Hidden costs of nuclear energy
We have no way to dispose of nuclear waste.

Dateline: Tuesday, January 23, 2007

by Charles Caccia
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty might have hoped that the issue of burying nuclear waste would remain, um, buried. But it shot back to the surface when federal Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion said this week that he has yet to see a convincing disposal plan for nuclear waste. Mr. Dion is right to raise this fundamental issue, especially before Mr. McGuinty proceeds with a megaplan to build more nuclear plants and create more radioactive nuclear waste.
Nuclear waste disposal is a federal responsibility. Ontario is not the only province with nuclear waste waiting for disposal. New Brunswick and Québec have the same problem, but Ontario has most of the 1.8 million bundles of nuclear waste stored temporarily in large water pools at power plants. Since November of 2005, when the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) delivered a report about disposal options, the matter has been waiting for a final decision from the federal government. The question is not just finding communities willing to accept nuclear waste disposal sites in their midst, but also whether Canadians are willing to accept the transport of nuclear waste through their communities to the final destination.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, in its l995 report on nuclear power, observed that "nuclear waste should be treated in a manner not to impose too heavy a burden on future generations." But what yardstick should be applied in determining "too heavy a burden"?
The Seaborn Panel concluded in 1998 that, while technical difficulties can be overcome in finding the appropriate burial technology, a thorny social and political issue is posed by reluctance (or downright opposition) to accepting nuclear waste in one's backyard. The panel's report raised so many questions that, in 2002, the federal government created the NWMO. Its mandate: to conduct a study of approaches for the long-term management of used nuclear fuel, to recommend a preferred approach to Ottawa, and to implement the approach approved by the government.
Federal government has yet to decide on thorny issues such as transportation and storage, as well as long-term safety.

The Nuclear Fuel Waste Act requires the NWMO to study at least three methods: deep geological disposal, storage at nuclear reactor sites, and centralized storage, either above or below ground, so as to accommodate the 1.8 million used nuclear fuel bundles and the 85,000 additional bundles that are generated each year.
The act requires nuclear waste producers Ontario Power Generation, Hydro-Québec, New Brunswick Power and Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. to create trust funds to ensure money is available to implement the selected approach. The initial payments required by the act from the four companies totaled $550 million, to be followed by annual increments of $110 million. The NWMO will use these funds in the implementation phase.
Nobody actually knows the full cost of the nuclear power cycle, from start to decommissioning and waste disposal. All we know for sure is that the proponents of nuclear energy are usually to be found at the provincial level, while the responsibility for safe, final burial of nuclear waste rests with the federal government.
The NWMO's preferred option in its 2005 report to the federal government called for "the construction of permanent facilities early in the implementation process in order to ensure that this generation has provided for viable, long-term management facilities to reduce the burden on future generations." It also calls for an extended period of flexibility, of about 300 years, in decision-making, moving from current reactor-site storage to eventual placement in a centralized, deep repository and the potential sealing of this repository. The total time envisaged for waste fuel transportation to destination was estimated at 30 years. How communities in the transportation corridor will respond and how the affected elected representatives will act are big question marks.
The vulnerability of used nuclear fuel is assumed to increase in proportion to the number of trips needed to transport the waste and the distance travelled. The NWMO report also noted the uncertainty regarding the system's performance after the repository is closed over the very long term because advance "proof" such a system works is not scientifically possible, since performance is required over thousands of years.
Then there is the issue of finding a willing host community. The NWMO report acknowledges that "creating a new facility in a new location may create more adverse impacts on communities than leaving the waste where it is." The NWMO intends "to focus on the site-selection process in Ontario, New Brunswick, Québec, and Saskatchewan... and to respect aboriginal rights, treaties and land claims."
The Assembly of First Nations organized a nuclear waste management regional forum in Prince Albert, Sask., in November of 2004. Its report included the observation that "Mother Earth should not have to be the one who sacrifices for the nuclear industry's wants and desires." From this and other reports, one cannot be optimistic about the prospects of aboriginal peoples' acceptance of nuclear waste.
With this background, there are at least five outstanding issues relating to nuclear waste disposal:
The cost of burial is only an estimate.
The price currently charged for electricity covers, at best, only partially the burial costs of nuclear waste.
The social acceptance of nuclear waste transport and its burial is far from secure.
The political will necessary to decide on and proceed with an implementation policy stretching over several hundred years from start to finish is hardly evident.
Is it fair to saddle future generations with the economic burden of the transport/burial procedures?

It is understandable that Mr. McGuinty might have felt somewhat awkward when Mr. Dion raised the thorny problem of nuclear waste disposal. But, in the public interest, Mr. Dion has raised an issue that is long overdue for a thorough public discourse.
Charles Caccia is a senior fellow with the Institute of the Environment at the University of Ottawa. He was chair of the House of Commons standing committee on the environment and sustainable development and, in 1983-84, the federal environment minister in the Liberal government.
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