Since the 1970s, Canada has been producing increasing amounts of high level radioactive wastes by using nuclear power to generate electricity. And since the 1970s the federal government has been throwing its weight behind the nuclear industry’s proposals to bury the lethal wastes deep underground in caverns carved out of rock. For several decades the rock of choice was the Canadian Shield’s granite, but in 2005 the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) extended the search for that elusive stone to include the sedimentary rocks of southwestern Ontario. Presumably, it was no mere coincidence that those same rocks are the scene of another future crime: Ontario Power Generation proposes to bury up to 400,000 cubic metres of so-called “low and intermediate level” waste from Ontario’s reactors in a “deep geologic repository” carved out of limestone on the eastern shore of Lake Huron.
We’re now up to 62,000 tonnes of the “high level” stuff—the irradiated fuel, removed from the reactor core after eighteen months and a million times more radioactive than the original uranium fuel. If current plans to extend the life of operating reactors and expand the nuclear fleet come to pass, that number will double in the next 25 years. During that time, the NWMO expects to find a burial site, design the underground facilities and infrastructure, build the repository, and begin hauling the wastes.
Though the average Canadian finds the conversation hard to follow, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization claims to be doing what Canadians want. After conducting telephone polls, focus groups, and exhibits in “information centres” from 2002 to 2005, the NWMO proclaimed that they had heard from Canadians, and that Canadians believe that the current generation should deal with the problems they have created. And there is some sense to that.
The NWMO then leapt from that rather unremarkable conclusion to recommending that all of Canada’s highly radioactive nuclear fuel waste should be buried. This, they reasoned, would keep the waste secure and safe from terrorist attacks after society has collapsed. No date was given for that impending social collapse, but given the 300-year timeline the NWMO has assigned to their project we can assume that it’s not within the next couple of centuries.
There is a certain logic there, albeit a limited one. If society does collapse, the waste in water-filled fuel pools or the warehouses containing used fuel storage casks just east of Toronto beside Lake Ontario will be vulnerable. So will the wastes at Bruce Nuclear Generating Station, the world’s largest nuclear power plant, in Kincardine beside Lake Huron.
But those wastes are vulnerable now vulnerable to terrorist attacks, extreme weather events, and human or engineering failures. Why wait for social collapse to move the wastes into more robust storage?
But questions about how to make the waste more secure in its current location do not seem to occupy the minds of government and industry. Attention appears focused on finding the means to move the waste away from the reactor communities—that’s what those communities were told would happen—and declaring that the nuclear waste problem has been solved.
A flaw in this approach is that it will not solve the problem, only change its nature. First, consider the risks associated with 22,000 truck trips travelling hundreds or even thousands of kilometres. Consider the risks of a catastrophic accident or even the “normal” daily exposure of those living along the route or working in the transport fleet. Consider also that if the waste is ever placed in a deep geologic repository it will be harder to monitor and the replacement of failed containers might be impossible after they have been hauled down a shaft half a kilometre deep, moved along a one-kilometre corridor, and then placed in caverns that are a quarter of a kilometre deep. Add to that the many scientific and technical uncertainties associated with geological repositories: the durability of the containers, the characterization of the geology, the reliability of computer models that make predictions for millions of years from now, and so forth.
Since 2005, the NWMO’s project descriptions imply that the NWMO has a plan: they know what they have to do and how to do it. That “plan” has been the subject of numerous community presentations since the NWMO launched its site search in 2010. But the nuclear industry has now unveiled new versions of it. The revisions to the NWMO’s “Adaptive Phased Management” plan suggest that the NWMO’s “Learn More” program should be re-dubbed “Learn Again” (“Learn More” is the NWMO’s program for interacting with municipalities engaged in its search for a “willing and informed community.”) The changes are significant.
The earlier NWMO plan was outlined in their 2005 “recommendation” to the federal government. In 2012, a 594-page report described in more detail a deep geological repository in the crystalline rock of the Canadian shield, followed by a report in 2013 describing a repository in sedimentary rock.
From 2005 to 2015 the plans for a repository in the Canadian Shield depicted a flat-topped cylindrical container that would be placed either vertically in the floor of an underground cavern or horizontally in the room itself.
