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Inside the race for Canada’s nuclear waste: 11 towns vie to host deep burial site Add to ...

Canada's nuclear fuel waste needs a place to crash for 400,000 years. How about your place?

Reading time 17 minute
The Deep

Canada’s nuclear waste will be deadly for 400,000 years.
What town would like the honour of hosting it?



With his wife, Fran, Tony McQuail operates a lush organic farm near Lucknow, Ontario, within hailing distance of Bruce Power, the world’s largest nuclear power facility. The plant’s grounds, on the shores of Lake Huron, are also the place where nearly half of Canada’s nuclear fuel waste is “temporarily” stored. “What they’ve done,” McQuail says, “would be like me piling up decades’ worth of my operation’s waste, which is to say shit, and leaving it out by the road.

A portion of the Bruce Power facility. “A” is the Bruce B power station; “B” marks low-level waste storage buildings; the triangle is the location of a proposed Deep Geological Repository for low- and intermediate-level waste. A search is under way for a separate DGR site to house high-level waste—the spent fuel from Canada's nuclear reactors. (Peter Andrew Lusztyk / for The Globe and Mail)

“If I piled any quantity of shit out there and left it with no disposal plan, I’d be shut down and condemned within weeks. And here’s an industry with the capacity for global devastation, with no permanent plan for their garbage, the most dangerous stuff on Earth, and they’re allowed to keep producing it indefinitely.”

There is in fact a plan for that waste. A federally mandated body, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), wants to bury it in what the nuclear industry calls a Deep Geological Repository, or DGR. First, though, the organization must complete its quest—in effect, a competition, although the NWMO doesn’t see it that way—to find a municipality that will serve as a “willing host” for the repository. Among the contenders for the distinction are the municipalities of Huron-Kinloss, South Bruce and Central Huron, all of them close neighbours to Fran and Tony McQuail.

If it doesn’t seem like a competition any municipality would want to win, consider that spending on the project will likely run as high as $24 billion. And, the construction phase aside, the jobs involved are not the sort that will last only until another, perhaps cheaper, location is found. According to the NWMO’s plan, 400,000 years or more will pass between the point at which the waste is buried and the happy day when any sort of safety sticker is likely to be affixed to the vast toxic grave.

One morning in October, 1957, the principal of Keyes Public School in Deep River, Ontario, came into our Grade 5 classroom and declared that we, the children of the town, had “nothing to be afraid of.” We were to pay no attention to rumours that the reactors at nearby Chalk River would be among the Soviet Union’s first targets should the Cold War suddenly heat up.

Because we had older siblings ever willing to heighten our appreciation of reality, we already knew that if the reactors got hit, the explosion would be the equivalent of a thousand, maybe a million, H-bombs. We knew, too, that Deep River was located exactly seven miles from the reactors because that was the minimum distance at which human life would be spared if the plant ever got hit.

Mercifully, the missiles never came. And the plant never blew.

Others did: Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986), Fukushima (2011).

Most of the reactor stories we heard as kids turned out to be fables. Yet more than half a century later, they remain bristling little allegories not just of the risks of splitting the atom but of the doggedness of those who continue to tell us we have “nothing to fear” from an industry that in 1945 said hello to humanity by incinerating 80,000 citizens of Hiroshima.

Meanwhile, I, like millions of Ontarians, have become a complacent beneficiary of the many rewards of nuclear power. While just 15% of the electricity produced in Canada as a whole is of atomic origin, Ontario’s 18 reactors supply nearly 60% of that province’s electricity.

So accustomed have we become to such power, we have largely stopped thinking about its uncomfortable truths: For example, that Canada’s signature nuclear technology, the CANDU reactor, seeded proliferation of atomic weapons in Pakistan and India. Or that the supposedly world-beating CANDU turned out to be a financial white elephant: The CANDU’s creator, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., devoured billions in subsidies before the CANDU technology was finally sold for a pittance to scandal-plagued engineering firm SNC Lavalin. Nuclear power is said to be cheap—but only if one doesn’t count costs that either have been offloaded or are yet to be fully funded, such as accident liability, waste management and the debts incurred in reactor construction. Moreover, the industry has a history of wild cost overruns: The bill for creating Ontario’s Darlington facility during the 1980s climbed from a projected $3.9 billion to more than $14 billion.

