Nuclear waste in your backyard? Decision on Canadian storage facility expected within a year

CBC News: Brian Kemp - August 19, 2009

The $24-billion question about nuclear waste storage in Canada is this: in which community will more than two million high-level radioactive bundles be stored for perhaps 10,000 years or more?

The Pickering nuclear power plant near Toronto is the largest such facility in Canada. (Canadian Press)
This question is posed as experts try to avoid a repeat of a failed attempt at resolving the storage issue 10 years ago in Canada and consider what is happening in Europe and in the U.S., where a nuclear waste storage plan recently died after billions of dollars were wasted. As well, there is now the consideration that the waste may not be buried for thousands of years and left where it is, and that future generations and their plans should be considered.

In this country, the northern Ontario portion of the Canadian Shield has long been the most considered place for storage, but experts that CBC News spoke with suggest that northern Quebec is also good option as is northern Saskatchewan. It all depends if the geology is good (a spot where groundwater is not easily available and a steady rock formation preferably one that has not moved for hundreds of millions of years), and if a community will accept a site.

A contender could be identified within a year, as the process of deciding how to pick a site is finalized, allowing a community to step forward with its hand up.

Don't be surprised, say some, if the facility, targeted for a 2035 opening, ends up on aboriginal land. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), the group tasked in 2002 with finding a central storage site has parts of its website dedicated to aboriginal participation, which is essentially part of its mandate.

Nobody would say on the record that is the way things are going but Don Wiles, a professor in the chemistry department at Carleton University in Ottawa who has written a book on nuclear waste disposal in Canada, said good geology and a willing community have to be found, and that a strong effort is being made to include First Nations.

Jeremy Whitlock, a past president of the Canadian Nuclear Society who works for Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL), said he has heard there are interested communities, and noted it's clear that aboriginal communities are being included in the process.

"You don't want to force it on an area. You have to do it if they want it," said Whitlock.

Lessons from the past?

Wiles was involved with the scientific review panel that considered the issue of storing nuclear waste during the 1980s, leading up to the Seaborn Panel (which considered the long-term storage issue) in 1998 turning thumbs down on the plan, saying the "concept for deep geological disposal has not been demonstrated to have broad public support."

People weren't ready for the concept of transporting the high-level radioactive waste to a central location where it was to be stored for 10,000 years and beyond. The panel appeared to say that it agreed with the technical side of the plan.

But there were fears about what if there was an accident during the process of moving the waste to a central site or what might happen if something went wrong inside the main facility.

Wiles, who said the scientific side of the equation back then was impeccable, was blunt in his assessment of the decision made.

"The government got scared 10 years ago," Wiles said. "It could have been done a lot cheaper 10 years ago."

As well, it's estimated by various sources that $700 million was spent by AECL and others between 1978 and 1996 to study the technical concept of burying high-level waste in the Canadian Shield.

A slow process

With no central location available, high-level waste has been stored at the various reactor sites in New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario, as well as at AECL's nuclear research facility in Manitoba for more than 40 years. More on-site facilities have been built as the waste accumulates, a process that Whitlock said is a simple case of building a new building. The waste has to sit in water for at least seven years before it can be moved to dry storage and placed in a building.

This is what a fuel bundle that comes from a typical Canadian reactor looks like. It weighs about 24 kilograms and is highly radioactive when taken from the reactor. (NWMO)
Some environmentalists are worried about the temporary sites, saying they pose a huge danger to local populations, while others say they are the best option given the costly central storage idea.

The cost of construction and operation of a central site is now in the range of $16 billion to $24 billion, and could likely increase as new estimates are considered by NWMO in the next year or so. Previous estimates in 1991 dollars had the high end of the cost at $13 billion, so the price is rising.

Wiles, however, agrees with the approach now taken by the group, a process he described as slow and methodical. "Going too fast would give the impression of not being careful," he said.

Michael Krizanc, communications manager for NWMO, said his group is not looking at any communities but is waiting for the site-choosing process to be completed in the next year or so before it entertains expressions of interest from communities.

Krizanc expects his group will work eight to 10 years with the community that steps forward to discuss concerns and issues and deal with the technical side of the placement.

"We are going to have to demonstrate safety of storage … the safety of transportation," Krizanc said.

It will be a slow process, he agreed, and it will hinge upon a community's acceptance of the project on the technical and social side, and one cannot forget there is economics involved. In addition to the billions spent during construction of a storage site, during the first 30 years of operation when the spent fuel is being transported for storage NWMO estimates spending in the site community will be in the range of $200 million each year.

Some of that money would flow to local businesses.

How long underground?

Whitlock pointed out that "one reactor's waste is another reactor's fuel."

In 2007, the government approved a storage option that would allow future generations, perhaps in 100 years or more, access to the bundles so they could be possibly be used to generate power. Even though the radioactivity is decaying, the bundles still have "juice," and could become attractive if easily accessible uranium in the environment becomes scarce.

"It's not easy, but can be done," said Wiles.

Nuclear reactors in France and Japan are using spent fuel now but it is not used in Canada. The process itself creates liquid radioactive waste that can be harder to store and also produces plutonium, which can be used to create nuclear weapons, a road Canadians will not likely want to go down. The U.S. at one time reprocessed waste but former president Jimmy Carter halted the process in 1977.

Wiles said Canada is in the upper echelon of countries that are looking at taking care of its nuclear waste. Finland began burying spent radioactive fuel two years ago and Sweden and Canada are "neck and neck" when it comes to their programs.

The Americans, Wiles said, have failed bitterly at the central storage of their nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada after U.S. President Barack Obama in February 2009 rejected a plan to store bundles there. The U.S. had already spent more than $9 billion on planning for the site.

Obama's decision left the American reactor operators in the same position as their Canadian counterparts, storing the waste on site until some sort of plan takes shape.

"President Obama has been emphatic that storage at Yucca Mountain is not an option, period," said Stephanie Mueller, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Energy, at the time of the February announcement.

The project was plagued by cost overruns, fought by environmentalists and was not welcomed in the end by many residents in Nevada.

Ontario has plans as well

Ontario has a plan to bury low-level and intermediate-level radioactive waste as well, as described by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission:

"The project is a proposal by Ontario Power Generation (OPG) to prepare a site, construct and operate a deep-geologic disposal facility near the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station, in the Municipality of Kincardine.

"The Deep Geologic Repository would be designed to manage low- and intermediate-level radioactive wastes, produced from the continued operations of the nuclear generating stations at Bruce, Pickering and Darlington, [in] Ontario.

"Low-level waste consists of industrial items that have become contaminated with low levels of radioactivity during routine cleanup and maintenance activities at nuclear generating stations. Intermediate level radioactive waste consists primarily of used nuclear reactor components such as the ion-exchange resins and filters used to purify reactor water systems."