mountain, Nev., remained stalled despite support from Congress and the Bush administration.

Gord Edwards, director of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, said Mr. Lunn's endorsement of underground waste storage represents a public relations coup for the nuclear industry.

Despite the long-term plan, the risk of a catastrophic event will grow if the industry expands, he said. That's because it takes at least 30 years before the fuel can be moved underground and so the amount of radioactive waste kept on the surface will rise.

"In the face of a growing nuclear industry or even a static nuclear industry, this is not really a solution to the catastrophe problem at the surface," Mr. Edwards said. He said any kind of major explosion - such as a terrorist attack - at a surface storage site would release radioactive clouds as deadly as those at the Chernobyl reactor that melted down in the former Soviet Union in 1986.

Ottawa and the nuclear industry - led by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. - have been working for decades on a long-term storage solution. In 1998, a federal report concluded that underground storage of nuclear waste was technically feasible but could not be sold politically because of the high level of opposition from Canadians.

The nuclear waste management panel, appointed by the former Liberal government, recommended 18 months ago that the government "proceed in a deliberate and consultative way to isolate the used fuel in a deep underground repository." The waste would be monitored and remain retrievable.

Nuclear waste consisting of spent fuel bundles from Candu reactors is now stored at nine reactor sites, primarily in Ontario but also in Quebec, New Brunswick and Manitoba. The spent fuel is stored either in pools of water to cool down the radioactive elements, or in dry storage for older bundles.

At the end of 2004, there were some two million spent fuel bundles in storage at reactor sites across the country, containing nearly 36,000 tonnes of uranium.

The report said it would take 60 years for the waste to be "cool" enough to permanently sequester it underground. In the meantime, the government should consider a plan for centralized storage either above ground or in shallow underground facilities, where the fuel would be easily retrievable in the event it was needed.

The industry is keen to maintain access to the waste because it represents a source for the future, when uranium deposits have been depleted and prices have escalated.

Storage sites for used nuclear fuel

 
Stored fuel bundles
Nuclear Facility
Wet
Dry
1- AECL-Whiteshell
0
960
2- Bruce A&B
730,615
29,184
3-Douglas Point
0
22,256
4-Pickering
282,332
135,927
5-Darlington
256,068
0
6-AECL-Chalk River
0
4,853
7-AECL-Gentilly 1
0
3,213
8-Gentilly 2
33,614
60,000
9-Point Lepreau
39,482
63,180

SOURCE: NWMO

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