Ontario Power Generation's nuclear waste assessment panel: Mission impossible?

Image: Flickr/thierry ehrmann

Weaknesses in Ontario Power Generation’s (OPG) current proposal for burial of nuclear wastes are becoming increasingly evident as an environmental assessment Panel moves into its final days of hearings.

Ontario Power Generation is seeking approval to put low and intermediate level wastes from its nuclear reactors, currently stored above ground at the Bruce Nuclear Power complex adjacent to Lake Huron, into a new "Deep Geological Repository" (DGR) on the Bruce site, to be dug several hundred meters into limestone and shale rock. Interveners at the hearings have warned of risks that radiation would leak from the repository and permanently contaminate the lake.

OPG seems unwilling to engage in an open discussion of the pros and cons of geological disposal, what nuclear wastes would go into a DGR, or why it should be built next to one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes.

The Panel is struggling to get answers to basic questions such as: what is the rationale for moving the wastes at this time? Are there any imminent risks if the wastes are left at the surface? Would a tornado at the Bruce site cause the wastes to be dispersed?

There is little doubt that OPG’s nuclear investments are proving to be a costly legacy. Managing radioactive wastes over the long term remains a stubbornly intractable problem. Public confidence in the safety of nuclear power has plummeted owing to the ongoing Fukushima disaster. Industrial power demand is decreasing as manufacturing industries leave the province. The Ontario government recently announced that it has abandoned plans to build new reactors at OPG’s Darlington site.

Shutdown of ageing reactors at the Pickering Nuclear Power Station, now scheduled for 2018, will generate large additional amounts of radioactive wastes. Interveners at the Panel hearings have asked why OPG did not address reactor decommissioning wastes in its DGR proposal. The answer -- that decommissioning wastes might be considered for DGR burial at future licensing hearings before the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission -- has interveners crying foul.

If different types and amounts of wastes can be put in a DGR after it is built, will OPG also later seek to bury high-level nuclear fuel wastes at the Bruce site?

Although fuel wastes are the subject of a separate process led by the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), created by a federal act in 2002, it is hard to distinguish between the NWMO and OPG at the current Panel hearings. NWMO representatives often answer questions posed by the Panel to OPG.

Under federal law, all Canadian utilities with nuclear reactors must pay into a fund managed by the NWMO, making OPG -- and hence Ontario ratepayers -- by far its largest funder. The NWMO itself is seeking to build a DGR for high-level waste fuel rods and is entertaining proposals from municipalities located close to the Bruce facility.

The Panel has ruled that issues related to management of high-level wastes are outside its mandate, but this has not stopped interveners from pointing out the confusion and duplication of effort arising from two DGR proposals -- one for low and intermediate level wastes, and the other for nuclear fuel wastes.

Interveners have noted that managing fuel wastes is one of the riskiest parts of the nuclear power cycle, and should be the top priority for nuclear waste management. After being removed from a reactor, irradiated fuel rods generate massive amounts of heat and radiation. They must be actively cooled and kept sufficiently isolated from one another to prevent fires and nuclear explosions.

For example, the nuclear fuel wastes currently stored on top of Fukushima Unit 4, which was partly damaged in the 2011 disaster, are a top global concern. Until they can be moved to a safer location -- a difficult and delicate operation -- risks of a massive new release of radiation from the crippled nuclear complex will be high.

The DGR Panel seems to be doing its best to sort through these complex nuclear waste problems, and the specific role that might be played by a DGR. But OPG’s contributions often seem designed to obscure the issues.

In environmental assessment of the DGR, OPG declined to examine alternatives to a geological repository, to consider impacts of a possible accident at the Bruce site or to consider risks of transporting wastes from other reactor sites. Dr. Peter Duinker of Dalhousie University, contracted by Panel to perform an independent review of OPG’s environmental impact statement, concluded that the analysis it embodies is not credible, not defensible and not reliable.

OPG has succeeded in getting elected officials in local municipalities (whose economies have benefited greatly from jobs at the Bruce site) to endorse its DGR proposal. But opposition is growing from other Great Lakes communities: many have passed resolutions opposing the project.

While OPG may have its reasons for wanting a DGR at the Bruce site, it is not stating them clearly, making the Panel’s job of reaching conclusions on its potential environmental impacts difficult, if not impossible.


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