Canadian Coalition
for Nuclear
Responsibility



Regroupement pour
la surveillance
du nucléaire

Nuclear Wastes:

What, Me Worry?"

(1987 Addendum)


[ . . . for the Original Version ]



by Dr. Gordon Edwards



Original Version with Addendum
presented to the House of Commons'
Environment and Forestry Committee

February 1987





Table of Contents


Part 1: Perspectives on Nuclear Wastes


Part 2: A Section-by-Section Update

  1. SOURCES OF INFORMATION

  2. REPROCESSING OF SPENT FUEL

  3. DECOMMISSIONING OF NUCLEAR REACTORS

  4. DISPOSAL OF URANIUM TAILINGS

  5. ASSESSMENT OF THE RISKS

  6. SITING A WASTE REPOSITORY

  7. ASSIGNMENT OF COSTS



  8. Part 1: Perspectives on Nuclear Wastes

    Nuclear Wastes and the Flat Earth Theory

    Once upon a time, we humans thought the world was flat. If only it were true: we could just shove our wastes over the edge! But alas, now we know the earth is round. Common sense and bitter experience tell us that pushing our poisons over the horizon is not an acceptable long-term solution. They will eventually return.

    So far we haven't had the political courage to admit that the permanent "disposal" of toxic wastes is a major unsolved problem facing the human race. All proposed "disposal" methods are as yet just unproven conjectures. For instance, the recent explosions of the Challenger space shuttle and two subsequent NASA rockets dramatized the dangers involved in attempting disposal of toxic wastes in outer space. To be accurate, we should talk of "perpetual storage" rather than "permanent disposal" of toxic wastes.

    If we are honest -- and wise -- we will not fool ourselves into believing there has to be a permanently safe, walk-away solution to the toxic storage problem just because we'd like to think so. There are a number of famous mathematical problems which are not only unsolved, but are known to be unsolvable -- that is, completely incapable of solution. Permanent safe storage of toxics could fall into a similar category.

    Advocates of nuclear power do not admit that the permanent "disposal" of nuclear wastes might be a practical impossibility. of course. They've been telling us for years that they already know how to do it. To turn around now and admit that they don't have all the answers, and might not be able to get them, would entail a tremendous loss of face. It would be political suicide.

    These men view waste disposal as a public relations problem impeding the expansion of nuclear power. Hundreds of millions of dollars of public money have been spent amassing mountains of scientific data which can be used to bludgeon the public and the politicians into thinking that the problem is solved. But as Hannes Alfven (Nobel laureate in Physics) has said, "If a problem is too difficult to solve, one cannot claim that it is solved just by pointing to all the efforts made to solve it." What if our best efforts just aren't good enough?

    The NIMBY Syndrome (Not In My Back Yard)

    Although we know the earth is round, we sometimes act as if it were flat. When the US Department of Energy (DOE) wanted to locate a nuclear waste repository in crystalline rock in the Northeast region of the United States, some of the prime candidate sites were very close to the Canadian border. Curiously, DOE maps showed nothing but empty white spaces above the 49th parallel. Apparently, the border was regarded as the closest thing one could imagine to the edge of the earth. What a great place for a dump! Let's just shove it off the edge.

    Similarly, after the Madoc fiasco in Southern Ontario, AECL tried to site a nuclear waste field research station in Northern Ontario, but political opposition was fierce. Northern residents were not pleased at the prospect of accepting nuclear garbage from Southern cities. Unable to win support in Ontario, AECL slipped across the border to build its Underground Research Laboratory (URL) near the village of Lac du Bonnet in Manitoba. From Ontario (where all the nuclear reactors are) Manitoba may as well be the edge of the earth.

    Is it science that dictates that remote, sparsely populated areas are the only ones with the kind of rocks that are needed?

    The Brink of Bankruptcy

    There hasn't been a single reactor sold in North America since 1978, the year in which "Nuclear Wastes: What, Me Worry?" first appeared. Both the American and the Canadian nuclear industries are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Without continued government subsidies both would quickly collapse.

    In 1982, following an intensive internal review of the nuclear industry, the Canadian government published a report entitled "Nuclear Industry Review: Problems and Prospects 1981-2000". On page 1, the report states that, "if new orders are not forthcoming in the next few years, the CANDU option may be lost." The waste disposal problem is explicitly identified as an important factor in public opposition to further nuclear expansion.

    Time is very short for the nuclear industry. Public acceptance of nuclear power is at a low ebb, especially after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. On-site storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel are getting so crowded that many nuclear reactors are in danger of being closed down unless alternative arrangements can be found.