Increasingly these days, nuclear power is also said to be green, in that it releases next to no carbon into the atmosphere. “If it messes up,” scoffs Tony McQuail, “it’s about as green as Chernobyl.”

Tony McQuail's farm is near Huron-Kinloss, South Bruce and Central Huron, three municipalities vying to serve as a "willing host" for the Deep Geological Repository, or DGR. (Philip Cheung / For The Globe and Mail)

Apart from the three rural municipalities near McQuail’s farm, the towns in the running for the DGR are a kind of necklace of economically stressed communities strung across Northern Ontario’s broad Precambrian shoulders, with just one candidate further west in Saskatchewan. To get even an inkling of the scale of what would be involved in the transformation of one of these places should it be chosen for the DGR, one would do well to visit the Bruce Power complex, a bit north of Kincardine, Ontario. There, eight CANDUs boil away around the clock, kicking out 6,300 megawatts of power and occupying nearly half of the company’s 4,250 staff. It is a place that on a morning in midsummer presents as a vast and hazy torment, an impenetrable dreamscape that has somehow fetched up on the wide beaches of Lake Huron. The place is, among other things, miles of chain-link crowned with razor wire; towering brick reactor buildings without windows; and a cat’s cradle of power lines that, viewed from below, reinvent the sky as a crazy-quilt of triangles and parallelograms and scimitars. It is security personnel with side arms, flak jackets and glowering faces.

So testy are the guards that when a visitor is momentarily confused by signs indicating where he should park to have his vehicle inspected, a young sentry with forearms the size of bazookas advances on him, intoning the earnest advice that “this is a place where you have to be able to read signs”—then, more jocularly, “I wouldn’t want to have to kill you.”

“Oh, go ahead,” says the visitor, coming close to getting himself kicked off the premises.

The same sprawling grounds are home to the Western Waste Management Facility, where Ontario Power Generation stores much of its share of the 48,000 tonnes of waste that have accumulated in Canada during the past 65 years and that the company and other nuclear-power producers hope will eventually be lowered into the national DGR.

The ever-accumulating tonnage, which in the wrong hands could provide payloads for thousands of atomic bombs, is entombed in a thousand snow-white containers (a half-inch of steel atop reinforced concrete), each the size of, say, a Lincoln Navigator set on end and weighing 70 tonnes.

Sealed containers of nuclear fuel waste await long-term disposal at Ontario Power Generation's Western Waste Management facility. (Philip Cheung / For The Globe and Mail)

The air in the facility is Floridian; the light is polar; the floor glistens. “You can eat off it,” jokes the director of the place, Lise Morton, a most amiable host, who notes that the containers are (perhaps not surprisingly) “warm to the touch.”

In 2002, Ottawa passed the Nuclear Fuel Waste Act, which obliged key Canadian atomic energy producers, such as Bruce Power and Ontario Power Generation, to create the Nuclear Waste Management Organization and develop a permanent waste disposal strategy.

The NWMO, founded that same year, takes pains to equate itself with openness, honesty and the public interest—ideals assertively declared on its website. But it is at heart an industry body, not a public one: Eight of the nine members of its board come straight from nuclear production companies.

The $24-billion cost of a deep repository—to be paid by the producers (hence ultimately their customers) out of a fund that now stands at less than $3 billion—sounds like a lot for the existing quantity of nuclear-fuel waste in the country. NWMO spokesman Mike Krizanc visualizes Canada’s 48,000-tonne waste pile as “enough to cover six NHL-sized hockey rinks to the top of the boards.”

The discrepancy is explained by toxicity. According to Gordon Edwards, a mathematician who has critiqued the nuclear industry for decades as president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, irradiated—that is, used—nuclear fuel is “millions of times more radioactive and deadly than when the unirradiated fuel was placed in the reactors.” Studies have connected the various isotopes contained in the waste to cancer, immune system damage and genetic mutation. Those six hockey rinks are enough, say nuclear detractors, that if the waste is buried in the wrong place, or in the wrong way, it could ruin our water, render the landscape useless for agriculture, or, in a darker scenario, render it useless for human habitation.

In 2005, after a low-profile consultation with 18,000 Canadians (roughly one in 2,000 of us), the NWMO decided that a deep repository was the answer to its mission.

