Closing Pandora's Box
When an earthquake and tsunami hit Japan's Fukushima nuclear complex on March 11, as many as 13,000 highly radioactive spent uranium fuel rods, far exceeding the original design, were crammed into a pool of cooling water at the No. 4 Reactor Building.
Without a circulating system to keep the water at about 30 C, heat from the nuclear waste would cause the water to boil, exposing the fuel rods — and their drop-dead radiation — to the atmosphere and anyone unfortunate enough to be nearby.
About an hour into the catastrophe, the power went out and the water's temperature began rising. In a desperate bid to keep things cool, lead-shielded miliary helicopters scrambled to dump sea water onto the reactors and the complex's storage pools.
Over the next two days, workers on the ground took the extraordinary step of venting highly radioactive and combustible hydrogen gases into the atmosphere from the No. 1 and No. 3 reactor buildings to prevent them from detonating and releasing even more radiation. As the world would soon learn, their efforts fell short.
On March 15, another hydrogen explosion blew the roof off No. 4. With the reactor off-line for maintenance, experts concluded the spent fuel rods had burst into flames and were spewing terrifying amounts of radioactive gases and particulate into the environment.
New evidence suggests the spent fuel was not to blame for the explosion, which helped spread radiation over a large swath of northern and eastern Japan. Still, Fukushima, which held 40 years of spent fuel waste, has brought the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle into sharp relief.
At the end of 2009, there were about 240,000 tonnes of spent civilian fuel worldwide, most of it at reactor sites. In Canada, 60 years of splitting atoms to make electricity and medicine, and drive innovation has created 44,000 tonnes of intensely radioactive waste, a stockpile second in size only to that of the U.S.
About 90 per cent of it is submerged in storage pools, where it remains, on average, for seven to 10 years until it's cool enough to be moved to dry storage or other "interim" containment. As the world struggles to find a way to permanently dispose of it, some has been "temporarily" stored for as long six decades.
About 2.3 million used fuel bundles are in temporary storage at reactor sites in Canada, primarily in Ontario, while the industry and federal government advance at a glacial pace toward what is now seen as the best permanent solution — entombing them for eternity in a deep geological repository.
An agency established by Parliament called the Nuclear Waste Management Organization has been tasked with that challenge and hopes to deliver a national repository by the late 2030s.
The organization and other advocates of the plan say the existing, above-ground interim storage at reactor sites is safe, but also say it is imprudent to wait any longer to act. There is an ethical obligation, too.
"We can't just leave it where it is, it's up to this generation to look for something better and not pass on the burden," says Ken Nash, the organization's president.
Fourteen communities in northern and central Ontario and northern Saskatchewan have expressed tentative or active interest in learning more about hosting the multibillion-dollar repository.
Under a federal polluter-pays principle, Ontario Power Generation (OPG), Hydro-Québec, NB Power and Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. make annual payments into trust funds to cover the repository's estimated $16 billion to $24 billion cost. The funds' combined total is approaching $2.3 billion.
Over the short term, the project is expected to pump hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of jobs into a local economy for decades and even centuries to come.
"If you can move them beyond the word nuclear, people generally are interested in learning," says one repository official.
But with extensive geological and other scientific studies required, a decision on a site is at least seven to 10 years away.
And as the process drags on, our spent atomic waste pile grows by about 85,000 bundles a year. If no new reactors are built, the total will hit four million bundles when the repository is scheduled to open in the 2030s. (For costing purposes, 2035 is used as a forecast opening date.)
If Canada's 22 commercial reactors are refurbished for another 30 years, that number will climb to an estimated 5.1 million spent bundles. If 10 new reactors were to be constructed, the projected total is seven million bundles.
"We've opened this Pandora's box with this stuff. What do we do with it?" asks Brenda Murphy, a geographer at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., who has done extensive research and writing on international nuclear waste management and risk-related issues.
The volume of the current stockpile is comparatively small — enough to fill six hockey rinks to the top of the boards. Big cities produce more garbage and other nasty waste in a single day.
But radiation has innumerable intensities and spent nuclear fuel ranks among the fiercest.
