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(Donald Gruener)
(Donald Gruener)

The search for a nuclear graveyard Add to ...

Wanted: Friendly, open-minded community in need of jobs and a whack of infrastructure cash. Must be willing to play host to nuclear waste, perhaps until the end of time.More than six decades after joining the nuclear club, Canada is home to 22 nuclear reactors, 18 of them in operation, producing about 15 per cent of the country's electricity. Canada also has 40,000 metric tonnes of radioactive waste - and counting.

For years, the issue of how to best dispose of this waste has plagued policy-makers, scientists and citizens. Suggestions have included shooting it into outer space or exporting it to the South Pole.

Now, Canada is preparing to get rid of its nuclear detritus once and for all - by burying it.

That solution will cost $16-billion to $24-billion, and it could take until 2020 just to choose a location. But if all goes well, millions of bundles of spent nuclear fuel will be buried half a kilometre underground in a complex network of subterranean rooms forever. Or at least until future generations come up with something better to do with it.

One niggling question remains: Where?

The multidecade, multibillion-dollar endeavour is the brainchild of the Nuclear Waste Management Organization, established by the federal government in 2002 to come up with a solution to the problem that has plagued Canada's nuclear-safety regulators since the 1940s - what to do with the waste that builds up as a result of all nuclear activity, and which continues to emit potentially harmful radioactive energy for decades, centuries or even millennia.

It's early days yet: Consultations are just beginning on how to select a location.

In May and June, those consultations took the form of town-hall meetings in 14 cities in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick - chosen, said NWMO spokesman Michael Krizanc, because they're "regional centres" in Canada's nuclear provinces.

When the information session came to Sudbury in late May, it became clear just how radioactive this issue will be - and how likely to cause political fallout.

Just before the meeting, Sudbury's Liberal MPP, Rick Bartolucci, urged city council to reject the nuclear-waste repository.

"There is no dollar figure, no salary, and no number of jobs that would be worth risking the health of our children, our landscape and our future,'' Mr. Bartolucci said in a statement at the time.

"We are not the dumping ground for Canada's nuclear waste, nor do we ever want to be."

Taking note of Mr. Bartolucci's statement, the opposition New Democratic Party observed that his reluctance to see a nuclear-waste repository in his back yard made it difficult for Ontario's governing Liberals to justify their pursuit of nuclear power. Less than two months later, the Ontario government's reluctance to commit to new nuclear reactors rendered the question moot.

Mr. Bartolucci said he was simply voicing his constituents' concerns.

Mr. Krizanc said communities willing to have the waste will have to come forward on their own - no one will put pressure on towns to take the spent nuclear fuel.

"We're not going to actively invite communities to, you know, consider being a host," he said. "They would have to invite themselves into the process."

The NWMO's invitation for feedback notes that the nuclear-waste repository will bring "economic benefits, including direct employment for hundreds of people at the facility for many decades, plus many more indirect jobs" to residents of the community that takes the two million used uranium fuel bundles now in existence - a number that will grow significantly if Canada continues to conduct nuclear research and use nuclear reactors to generate electricity.

Right now, the spent fuel is in specially licensed above-ground concrete-and-steel silos on reactor sites.

The plan is to bury the waste deep enough below ground that it doesn't cause harm, but in such a way that it can be retrieved if a better way of storing it is discovered.

The site will require about six square kilometres of open land in an area away from groundwater, heritage sites, mineral deposits or national parks.

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