According to the plan, Canada’s 2.4 million spent fuel bundles, each the size of a fire log, will be placed in close-fitting steel containers, which in turn will be encased in containers of copper, reputed to be impervious to corrosion; then into a kind of igloo of Bentonite clay, which swells when wet, sealing off the entire package from corrosive elements.

Then into the deep dark hole.

The DGR would be big enough, says one Bruce Power worker, “to hold the equivalent of half a dozen soccer stadiums—to have its own street names, its own economy, its own weather.”

To choose that town, the NWMO is applying what Mike Krizanc calls a “multistep engagement” during which a municipality is assessed first for its social and political suitability for the role. At subsequent stages, it is subjected to more intensive scrutiny and to “education”—some would say “re-education”—during which it must continue to show its commitment to the cause. At a point when that commitment is considered stable, core samples of the underlying rock are, or will be, taken to determine geological suitability—in other words, whether the town sits on rock stable enough to be drilled and dynamited and deracinated for 20 years or more as construction inches deeper into the planet. The site must then, for 4,000 centuries, be impervious to water penetration, fluctuating ground pressure, earthquakes, climate change, terrorism and human error.

“Finally,” says Eugene Bourgeois, whose idyllic property lies within a kilometre of the Bruce Power reactors, “it has to be impervious to the potential ignorance or delinquency of people, perhaps ‘peopleoids,’ more than a quarter-million years from now”—which is to say, peopleoids who likely will have no notion even of the languages in which the safety code and signage of the DGR were written.

At the same time, the site can’t be too remote. It must be serviced by roads and rail, so that waste can be brought in, and must have a sufficient population that the thousands of folks who will build the facility and the hundreds who will be employed there long-term will have a place to live.

There are 11 rural and wilderness municipalities vying for the DGR, survivors of an original roster of 22. The aspirants include veteran northern encampments such as Hornepayne, Ontario, where, as Brennain Lloyd of the environmental education group Northwatch describes it, there is “a really fierce desire” on the part of at least a few municipal administrators to “bring the nuke dump to town.”

And Schreiber, a struggling railway town on the north shore of Lake Superior. And Ignace, another struggler, in the boreal wilds to the west. And, to the east, Manitouwadge.

And Creighton, Saskatchewan, directly across the Manitoba border from Flin Flon (Creighton is a town described by a former resident as “having had its fiscal balls to the wall for half a century”).

And Blind River, Ontario, on the north shore of Lake Huron, where survival has for years depended on the uncertain flow of traffic along the Trans-Canada Highway.

And Elliot Lake, some 50 kilometres north of Lake Huron, where uranium mining was the sustaining industry during the 1950s and ’60s but which these days survives on the pensions of retirees who moved to the town to take advantage of discount housing left over from the boom years.

“What makes it all so attractive to competing municipalities is, of course, the money,” says Tony McQuail.

While billions of dollars will flow directly through the chosen town over a period of four or five decades, Lloyd suggests that most of the money is likely to end up in the pockets of big-city consultants and other outside beneficiaries.

Mainly, the price tag will buy decades’ worth of infrastructure and construction costs, as well as maintenance, monitoring and employment training. It will also pay for the transportation of the waste to the spanking new DGR, which will, by the time it opens, have been a reality for its “willing host” for a quarter of a century or more.

The Western Waste Management facility is home to not just spent fuel but also to lower-radiation waste that is lowered into in-ground steel-lined containers. (Philip Cheung / For The Globe and Mail)

Finishing just the first phase of the preliminary assessment brings $400,000 of NWMO money to candidate towns, so they can “build sustainability and well-being.” It has been speculated that some towns had no intention of staying in the process beyond the early payout.

While some towns applied to participate of their own volition, others were, according to Lloyd of Northwatch, courted by the NWMO. “What bothers me most about the process,” says Lloyd, “is the ‘siloing’ that the NWMO practises on the municipal politicians they choose to target.

“They approach them not in the context of their communities, where the politicians are immediately answerable to their constituencies, but at municipal conferences and conventions where they’re away from home, isolated, perhaps a little unsure of themselves. They wine and dine them and soft-talk them about the unimaginable benefits that could accrue to their towns should they consider hosting the DGR.