Direct exposure to a single uranium fuel bundle fresh out of a reactor is almost instantly fatal. Immersed in water and other mediums, the stuff literally glows. Environmental contamination can be just as dreadful. And the radioactivity from some fission products in spent fuel can linger for thousands, even millions, of years.
The growing global consensus is spent fuel must be utterly isolated from humanity, wars, megalomaniacs, natural disasters, seismic shifts and climate change for up to a million years.
Finland already has a high-level waste repository under construction that it hopes to open around 2020. Sweden, France and Britain are planning similar nuclear vaults.
But is deep geological disposal the safest way to go?
The earliest Egyptian pyramids are about 4,600 years old. Modern humans evolved 200,000 years ago. The science and technology required to thoroughly incarcerate mutant sub-atomic particles and penetrating rays underground for up to a million years will be daunting.
The politics also promise to be divisive and precarious.
To some, the disposal issue is merely a smokescreen for nuclear power expansion and insist the two cannot be divorced.
"The industry's interest is to prevent a moratorium on the building of new reactors, and the way you prevent a moratorium is to demonstrate that you have what appears to be a solution," says Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility.
"Whether it actually is a solution is less important than whether it appears to be a solution so that you can clear the political hurdle."
Several other groups, including Greenpeace, Sierra Club Canada, The United Church of Canada, Energy Probe, Northwatch and the Canadian Environmental Law Association are similarly opposed.
The industry and its supporters, meanwhile, say disposal is all about public safety and, with or without new reactors, existing waste needs a long-term fix.
"The existing situation is quite separate from any expansion of nuclear power," says Albert Sweetnam, OPG's executive vice-president for nuclear projects.
"This is something that the industry has known since it was established and has been dealing with, first on an interim basis (with wet and dry storage) and now this (deep geological repository) attempts to deal with it on a permanent basis."
That is, provided the repository strategy unfolds smoothly, which is not certain given the history of far less contentious nuclear waste disposal plans. The regulatory hurdles alone, including environmental assessments and various licensing stages, are sure to be painstaking.
Don Howard, director of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission's wastes and decommissioning division, says the Nuclear Waste Management Organization will need to satisfy two key elements before any licence is issued.
"One is the (repository's fuel waste) container and how it's going to be packaged. The other is where it's going to be sited, the geology and the transportation routes and all that stuff. How does it all fit together at the end of the day?"
Nuclear nations began seriously exploring long-term, high-level nuclear waste disposal about 30 years ago with the rise of nuclear power generation.
Outer space and sub-seabed disposal were quickly rejected.
The International Atomic Energy Commission has been exploring the concept of above-ground storage that would contain the waste for 300 years or more. It offers security and monitoring advantages, but still passes a burden on to future generations.
That leaves deep repositories in impermeable, geologically stable rock.
The concept received its first real public airing in Canada with a 1977 federally commissioned study known as the Hare Report.
It said Canada urgently needed a comprehensive plan for an operational high-level waste repository by 2000 and, "a piecemeal, hesitant approach to this challenge will not be in the national interest."
That was followed in 1980 with a report from the Ontario Royal Commission on Electric Power Planning, led by Arthur Porter.
It declared, "if progress in high-level nuclear waste disposal R&D . . . is not satisfactory by at least 1990 . . . a moratorium should be declared on additional nuclear power stations."
Meanwhile, AECL, the federal nuclear research agency, studied the issue for a decade and in 1988 unveiled a generic repository plan for used CANDU fuel at a non-specific site.
Spent fuel bundles would be encased in corrosion-resistant containers designed to last for at least 500 years, placed in vaults 500 to 1,000 metres beneath the hard, stable rock of the Canadian Shield and surrounded by buffer materials such as bentonite clay to retard groundwater seepage. Once full, the entire space would be backfilled, sealed and after a time, freed of continuing institutional controls.
Will it work? That debate is set to play out in Canada over the next 30 years.
For now, however, the absence of a specific site is a huge sticking point, says Wilfred Laurier University's Murphy.