    Against this background, AECL's credibility in finding an acceptable solution to the waste disposal problem is seriously compromised. There is an obvious conflict of interest. To AECL, the survival of the nuclear industry is of paramount importance; environmental considerations are secondary. Public fears must be assuaged at any cost if the industry is to survive. Health and safety are important constraints, but they are not the primary goals of the Canadian nuclear industry. Similar remarks apply to the US Department of Energy.

    The Sky's the Limit

    The nuclear industry wants to be able to move the spent fuel away from the reactor sites -- not to get rid of it, once and for all, but to make room for more. The industry intends to keep on producing nuclear waste into the indefinite future. In fact, there is no ceiling proposed for the total amount of nuclear waste which will eventually be produced.

    Here we have a fundamental discrepancy between the public's point of view and the industry's point of view. To most members of the public, "disposal of nuclear wastes" suggests a process whereby nuclear waste is actually eliminated. By putting it underground, the amount left at the surface of the earth will be steadily reduced and the threat to the environment from such wastes will be permanently and significantly diminished.

    But this is not at all what the industry intends. It is hoped that many more reactors will be built. The production of nuclear garbage will then increase at an accelerating rate. In AECL's Second Interim Assessment Document (vol. 2), a graph shows exponential growth in nuclear waste production from 1980 to 2070. The fuel bundles can't be buried until they are ten years old. A little arithmetic shows that, for the next eighty years (if AECL has its way) there will be more nuclear waste at the surface of the earth each and every year than there was the year before, even if the ten-year old waste is buried as quickly as possible.

    Indeed, nuclear proponents see nuclear waste disposal as a means of relieving congestion in the spent fuel bays of operating reactors rather than as an urgent requirement to safeguard the health and safety of future generations. Besides, they think that spent fuel is too precious to bury in the ground (see section 2).

    "Don't Just Do Something -- Stand There!"

    Because we don't know what the solution is to the nuclear waste problem, or even if there is a solution, we should not allow ourselves to be rushed into doing something we may regret.

    Transporting nuclear wastes, handling spent fuel bundles, reprocessing or immobilizing high-level radioactive materials -- these are all hazardous things to do. Radiation exposures for members of the public and for workers are inevitable. Releases of radioactive materials into the environment are unavoidable.

    Therefore, until we are absolutely certain that what we are doing is best, we shouldn't move the wastes. Although spent nuclear fuel is potentially very dangerous, at present it is not harming anyone. It is not leaking into the environment. It is safely stored in large swimming pools adjacent to the nuclear reactors. It is kept under constant surveillance.

    If we put it underground, seal it up, and walk away, we may be making a dreadful mistake. If the stuff does leak out, by the time we discover the leakage it will be too late to do anything about it. On the other hand, if we keep it at the surface, we can see what's going on and take corrective measures as required. It may be that future generations, far more advanced in knowledge than we are, will invent a method for truly neutralizing these wastes, rendering them completely harmless and eliminating the need for permanent storage.

    The Crunch is Coming

    Some time soon, perhaps by 1989, AECL will try to convince Canadian politicians that geologic disposal is a proven safe method for permanent disposal of nuclear wastes. The gist of the argument will be:

    1. something must be done with these wastes, they can't be left where they are;

    2. if geologic disposal is not the answer, then what is?

      Politically, it will be tempting to accept AECL's argument. After all, it is usually more popular to do something than to do nothing. But in this case, doing nothing may be a more logical choice. Indeed, why not leave the wastes where they are? Why move them at all? What's the advantage of putting them in the ground? Is it simply a case of "out of sight, out of mind?"

      If geologic disposal is not the answer, perhaps there is no answer. or perhaps, within a century or two, someone will discover a completely new principle which can be applied to the problem. In either case, better to leave it on the surface where it can be much more easily retrieved. In the meantime, we can reduce the wastes at the source so that the problem doesn't get any worse.

      That's what the people in the industry don't want to see. If we stop producing the waste, they will be out of business. That's why the industry cannot be trusted to come up with an honest, objective appraisal of the dangers associated with geologic disposal.

      AECL has a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars and a stable of technical experts at their beck and call. Who is going to seriously challenge them when they claim that the concept is "proven" safe? What kind of democracy is it when public money -- our money -- is spent in large amounts to sell the public -- us -- on a scheme of such questionable merit? And how can we expect a well-informed opposition with no comparable resources?


      Part 2: Section-by-Section Update


      1. SOURCES OF INFORMATION

      [ . . . original version ]

      The Government of Canada has put itself in an extremely vulnerable position by concentrating all nuclear expertise in just a few agencies, dedicated to the success of nuclear power.