In late 2015, project descriptions began to replace the images of that waste container with one of a sphere-topped container placed in a large box filled with buffering materials. Dubbed “Mark II” by the NWMO technical staff, the revised fuel container design features a copper-coated steel vessel with welded ends.
A potentially more significant shift in the NWMO plan is in the layout of the underground repository. For ten years, all NWMO project descriptions showed a single “compact” block layout with an underground footprint of two kilometres by three kilometres.
The NWMO’s predecessor plan by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited had a similar layout, as do the plans of other countries with a geological repository program.
In technical sessions at a nuclear industry sponsored conference in mid-September, a new approach was outlined, generically titled “Adaptive Deep Geologic Repository Layout.”
It signifies a huge shift: instead of situating the underground repository in a single rock formation, the notion of “adaptive layout” introduces the idea that a repository design could “bridge across fractures.”
For decades, the Canadian program has assumed that a sufficiently large and homogeneous rock formation will be available to host a repository, but decades of research has yet to identify such a rock formation, dubbed by tongue-in-cheek critics as “the perfect pluton.” The NWMO now appears to be on the brink of giving up the concept that a single rock formation can be found and then engineered to provide a barrier to the release of radioactive waste.
Indigenous peoples were repeatedly mentioned at the September conference in Ottawa, but there were few discussions of how the NWMO’s current siting process or an actual nuclear waste repository would impact or infringe on their rights and territories.
Sessions covered a range of topics related to the management of radioactive wastes, but most attention was devoted to the nuclear industry’s long-term challenge: how to contain into perpetuity the 60,000-plus tonnes of high level radioactive waste generated by nuclear reactors in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick.
The closest thing the industry has to a long-term plan is to find a “willing and informed community,” dig deep, and bury the wastes.
That plan has not been warmly welcomed by First Nations, particularly in northern Ontario where the municipalities of Elliot Lake, Blind River, White River, Hornepayne, Manitouwadge, and Ignace are engaged in a siting process.
NWMO is investigating 18 areas, totalling over 3,000 square kilometres, all of them outside the six participating municipalities. Several First Nations, including Pic Mobert First Nation, whose community trap line is overlaid with one of the NWMO’s candidate areas, have expressed opposition to the plans, but seemingly with little effect. The NWMO siting process continues.
A member of the Nuclear Waste Management Organization’s “Elders Council,” Diane Longboat, opened the session on “Engagement of Indigenous Peoples in the Nuclear Industry” by reflecting on the experience of Indigenous people in Canada. She described the injustices of the 1876 enactment of the Indian Act and the residential school system. She also saw new strengths emerging from important case law such as Tsilhqot’in and from Canada’s new commitment to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
But how can the rights of Indigenous Peoples, including the right to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent, be reconciled with the NWMO’s proceeding with a project and siting process that First Nations have rejected? In a follow-up conversation, Ms. Longboat struggled with this question.
“I sit on the Elders Council and the Youth Council for NWMO, so I think if those First Nations and Treaty Organizations are saying that NWMO is not welcome in their territories then we need to be informed of that—because we are not.”
“The second point I would make is that there is a real deep need for a leadership meeting between NWMO and the First Nation’s leadership that I think is long overdue… The leaders have to answer that question. And they have to answer that question in conversation with the NWMO and provide their perspective to the NWMO on that.”
Pressed on what should happen if a First Nation had already provided that “perspective,” Ms. Longboat conceded that it was up to First Nations to set their own course with respect to the NWMO’s siting efforts.
“I think every First Nation has that independent capacity to make their decision whether they want to work with the NWMO or not. If they want to work with the NWMO and learn, great. If they don’t, great.”
The conference, attended by approximately 300 people, was organized by the Canadian Nuclear Society and sponsored by a handful of Canada’s largest nuclear companies, including the Nuclear Waste Management Organization, Ontario Power Generation, Bruce Power, and the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories.
Brennain Lloyd is a community organizer working with Northwatch, an environmental and social justice coalition in northeastern Ontario.