News in Depth: Defering the Decision on Ontario’s Nuclear Waste Plans

Back in March, we examined Australia’s efforts to find a site for a new National Radioactive Waste Management Facility. In that report, we also highlighted efforts being made in Canada to find a suitable nuclear waste management site, known formally as the Deep Geologic Repository for Low and Intermediate Level Radioactive Waste (DGR). One of the favoured sites, as of May, was the Bruce nuclear plant in Kincardine, Ontario.

This week, we will explore the recent developments in the DGR project, the story of the Bruce site, and discuss what may come next in this country’s quest to solve our waste management problem.

The Study and Approval Process So Far

In May, a report by the Joint Review Panel of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) approved the Bruce site and recommended it to the federal environmental minister, Leona Aglukkaq, saying that the “project is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects.”

For background, the plan at the Bruce facility to build a repository deep beneath the site where “200,000 cubic metres of low and intermediate level waste from the Pickering, Darlington, and Bruce nuclear plants” could be stored indefinitely. The facility would be more than one kilometre from Lake Huron and over 680 metres underground. The Bruce site was selected after years of consultation and assessment undertaken by Ontario Power Generation (OPG). This project is part of a larger movement in Canada to find safe sites in which we can store used fuel.

In 2002, the Federal government established the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) to help guide this processIn 2011, Ken Nash, the current President and CEO of the NWMO, spoke with the National Post about the ethical motivations to finding suitable long term storage facilities that doesn’t simply leave materials above ground,

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…

The Bruce facility planned by the OPG is just such a solution, one that is designed to safely store materials for years to come. However, as the Toronto Star noted, over 152 communities in the US and Canada oppose the site. Local residents that live near the Bruce plant have also voiced concerns. Beverly Fernandez, of the Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump group, has been particularly vocal on the issue of potential contamination of drinking water. In a March report in the London Free Press, she is quoted saying that

There should be no deep geologic repository (DGR) for nuclear waste anywhere in the Great Lakes Basin… locating it beside the drinking water of 40 million people defies logic.

The CEAA report, however, found that the risk of drinking water contamination “would be extremely low relative to current radiation levels in Lake Huron and negligible relative to dose limits for the protection of the public.”

Site proponents and the CEAA report also argue that there are a number of key components to the Bruce site that make it a good choice, including the stability of the rock, the current safety and security infrastructure, and the presence of engineering and construction expertise at the facility.

When the report was released in May, the federal environmental minister was given till early September to make a final approval. However, with federal elections looming in the fall, the decision was recently made to extend that deadline into December.

The Future Challenges Facing the DGR Decision

Some critics argue that the delayed decision is a sign that the Bruce DGR’s future is in peril. Ms. Fernandez, cited earlier as a strong opponent to the plan, thinks that the deferral reflects the fact that “more and more Canadian are expressing deep concern and strong opposition.”

Meanwhile, another local citizen’s group, Save our Saugeen Shores, has filed an application to the Federal Courts for judicial review, asking that the CEAA’s decision to approve the site be set aside. They argue that the panel “failed to consider Canada’s international obligations, was biased and violated the Country’s environmental rules.” 

This recent court challenge, and the continuing public debate, suggests that in the run up to the federal environmental minister’s December decision, every effort must be made to exhaustively discuss both the practical and political, the global and local. This project, no matter where it is located, will have implications on people and the environment for centuries to come, it’s only right that we take our time over the coming months to discuss and dissect the plan piece by piece, so we can make the best decision we can. 

The deferment, as a result, should not be viewed as avoidance. If anything, it is a reflection of the noted complexity of the project. If anything, it gives parties more time to resolve open questions and to hopefully address concerns regarding transparency. These things take time, and more time we now have.

Update (June 29, 2015) – two corrections were made in the article relating to the management of the Bruce DGR project and the to the approval process by the Federal minister. I apologize for the errors and appreciate reader feedback.

Australia begins search for National Radioactive Waste Management Facility

On March 2, 2015, the Australian Government announced that it had opened the process for voluntary site nominations for a future “National Radioactive Waste Management Facility” that will be designed to handle 4,248 cubic metres of low level and 656 cubic metres of intermediate level nuclear waste. The Australian Nuclear Association, in summarizing the government’s proposal, outlined the key objectives of the initial site identification phase which include: community well-being, equity, environmental protection, security, and economic viability.

Australia’s recent past with nuclear waste has been fraught with debate. In 2010, the Australian government passed the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill. The Bill paved the way for what some media outlets called a highly controversial plan to store nuclear waste in Muckaty Station, a northern Aboriginal community.

The Muckaty Station plan fell apart, and in response the government amended the Bill in 2012 with provisions for a new voluntary land nomination process. This shift to a voluntary process, in addition to the increased protection for Aboriginal communities, quelled the initial controversy over the 2010 Bill. However, with the nomination process now underway, the media and public’s attention has shifted to a number of new issues.

In an article posted March 7, 2015, Cameron England of Australia’s Sunday Mail discussed the government’s announcement and the broader political, economic, and social debate over nuclear waste storage in South Australia.  England argues that:

“Currently Australia is only involved in the first stage of the nuclear fuel cycle – that is, we mine uranium and ship it overseas for others to use. Like many other commodities, such as iron ore and wheat, we miss out on the lucrative ‘value adding’ that is involved in making the raw commodity a useful product.”

Citing a paper commissioned by the Committee for Economic Development in Australia, England argues that this involvement in the full nuclear fuel cycle, including reprocessing and long-term disposal, could boost the value derived from uranium by about 250 per cent.

Alternately, Mark Parnell, a South Australian Greens leader, is quoted in the article as pointing out the potential negative impact on public health and tourism in the region and the industry’s lack of development and deployment of small modular reactors (SMRs). In addition, Parnell argues that nuclear’s role in our energy future is uncertain due to the rise of and public preference for alternative energy sources.

Australia is not alone in its current development of nuclear fuel storage plans. In Canada, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), a federally mandated body created in part with Ontario Power Generation Inc. and Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, is currently evaluating proposals for a number of nuclear waste storage sites in Ontario and one in Saskatchewan.

A recent feature article in The Globe and Mail takes a decidedly critical look at the development of a future Deep Geological Repository (DGR) for long-term spent-fuel storage. Another article, published March 9, 2015 in The London Free Press, covers much of the same ground on the issues surrounding the DGR site selection process. This local story, in part, starts in 2002, when the Canadian Federal government passed the Nuclear Fuel Waste Act, which mandated the creation of the NWMO and the development of a waste disposal strategy. The preamble to the Act explicitly calls for a “comprehensive, integrated and economically sound approach” to the management of nuclear fuel.

The Canadian Act, and much of the NWMO’s own goals, mirror the same Australian policy objectives highlighted in the introduction: balancing economic, environmental, and social responsibility. If we can highlight a single take-away from the media articles noted above, it is that industry and government must do anything and everything possible to make the process as transparent and open as possible. That means not just education but conversation, and a balanced approach to discussing not only how important nuclear energy is to our current energy system, but what role it will play in the future. Such efforts can not only shift the substantive outcome of the selection process, picking the best and safest site for nuclear waste management, but also inform and shape the integrity of the process itself.