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Watch: Take a drone tour over Bruce Power facility

“Then they fly them to Toronto and put them up in the best hotels and take them up to the Bruce Power site, or other nuclear generating stations, and show them what of course appears to be secure and flawless waste storage. The politicians are just snowed—they’re made to feel like important players. They take this dream of hope and prosperity and safe science back to their communities and in effect go to work for the NWMO.”

The NWMO’s Krizanc refutes Lloyd’s version of the process. All 22 municipalities asked to be vetted; “The NWMO did not initiate any of these contacts,” he said in an e-mail. As for the meetings and tours that ensued, “In no instance were these activities kept secret. In fact, the NWMO encouraged participants to issue news releases following their visits.”

Municipal leaders have found that constituents’ input can be passionate. Mayor Mark Figliomeni of Schreiber, for one, is a beacon of moderation. “Right now,” he says, “the other councillors and I are just listening and learning—as much from those who hate the idea as from those who’d love to see the thing built here.” Figliomeni acknowledges “how difficult it is to ignore that a project such as the deep repository could mean jobs and prosperity for several generations to come. Meanwhile, it’s just as hard to ignore the uncertainties. They definitely concern us.”

Should the DGR be awarded to a community further west than Schreiber, Figliomeni is equally concerned about having nuclear waste transported regularly along the Trans-Canada Highway, in effect his town’s main street, for decades to come.

And here’s an industry with the capacity for global devastation, with no permanent plan for their garbage, the most dangerous stuff on Earth, and they’re allowed to keep producing it indefinitely.
Tony McQuail, who farms near Lucknow, Ontario

Other northern councils—at Ear Falls, at Nipigon, at Wawa—have been more divided over the DGR and so were eliminated early, or withdrew, from the process. Similarly, Brockton, near the site of Bruce Power, was cut late in 2014 after its residents elected a largely anti-DGR council. (The NWMO says Brockton’s assessment simply didn’t pan out.)

The aboriginal communities of Pinehouse and English River, Saskatchewan, were dropped from the process when community debate over land and water issues, as well as a growing distrust of the NWMO, became irresolvable.

While Pinehouse was still in the running, three community leaders, including a cousin of the mayor, received money from the NWMO. Offended tribal elders formed the Committee for Future Generations and initiated what they called the 7,000 Generations Walk Against Nuclear Waste, which saw participants trudge nearly 1,000 kilometres from Pinehouse to the legislature in Regina.

Krizanc says payments to candidate communities were limited to reimbursing them for expenses—up to $75,000 over a 12-month period. “Pinehouse, like all other participating communities, employed a part-time staff person to co-ordinate the village’s activities with the NWMO,” he said in an e-mail. “Most communities have only spent a portion of the funding available to them.”

Nuclear waste is entombed in a thousand snow-white containers (a half-inch of steel atop reinforced concrete), each the size of a full sized SUV and weighing 70 tonnes. (Philip Cheung / For The Globe and Mail)

No local DGR debate has been harder fought than the 30-month marathon of psychological and ground warfare that unfolded in Saugeen Shores, one of several contestant municipalities in Bruce County, between 2011 and 2014. The county is the capital of nuclear activity in Ontario, home to Bruce Power, which provides the best jobs in the area and thereby pours millions of dollars into the local economy.

There, a zealous and well-organized grassroots organization called Save Our Saugeen Shores (or SOS) fought not just the NWMO and local politicians favourable to the deep repository but also a largely nuclear-friendly citizenry that perceived a DGR to be the will of the atomic establishment and more specifically of Bruce Power. “Places like Port Elgin and Southampton [the biggest population centres in the municipality] would be ghost towns if it weren’t for Bruce Power,” says an employee of the company.

As in many such battles, the success of SOS hinged on an outraged but initially unschooled cell of activists that included, among others, a onetime school principal named Pat Gibbons, who for months pored over scientific treatises and academic studies and conveyed what he learned to anybody who cared to know. And a pair of cottage-owners who spent weeks helping refine press releases and presentation papers. Perhaps most significantly, it included a retired high school teacher named Cheryl Grace, who, for a year and a half, with the avidity of an owl, monitored the conduct of the Saugeen Shores municipal council (she has, herself, since been elected to council).

