Signs indicating the presence of radioactive waste. Image credit: Dan Meyers/Unsplash

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) has just given a green light to the preferred industry solution for disposal of nuclear reactors — entomb and abandon them in place, also known as “in-situ decommissioning.” This paves the way for the introduction of a new generation of “small modular” nuclear reactors or SMRs.

SMRs bring many challenges, including safety of untested designs, nuclear weapons proliferation risks, high costs, disposal of radioactive waste, and public acceptance. Groups concerned about nuclear safety are objecting to plans in the works to abandon these nuclear reactors and the radioactive waste they produce once they are shut down.

Over 100 Indigenous and civil society groups have signed a public statement opposing SMR funding, noting that the federal government currently has no detailed policy or strategy for what to do with radioactive waste. Many of these groups are also participating in a federal radioactive waste policy review launched in November 2020.

The Assembly of First Nations passed resolution 62/2018 demanding that the nuclear industry abandon plans for SMRs and that the federal government cease funding them. It calls for free, prior and informed consent “to ensure that no storage or disposal of hazardous materials shall take place in First Nations lands and territories.”

SMR waste includes not only reactor fuel but also the reactors themselves.

An SMR emits no radiation before start-up (other than from uranium fuel) and could easily be transported at that stage. But during reactor operation, metal and concrete components absorb neutrons from the splitting of uranium atoms — and in the process, transform into radioactive waste. Removing an SMR after shut-down would be difficult and costly, and comes with the need to shield workers and the public from its radioactivity.

Abandoning nuclear reactors on site has been in the works for some time. CNSC helped draft a 2014 nuclear industry standard with in-situ decommissioning as an option and then included it in a July 2019 draft regulatory document.

However, when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a peer-reviewed report on Canada’s nuclear safety framework last February, it said in-situ decommissioning is “not consistent” with IAEA safety standards.

The IAEA suggested that CNSC “consider revising its current and planned requirements in the area of decommissioning to align with the IAEA guidance that entombment is not considered an acceptable strategy for planned decommissioning of existing [nuclear power plants] and future nuclear facilities.” It also noted that CNSC is reviewing license applications for in-situ decommissioning of shut-down federal reactors in Ontario and Manitoba, and encouraged Canada “to request an international peer review of the proposed strategy” for legacy reactors.

But CNSC continued to pursue this strategy. Clever language in a June 2020 document appeared to rule out on-site reactor disposal, but left the door open where removal is not “practicable”:

“In-situ decommissioning shall not be considered a reasonable decommissioning option for planned decommissioning of existing nuclear power plants or for future nuclear facilities in situations where removal is possible and practicable.”

At public meeting last June, CNSC Commissioner Sandor Demeter asked: “why are future facilities in this sentence when in fact we should be designing them so that in-situ decommissioning is not the option?” Former CNSC staff member Karine Glenn replied that “leaving some small parts of a structure behind…especially if you are in a very, very remote area, may be something that could be considered.” 

Glenn is now with the industry-run Nuclear Waste Management Organization, tasked with leading the development of a radioactive waste management strategy for Canada.

Commissioners decided to approve the regulatory document, but with added text to clarify where in-situ decommissioning would be acceptable. They asked for additional text on “legacy sites” and “research reactors,” stating that “[t]he Commission need not see this added text if it aligns with the oral submissions staff made in the public meeting.”

But no new clarifying text was added to the final version of the document published on January 29, 2021. It enables abandonment of SMRs — by retaining the reference to future nuclear facilities — and of “research and demonstration facilities, locations or sites dating back to the birth of nuclear technologies in Canada for which decommissioning was not planned as part of the design.”

The CNSC seems willing to ignore international safety standards — and a decision of its own commission — to accommodate nuclear industry proponents of SMRs and allow radioactive waste to be abandoned in place.

Meanwhile, the federal government has assigned the nuclear industry itself — via the Nuclear Waste Management Organization — the task of developing a radioactive waste strategy for Canada. Barring public outcry, that strategy will be abandonment.

Ole Hendrickson is a retired forest ecologist and a founding member of the Ottawa River Institute, a non-profit charitable organization based in the Ottawa Valley.

Image credit: Dan Meyers/Unsplash

Ole Hendrickson

Ole Hendrickson

Ole Hendrickson is an ecologist, a former federal research scientist, and chair of the Sierra Club Canada Foundation's national conservation committee.