"Depending on how you structure your model, you can make anything seem OK. The proof will be, what does it actually look like when they have a real place, with real limitations and real rock and real water flowing through rocks?" she says.
"The devil is in the details. You can have motherhood statements around safety and all those things, but what does it really look like? One of my concerns is that there seems to be a bit of hubris around thinking we can engineer around anything."
And in an age when a proposed municipal dump sparks outrage, opposition to a high-level repository could go, well, nuclear.
"The reason that it has been placeless for the last 40 years is because every time we have tried to attach place to nuclear waste there has been such an eruption of controversy it has been shut down," Murphy says.
Even when a location is chosen and the best computer modelling and performance assessments are complete, the complexities and monumental time scale mean a repository's actual performance over thousands of years is unknowable.
That uncertainty shouldn't be an excuse to leave our generation's nuclear waste for future generations to clean up, says Nash, who rejects any suggestion his organization wants to advance nuclear power.
"It is not driven to create a platform for more nuclear energy, that is not what we're about, it's not what Canadians want," he says. "They want to see this material dealt with because it's there."
The organization was established in 2002 following a decision by an environmental panel led by Blair Seaborn to reject AECL's repository concept.
The mandate of the nine-year, cross-country Seaborn review was controversial from the start. It expressly forbade addressing the issues of a national energy policy and nuclear power expansion.
In his final report in 1998, Seaborn, a former deputy environment minister, chided the government for ducking the issue and said some people found it impossible to define the scope of the nuclear waste problem in the absence of clear national policies on the future of nuclear power.
The panel decided acceptability of the AECL concept hinged on two key elements: broad public support, and that safety be viewed from both a technical and societal perspective.
It concluded, "while the safety of the AECL concept had been adequately demonstrated from a technical perspective, from a social perspective it has not.
"The concept in its current form does not have broad public support, and does not have the required level of acceptability to be adopted as Canada's approach for managing nuclear fuel wastes."
It further qualified its safety endorsement of the technical plan, saying the AECL concept, "has been on balance adequately demonstrated for a conceptual stage of development."
Its major recommendation called for the creation of a nuclear fuel waste management agency "at arm's length from utilities and AECL" to deal with nuclear fuel wastes in the long term.
The government responded in 2002 with the Nuclear Fuel Waste Act, which directed the nuclear power industry to establish, direct and finance the Nuclear Waste Management Organization.
Seaborn's advice that the agency be independent from the utilities was ignored. Nash, for one, is a former senior executive with Ontario Power Generation. The organization's board of directors is dominated by current and former nuclear industry executives appointed by the industry.
Edwards believes the organization is a creature of an industry fighting for survival.
"The people who are in charge of the nuclear waste problem at the moment are the very people who desperately have to convince people that it's not a problem," he says.
Murphy, who has done some work for the agency and generally supports the repository premise, says the organization is being hurt by its industry connections.
"It's not the NWMO's fault, they're a creature of their legislation, but it has meant that it has hamstrung them in terms of their broader credibility, legitimacy."
The Nuclear Fuel Waste Act tasked the NWMO with comparing the benefits, risks and costs of three disposal options: deep geological disposal in the Canadian Shield; centralized storage above or below ground; and continued storage at nuclear reactor sites.
After three years of research and some of the most extensive public consultations ever held in Canada — 150 information sessions and meetings in every province and territory involving 18,000 Canadians and 500 experts — the organization concluded in 2005 that all three options had drawbacks.
It recommended a fourth option — "Adaptive Phased Management" — which the Conservative government endorsed in 2007.
"It's really driven by the values and priorities of Canadians in an open transparent process," says Nash.
The plan is similar to the 1988 AECL repository proposal, but it adds a flexible, phased approach that can adapt to evolving knowledge.
It also expands the geological parameters to include Ordovician sedimentary rock, found in several provinces and territories and notably in central, southwest and eastern Ontario. (The 1977 Hare Report first raised the possibility of siting in Ordovician rock, but said the primary focus should be on the Canadian Shield.)