We wouldn’t even be considering a DGR if our engineering had any questions at all about such a facility. And we certainly wouldn’t locate it where the geology wasn’t entirely stable.
OPG spokesman Neal Kelly

Gibbons and Grace eventually discovered that members of the local council had been meeting behind the scenes with the NWMO and Ontario Power Generation, despite the NWMO’s stated dedication to openness. In Grace’s view, the politicians involved had become allies of the organization.

SOS papered the municipality with protest signs, canvassed homes (sometimes with near-violent consequences), brought speakers to town, held seminars and fundraisers.

The NWMO’s Krizanc recently declared SOS’s message to be nothing more than the “spreading of misinformation.” In an e-mail, he added, “The NWMO has never met ‘behind the scenes’ with Saugeen Shores municipal council.”

Which is technically correct. The meetings that vexed SOS were of a body called the DGR Community Consultation Advisory Group, created by OPG to inform local mayors, who collectively also constitute Bruce County council; the NWMO completed the group’s membership. Since these meetings had enough mayors present to form quorum for a council meeting, a later investigation by the authorities concluded that they “were also meetings of Bruce County council” and thus the Municipal Act—which mandates transparency—had been violated.

Monitoring is constant at the storage facility and staff use contamination meters to check for levels of radiation. (Philip Cheung / For The Globe and Mail)

Understandably, much of the debate in Saugeen Shores centred on the appropriateness of using an unproven technology to bury toxic waste next to Lake Huron. Pat Gibbons calls it “a complete mystery” how the NWMO can predict that the Great Lakes shoreline, or any part of the lakes, will be stable geologically for 400,000 years, when the Great Lakes have only been around for 10,000 years, going back to the retreat of the Wisconsin glacier. “Besides, why would anybody put a nuclear dump in limestone, soft sedimentary rock, beside water?”

The NWMO responded by pointing to geological research indicating that the limestone has not shifted in 400 million years. But ecologists such as Molly Mulloy answer that isostatic rebound around the Great Lakes—the upward “bounce” of the Earth’s crust as the Wisconsin melted—is ongoing today and is in large part responsible for the gradual decline of Great Lakes water levels over the ages.

The NWMO might more obviously have pointed out what everybody else could see plainly: that placing the DGR adjacent to Bruce Power would mean a large portion of the country’s nuclear waste would have to be transferred just a few kilometres for burial.

SOS loyalists were at first stupefied, then rejoiced cautiously, when, in mid-January, 2014, word came down that the NWMO had eliminated Saugeen Shores from the competition. “At first we thought someone was playing a joke on us,” says Cheryl Grace. The organization’s explanation for the sudden reversal was that geological analysis showed the local stone was not suitable for a DGR.

“Strangely,” says Grace, “they’d used the same studies a year earlier to determine that our geology was suitable.”

More recently, an NWMO representative let slip that Saugeen Shores was turned down less for geological reasons than because the municipality could no longer be considered a potentially “willing host.”

The battle in Saugeen Shores threw light on the sometimes confusing mix of public- and private-sector interests in the Canadian nuclear industry. While Bruce Power, a private-sector entity, was perceived by many as a central player in the debate, the company has never had any role in nuclear waste disposal, which is the responsibility of Ontario Power Generation, a branch of the provincial government.

When Bruce Power was hived off from OPG by the Mike Harris government in 2001, the new company—currently a consortium consisting mainly of TransCanada Corp. and an arm of OMERS, the pension fund of the Ontario municipal employees—signed a lease for the nuclear plant’s physical assets, which are all still owned by Ontario Power Generation. The fuel waste is among those assets; Bruce Power pays OPG to store it.

“The profits at Bruce now go to corporations,” says longtime nuclear critic Tom Adams, “but the residual liability in the event that more cash is needed will be borne by future taxpayers and therefore consumers—that is what concerns me.”

The cozy arrangement speaks to the power of a well-funded, often secretive, nuclear establishment spanning the public, private and regulatory sectors, and the odds faced by the other side—namely a dogged, often fragmented army of volunteers.

Staff at the waste facility are often checked for radiation exposure during the workday. (Philip Cheung / For The Globe and Mail)

It is a lingering and painful irony for the Saugeen Shores activists that their Bruce County neighbours, the municipalities of Huron-Kinloss and South Bruce, are still in the competition to host the deep repository, as is Central Huron in the next county.

