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Intermediate level waste is stored in these 'in-ground' structures. A Deep Geologic Repository (DGR) near the Bruce Power nuclear plant The DGR is being proposed to store nuclear waste deep underground. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Intermediate level waste is stored in these 'in-ground' structures. A Deep Geologic Repository (DGR) near the Bruce Power nuclear plant The DGR is being proposed to store nuclear waste deep underground. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Nuclear waste plan unsafe, panel hears Add to ...

A retired nuclear scientist has slammed Ontario Power Generation over its proposed $1-billion nuclear waste burial site on Lake Huron, saying the utility’s safety assessment contains some dangerous errors.

In a submission to a federal review panel, nuclear chemist Frank Greening said OPG’s contractors seriously underestimated the potential impacts of a bombing in the vicinity of pressure tubes that have been removed from reactors and stored as waste. In contrast to OPG assurances, Dr. Greening said the zirconium in the tubes would burn fiercely, setting off chain reactions similar to those in cluster bombs.

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“I think this is quite alarming, what I’m suggesting could happen and what they seem to have entirely missed,” he said in an interview Monday. “This absolutely affects the safety case … This is the design of a cluster bomb, this is an incendiary weapon waiting to happen. In fact, I think this is absolutely reckless on their part.”

The provincial Crown corporation has proposed to bury some 200,000 cubic metres of low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste from its fleet of reactors in a deep repository some 680 metres beneath the surface. The site is located at the Bruce Power Plant on the shores of Lake Huron, and many local residents are fiercely opposed to its construction, fearing possible contamination of the nearby Great Lakes and the increased traffic of trucks hauling radioactive material.

The federal panel has scheduled more hearings this fall.

OPG will deal with Dr. Greening’s critique at those hearings, spokesman Neal Kelly said.

“The process allows for a healthy discussion,” he said. “That will ensure the best outcome.”

Dr. Greening was a research scientist for OPG’s predecessor, Ontario Hydro, for more than 20 years until 2000, and has worked more recently as a consultant for Bruce Power. He has been a frequent critic of OPG and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) which – along with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency – is conducting the hearings.

In a previous submission, the scientist argued that OPG had underestimated the radioactivity of some of the intermediate-level waste to be stored at the site, though he agreed with CNSC scientists that even his higher assessment fell within acceptable levels. But in an interview Monday, he argued the panel should have required OPG to do a full review of their methods to determine whether there are other fundamental errors.

A series of letters between Dr. Greening and CNSC vice-president Ramzi Jammal, posted on the regulator’s website, suggests the regulator was becoming impatient with his criticism on other issues before the commission, accusing him of focusing too much on single data points and failing to understand various technical issues.

“As a part of our mandate, the CNSC has a responsibility to disseminate technical, regulatory and scientific information,” commission spokesman Marc Drolet said in an e-mailed statement when asked about the correspondence. “We consider it very important to respond to correspondence, provide factual science-based information and correct misinformation whenever need be.”

For OPG, the Bruce Deep Geologic Repository represents part of a long-term answer to a thorny problem that has dogged the industry since its postwar inception: what to do with the radioactive waste that will remain dangerous long after the reactors are gone, in some cases for hundreds of thousands of years. In fact, OPG is currently storing low- and intermediate-level waste at ground level at the site, but it wants a permanent solution.

At the same time, a federal group, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization is canvassing towns in Ontario and Saskatchewan for a deep repository of high-level nuclear waste – essentially the spent fuel rods from reactors that will remain dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years.

Follow on Twitter: @smccarthy55

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