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Nuclear fuel storage: is that what we want to be known for?

Owen Sound Sun Times - Phil McNichol August 4, 2007

An important recent decision by the federal government, one which could have huge socio-economic implications for much of the Grey-Bruce area and Kincardine especially, appears to have passed largely unnoticed by the media and therefore the public.

But no doubt a lot of people down at Bruce Nuclear and Ontario Power Generation's companion Western Waste Management Facility are well aware the government has accepted the Adaptive Phased Management approach recommended by the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) for the long-term storage of used nuclear fuel. And they will know planning and development of a multi- billion-dollar deep geological repository (DGR) for that highly radioactive nuclear waste is a distinct possibility for the Bruce site. That's in addition to the DGR Ontario Power Generation (OPG) already plans to build there for the long-term storage of low and intermediate level nuclear waste.

Kincardine and other municipalities in the vicinity of the Bruce plant, with the help of a treasure-trove of OPG money, endorsed that proposal several years ago. It's now well into the federal approval process and about to be the subject of a full panel review by experts and the public before final approval.

I've said before in this space that development of a DGR for low and intermediate level nuclear waste at the Bruce site would give it an advantage in the site selection for a high-level waste storage DGR. As I see it, and at the risk of oversimplifying things, there are just two big hurdles to get over in the search for a suitable site for a high-level DGR: The availability of "informed and willing host community," as Natural Resources Canada said in its recent media release package;and a suitable rock formation.

How and where to safely store Canada's growing pile of used nuclear fuel has been an unsolved question for many years. Burial in the deep, hard rock of the Canadian Shield has long been considered the most likely solution. In 2002 the Canadian government passed the Nuclear Fuel Waste Act and ordered the owners of nuclear plants to set aside money for the long-term storage of the nuclear waste those plants produce. Because Ontario has by far the most nuclear plants in the county, OPG is the NWMO's senior partner, with the most at stake related to the cost and location of a long-term storage facility for high-level waste. Currently Ken Nash, head of OPG's Nuclear Waste Management Division, is the NWMO's president and chief executive officer. The nuclear plant owners were also ordered to set up the NWMO and study long-term storage options, make a recommendation to the government, and then implement the approved method.

The NWMO started out looking at three possibilities: deep geological storage in the Canadian Shield; storage at nuclear reactor sites; and centralized storage, either above or below ground.

But a year into the study the focus of attention began to shift away from the Canadian Shield - so much so that a research facility gathering information for that option was shut down. And, with OPG's help, the idea of burying used nuclear fuel deep in the sedimentary rock layers, such as are found in southern Ontario, started coming to the fore. A 2003 OPG document given to the NWMO addressed earlier concerns raised about alternatives to the Canadian Shield. It said there were sedimentary rock formations in Canada that could be suitable and merited further study. Such a study had had already been started, OPG said, "so there is sufficient information for an assessment of the options."

As I've said here before, OPG received a report in 2004 from Martin Mazurek of the Institute of Geological Sciences, University of Bern, Switzerland. It concluded there were many good reasons why the shales and limestones under southern Ontario "provide a highly suitable environment to host a deep geological repository for spent fuel . . . From a geo-scientific perspective, the chance of success to complete a convincing safety case is substantial. The body of the report also cited the "Bruce Megablock" as a specific area worthy of further consideration.

If approved, construction of the DGR for low and intermediate-level nuclear waste is scheduled to begin in 2012, and be completed in 2017. If Bruce is selected as a suitable site for a high-level waste DGR it will be many more years before it's built, under the Adaptive Phased Management approach, with a slow and careful timeline of 60 years or more. It calls for used nuclear fuel to remain stored at the nuclear plant sites while a "suitable" site for a DGR is found. The site selection process could take years and will focus on possible sites in Ontario, New Brunswick, Quebec and Saskatchewan, a federal media backgrounder says. It could be 60 years before the DGR is actually built and used to store the dangerously radioactive used fuel. The plan also calls for the DGR to be monitored carefully for 300 years or more before being finally sealed.

In the little bit of media coverage I was able to find about the government decision to go with the NWMO recommendation, lo and behold there was the Huntsville Forester newspaper reporting that The District of Muskoka is opposed to any proposal that would result in the dumping of nuclear waste within its borders, "now or anytime in the future."

All things considered I don't think the Hunstville area, which is Canadian Shield country, has much to worry about. Rather, I'd say the pieces are falling nicely into place for a high-level nuclear waste DGR at or near the Bruce site.

It's probably a foregone conclusion, barring some unforeseen but powerful obstacle, like American objections to a massive nuclear waste dump near the shores of a Great Lake.

Meanwhile, we in this area may want to ask ourselves if that's what we want to be famous for.

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