"We don't go out and invite communities, we do not go and target communities," says Nash. "We build an awareness of the national infrastructure project with community leaders, with leaders of aboriginal organizations, and we leave it to them to decide whether they want to approach us."
The organization has joint research programs under way with 11 Canadian universities as well as international researchers. A project team stationed in Greenland with Finnish and Swedish researchers is boring holes under the Arctic ice sheet to confirm data about the impact on the repository from the next ice age.
Like the Seaborn Panel, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization has no mandate to address energy policy.
"The federal and provincial governments clearly don't want anything to do with energy policy, so we don't really know how big the nuclear waste pile is going to get in the future," says Murphy.
"And if we have a really nice running (repository), does that mean that we're going to be producing nuclear waste for ever and ever? That's the bigger issue, but nobody wants to deal with that question."
Avoiding the issue, further hobbles the organization's work, she says.
"You're never going to get groups that want an answer to that on-board, because if they come on-board with that, they're going to feel co-opted into endorsing a facility that's going to allow the continued production of nuclear power."
Unless nuclear power is phased out, Edwards believes a high-level waste repository will not only widen the problem but increase the potential dangers.
Older spent fuel will go to the repository, but reactor sites will continue producing hot new waste that must be cooled on-site for years before it can be shipped there.
Transporting those bundles creates additional risk. Moving all the fuel from the reactor sites in certified transport containers would take 30 years of daily road shipments, as well as the potential for monthly rail and marine shipments.
Edwards and others also fear the flexibility of the latest plan could lead a future government to decide to reprocess used fuel to recover fresh plutonium rather than burying it. Japan, Britain and Russia reprocess used fuel, but it is hugely expensive, creates its own toxic waste and fuels arms proliferation worries.
As the concerns pile up, the agency is moving along with the task it has been handed. After identifying a geologically suitable site, the organization says a central storage facility would follow, with an option for a possible a 50-metre shallow cavity for interim storage.
Meanwhile, an underground demonstration facility would be constructed to confirm the characteristics of the site before applying for an operating licence from the Canadian Nuclear Waste Commission.
From there, the repository would be excavated to a depth of about 500 metres. Waste would be placed in corrosion-resistant containers and inserted into boreholes. Everything would be wrapped in defence-in-depth measures and have multiple natural and engineered barriers against groundwater seepage and radioactive migration.
Once full, the repository would be sealed and monitored, potentially for 100 years or more. Future society would be left to decide whether to erect some sort of permanent warning about what lies beneath.
The proposed design also would allow future generations to retrieve the waste if, for example, new technologies came along to efficiently recycle or even neutralize it.
The Darlington Nuclear Power Plant as seen at dusk. In Canada, 60 years of splitting atoms to make electricity and medicine, and drive innovation has created 44,000 tonnes of intensely radioactive waste, a stockpile second in size only to that of the U.S. By: Wayne Cuddington, Ottawa Citizen
Sources and acknowledgments:
- Comprehensive Preliminary Decommissioning Plan for AECL's Chalk River Laboratories, Revision R1, February 2006.
- Inventory of Radioactive Waste in Canada, Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Office, Ottawa, 2009.
- Canadian National Report for the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management, final report, October 2011.
- Nuclear Waste Management in Canada: Critical Issues, Critical Perspectives, (UBC Press 2009).
- Spent Fuel from Nuclear Power Reactors, The International Panel on Fissile Materials, June 2011.
- Deep Geological Disposal of Radioactive Waste, (Elsevier Ltd. 2007).
- Canada Enters the Nuclear Age: A Technical History of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited As Seen From Its Research Laboratories, (AECL, McGill-Queen's University Press 1997).
- Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation's High-Level Nuclear Waste, (MIT 2006).
- Nuclear Waste Stalemate: Political and Scientific Controversies, (The University of Utah Press 2007).
- Summary of the Environmental Impact Statement on the Concept for Disposal of Canada's Nuclear Fuel Waste, (AECL 1994).
- The Canadian Nuclear Association
- The World Nuclear Association
- The International Atomic Energy Commission
- The Union of Concerned Scientists
- Asahi Shimbun
- The Japanese Times