Safety research on nuke burial plan lags by decades

THE CANADIAN PRESS: Sue Bailey And Jim Bronskill - December 7, 2008

OTTAWA - As plans progress for a radioactive-waste site buried deep in Ontario limestone, the federal nuclear watchdog says the related safety research is full of holes.

Ontario Power Generation wants a licence by 2012 to bury low-to intermediate-level radioactive waste at its Bruce nuclear plant near Kincardine, Ont.

It's the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission's job to approve or reject that application.

But environmental critics and geoscientific experts are asking how the federal regulator can credibly assess crucial safety issues - especially when the commission itself says it lacks up-to-date, independent research.

Moreover, specific guidelines to oversee the project have yet to receive final federal approval.

"Compared to the European countries, research in Canada on geological disposal in sedimentary rocks is lagging behind by decades," the nuclear regulator says in background documents for a contract recently awarded to hydrogeologist Kent Novakowski through Queen's University.

In the next three years, he will gather the latest research from countries including France and Japan, along with studies commissioned in Kincardine by Ontario Power Generation (OPG).

Novakowski, who has worked as a consultant for OPG, will study the extent to which radioactive contaminants could be diffused through tiny pores in the 680 metres of sedimentary limestone under which they're to be buried.

"What we want to do is assess realistically what the likelihood or the travel time might be for a contaminant to reach a potential receptor (such as) somebody who's drinking the water at the surface, or it could be discharged into a stream or something like that," he said in an interview.

The Bruce station, built between 1970 and 1987, is one of the biggest nuclear facilities in North America. It can power much of Toronto, Ottawa, Kingston, Hamilton, London and Thunder Bay.

It also produces radioactive waste that until now has been stored in sealed casks onsite.

The subterranean repository for those materials would be split into two wings: one for low-level radioactive garbage in sealed boxes, the other for intermediate-level items such as plastic resins and liners.

OPG is expected to argue before the federal regulator that its own seismic and geochemistry studies suggest the site has been stable for centuries with only prehistoric water migration.

Environmental groups and First Nations in the region aren't sold.

The Citizens Environmental Alliance last June gave OPG the dubious 2008 Weenie Award for environmental degradation. It blasted the giant utility for planning the repository so close to Lake Huron - a precious freshwater resource.

"Once a facility like this is built it is more than likely going to be the permanent site" for nuclear waste from across Canada, alliance research and policy director Derek Coronado said at the time.

"Any contamination of the Great Lakes and we're all in serious trouble."

Environmental activists want more focus on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power.

Shawn Patrick Stensil, energy and climate campaigner for Greenpeace, says the environmental assessment for the underground site is a cart-before-the-horse process that can't be completed by 2012.

"There's no way we will have adequate scientific backing for this project by the time OPG would like to complete the environmental assessment."

The nuclear safety commission knows more about the kind of granite found in the Canadian Shield than the sedimentary rock at the Bruce location, concedes Patsy Thompson, the regulator's director general for environmental and radiation protection.

But she insists the safety commission isn't starting from scratch. "Essentially what we're doing is complementing the expertise that we have," she said.

"We know what the waste is, we know its characteristics, we know how it behaves, and we have experience in terms of management of waste in similar situations. It's a huge project but it's not something that we have no experience with."

Stensil argues that Kincardine was chosen not because it's ideal but because it's already "a nuclear sacrifice zone" hitched to the industry's wagon.

"The big motivation here is to bury OPG's biggest public relations problem - which is radioactive waste . . . . They want to move ahead with building new nuclear reactors, and they need to be able to say they've solved the radioactive waste problem."

Ted Gruetzner, spokesman for Ontario Power Generation, plays down such talk.

"They're an anti-nuclear group who have an anti-nuclear bent," he says. "It's kind of what you expect them to say."

He cites a range of studies being done on a project encouraged by local mayors and residents - thousands of whom rely on jobs linked to the power plant.

"There isn't the concern in the community that may be expressed by people who don't live close and haven't taken the time to really understand what we're proposing. That being said, we have said from the very start that the reason that you do these scientific studies is that you can then make a rational decision - and based on scientific facts.

"And if it's not a safe project to proceed, then we won't proceed."

Gruetzner confirmed no other sites are being considered for the repository. "The site was chosen because that's where this material has been stored since the reactors have been operating."

Novakowski, the Queen's professor commissioned to work on behalf of the federal nuclear watchdog, concedes his prior work for OPG could raise questions.

The reality is that only a small pool of scientists are trained for such research - and they tend to share their expertise with governments, the nuclear industry and critics alike, he said.

"It could be argued that I might favour OPG because I would be afraid of losing contractual work with them again," Novakowski said.

"I guess the response would be: this is no different than any of the other research contracts that I have . . . anywhere between 10 to 15 at a time. I work extensively for the Ministry of the Environment, for example. They support about a third of my graduate students."

He has also been asked to do some work on behalf of concerned First Nations in the Kincardine area.

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