A more disquieting irony is that a second DGR—intended to hold “low- and intermediate-level” waste (as opposed to the “high-level” waste that will go into the national DGR)—has for half a dozen years been in quiet planning by Ontario Power Generation just a few hundred metres from the Bruce Power reactors.

By the numbers

9,300

Hectares on which Bruce Power facility sits

60

Hectares dedicated to waste management

744,000

Number of used nuclear fuel bundles the Western Used Fuel Dry Storage Facility at Bruce Power is licensed to store

18,000

Number of tonnes of high-level used fuel waste currently stored in Bruce Power fuel bays

Source: Ontario Power Generation

“Low-level” waste includes items of daily use around reactors—contaminated gloves, clothing, mops, tools and so on—whereas “intermediate-level” waste is items more densely contaminated, in particular the interiors of decommissioned reactors.

The decision on whether or not the low- and intermediate-level DGR will be built depends on the recommendations of a Joint Review Panel named by the federal government in co-operation with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and chaired by Stella Swanson, a radiation ecologist from Calgary. The panel is expected to deliver its recommendations to Ottawa in May.

The panel’s hearings, held in Kincardine and Saugeen Shores, opened on a raw note in 2013 when officers of the Ontario Provincial Police visited the homes of activists who had signed up to address the panel and informed them that they had nothing to worry about in going before the review and would be fully protected despite their views.

“It was a kind of reverse bullying,” says Cheryl Grace, “nothing more than a show of force—a ‘we know who you are’ sort of thing.” The dissidents were never able to determine exactly who engaged the police.

The profits at Bruce now go to corporations, but the residual liability in the event that more cash is needed will be borne by future taxpayers and therefore consumers—that is what concerns me
Longtime nuclear critic Tom Adams

In the face of OPG and NWMO arguments that the limestone beneath the Bruce Power site is ideal for such a DGR—that the science is incontestable, that the planned containment of waste is unbreachable, that the limestone beneath the lake is impenetrable—one presenter after another rose before the panel, pointing out, among other things, that over the course of centuries the gradual seepage of heat from the radioactive waste would be enough to alter the character and stability of the surrounding rock, thereby making it vulnerable to fracture; that the integrity of the copper and clay containers in which the waste would be stored couldn’t possibly be guaranteed for 400,000 years; that years of blasting and rock removal would in itself alter the integrity of the surrounding geological structure and perhaps even the reactors nearby.

Gordon Edwards of the Canadian Council for Nuclear Responsibility reminded the panel that “geology is not a predictive science,” and argued that it was preposterous to assume that the limestone along Lake Huron’s shores would not undergo changes during the millenniums to come.

One of the more dramatic moments occurred when a former OPG employee, a nuclear chemist named Frank Greening, stepped to the podium and declared that the company had used inaccurate mathematics to characterize the toxicity of the contents to be stored in the deep repository. OPG data, he said, had been largely computer-generated, when empirical data, much of it collected by Greening himself during his years on staff, showed that OPG’s assessment of toxic isotopes had, in one case, been misrepresented by a factor of 600. “It’s completely unacceptable,” he said. “In my time at OPG, I discovered other such miscalculations. If people can’t get their figures straight, how can they possibly be trusted with a life-and-death project such as a DGR?”

The ultimate DGR skeptic may be the Saugeen First Nation, which claims a kind of veto right over construction, based partly on historic treaty terms, and partly on a long-standing promise from Ontario Power Generation and the NWMO that the facility would not be built without native consent.

“Which at this point we can’t give,” said Randall Kahgee, a former Saugeen chief, in addressing an SOS seminar in 2013. “Water is life. The First Nations in these parts and elsewhere on the Great Lakes have depended on it for thousands of years. At this point, we’re not going to do anything that would potentially condemn it forever.”

Low- and intermediate-level radioactive material is sorted at the waste management facility. (Philip Cheung / For The Globe and Mail)

At the moment, the U.S., Japan and Europe are also grappling with the challenge of nuclear middens, in particular the deep repository option and the how-to of putting waste underground. “What the NWMO won’t tell you is that there isn’t a single functioning DGR for fuel waste anywhere in the world,” says Brennain Lloyd. “So this is entirely unsubstantiated technology.” The U.S. government’s test deep repository in New Mexico—which is not for fuel waste but waste from the U.S. nuclear-weapons program—was closed to further stockpiling after a 2014 underground fire, which was followed by a leak of radioactivity into the surrounding area. Lloyd adds that two DGRs for low- and intermediate-level waste in Germany have been permanently closed because of radiation leaks—the sort of thing the NWMO and OPG insist will never happen in Canada. “We wouldn’t even be considering a DGR if our engineering had any questions at all about such a facility,” says OPG spokesman Neal Kelly. “And we certainly wouldn’t locate it where the geology wasn’t entirely stable.”

As Mike Krizanc sees it, Canada has “higher standards for safety than pretty much any country in the world.”

Of course, the reactors at Fukushima and Chernobyl were also once perceived to be operating under impeccable national standards.

While he has no particular empathy for the NWMO, Charles Rhodes, a Toronto-area nuclear engineer and consultant, agrees with the organization at least to the point where he sees no alternative to a DGR in Canada. “However, it absolutely has to be built above the water table,” says Rhodes, “which means in a mountain somewhere—high, dry, secure, accessible—whereas the NWMO seems determined to dig down into bedrock, beneath the water table, where of course water will eventually get in and create a catastrophe.”

Like Rhodes, nuclear critic Tom Adams is not convinced that 400,000 years of storage could possibly be free of unforeseen disaster. “Statistical probability alone pretty much guarantees that at some point something will go wrong.”

Asked if he thought there would ever be a deep repository in Canada, for any level of atomic waste, Adams reflected for a moment and said simply, “No.”

If he is correct—if the Joint Review Panel turns down Ontario Power Generation’s plan for the low/medium-level site, and the NWMO is unable to manifest its dream of a national DGR—what then?

For Peter Ottensmeyer, the answer is clear. The professor emeritus in medical biophysics at the University of Toronto argues that when our CANDU reactors have taken everything they can from the uranium they consume, they’ve used up a little less than 1% of the fuel’s fissionable capacity. “What you have is this so-called waste that, in more efficient, fast-neutron reactors could become fuel again.”

In Ottensmeyer’s and Rhodes’s view, if spent CANDU fuel were passed three times through an ideal fast-neutron reactor, each pass would consume nearly a third of the waste’s fissionable isotopes, leaving the waste all but neutralized. Ottensmeyer says that one commercial fast-neutron reactor, the PRISM, based on the EBR-II reactor that operated for decades in Idaho, could reduce CANDU waste to a level of radioactivity that would require just 300 years of storage, instead of 400,000 or more. The neutralized fuel waste alone would supply Canada with a projected 4,000 years of atomic power.

“There’s a lot of pie-in-the-sky out there,” says Tom Adams, who believes that the key question facing the nuclear establishment is perhaps less about waste and DGRs and theoretical reactors than about what he calls “the serious existential crisis facing the future of the industry.” For one thing, the country’s reactors are aging. Most are in the last 30 years of their life expectancy. Ten in Ontario, at Darlington and Bruce Power, are scheduled for costly and disruptive refurbishments. OPG announced recently that the Pickering plant will be shut down by 2020. Meanwhile, no more reactors will be built until the waste-disposal problem is solved. “Which may take decades,” says Adams. “Under the circumstances, it’s very difficult to imagine the nuclear program moving forward.”

Industry personnel may themselves be facing entropy. Last summer, a senior Bruce Power employee declared that the industry’s aging personnel are “simply incapable of handling a megaproject of this size. There just isn’t sufficient expertise. Most of us are working under enormous pressure all the time.” The result, he said, is many cases of stress leave. The company responds that it recorded no long-term disability claims stemming from stress in 2013 and 2014.

Ironically, whatever the fate of the DGR, Canada’s nuclear waste seems positioned to keep our atomic industry active and debt-ridden well beyond the current debate. If things go according to plan, the waste will deliver a version of eternal life to a Canadian town that 500 years from now may have no memory of the historic industry that is the foundation of its economy. If things go awry, as detractors are certain they will, the town may well have no memory at all.



The great nuclear debate: letters responding to "The Deep"

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