      As a result, most government advisors on nuclear policy are drawn from the nuclear establishment. Even the Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB) -- the federal regulatory agency -- is dominated by senior men from AECL, Eldorado Nuclear, Ontario Hydro, and other parts of the Canadian nuclear industry. These men have an almost religious belief in the "manifest destiny" of nuclear technology. They openly scoff at non-nuclear alternatives.

      When Prime Minister Trudeau called for an Internal Review of the nuclear industry in May, 1980, he rejected opposition demands for a public inquiry. "The time schedule for keeping our industry viable is very, very short," he said. "We cannot wait for a long inquiry to decide whether we stay in the game or get out of the game." Accordingly, the Federal Review refused to hear from anyone outside the nuclear industry. That was more than six years ago.

      More recently, Brian Mulroney's Conservatives have defied their own election promise to hold a public inquiry into nuclear power.

      By refusing to listen to anyone except those whose careers are predicated on the success of nuclear power, the Government of Canada has in effect allowed the nuclear industry to write its own policies. By putting the entire waste disposal question in the hands of AECL, the Government has, in great measure, made informed debate and responsible opposition all but impossible.

      See No Evil, Hear No Evil

      Reports originating from the nuclear industry, or from government agencies promoting nuclear power anywhere in the world, are invariably optimistic, reassuring, and insistent that the benefits of nuclear technology more than justify any risks involved. On the other hand, reports from bodies having no commitment to nuclear power are often very different in tone: profoundly skeptical, sharply critical, and sometimes utterly scandalized.

      Here in Canada, for example, the British Columbia Medical Association published a 470-page critique of the Canadian nuclear establishment entitled "The Health Dangers of Uranium Mining". (BCMA: Vancouver, 1980). Written by two medical doctors, based on sworn testimony to a Royal Commission of Inquiry, it is a hard-hitting, well-documented report, chock-full of useful information not readily available elsewhere. (Chapter XXII is entitled: "AECB: Unfit to Regulate". The report gives ample evidence of bias and shocking incompetence on the part of top AECB officials.)

      The Government of Canada has studiously ignored the BCMA report. Marc Lalonde, Minister of Energy when the report first appeared, refused to even meet with the authors to discuss the issues. Both AECB and AECL tried -- unsuccessfully -- to get BCMA to distance itself from the report.

      One hopes that the day will soon arrive when the Government of Canada will diversify its sources of advice on nuclear issues, and entertain evidence from all quarters -- not just from those whose livelihood depends on the survival of the industry. The stakes are simply too high to allow for any other approach.

      2. REPROCESSING OF SPENT FUEL

      [ . . . original version ]

      The Early Years

      As part of the WW II Atom Bomb Project, research was conducted at a secret lab in Montreal on the best ways to produce and separate plutonium for bombs. In 1944, a top-secret wartime decision was made in Washington DC to build the world's first heavy-water reactors at Chalk River, Ontario, to demonstrate the plutonium production techniques that had been conceived in Montreal.

      ZEEP, the first Canadian reactor ("Zero Energy Experimental Pile", able to produce only 1 watt of heat), was started up just one month after the bombing of Hiroshima. The larger NRX reactor ("National Research X-perimental", 22 megawatts of heat) was completed the following year, followed by the still larger NRU reactor ("National Research Universal", 200 megawatts of heat) a few years later. For more than two decades, all of the plutonium produced by these and other Canadian reactors was sold to the US and to the UK for military use.

      A pilot plutonium separation plant, or "reprocessing plant", was built at Chalk River in the 1940's. It remained in operation until 1953. In a 1950 experiment involving the extraction of plutonium, an explosion killed three men and injured several others. The experience gained at Montreal and at Chalk River by French and British scientists helped France and Britain later to develop their own atomic bomb programs.

      Some of the liquid waste left over from the Chalk River reprocessing plant was blended with other materials in a crucible and cast into glass blocks. (The rest is buried on-site, in liquid form, in six underground tanks.) The glass blocks, buried in shallow sandy soil at Chalk River, are still being monitored today. This was one of the first experiments anywhere in the world on glassification of high-level radioactive liquid waste.

      A Continuing Interest

      Like other nuclear advocates, the Canadians continue to view the recycling of plutonium as essential to the ultimate success of the nuclear enterprise. However, unlike the Americans, the French, and the Soviets. the Canadians do not believe that "breeder reactors" are either necessary or desirable. Instead, they favour a three-stage "near-breeder" concept using only CANDU reactors.

        In the first stage, spent uranium fuel is reprocessed and the plutonium is extracted.

        In the next stage, recycled fissile plutonium is blended with non-fissile thorium-232 and used as reactor fuel -- creating, as a by-product, uranium-233 (a fissile isotope of uranium which does not exist in nature).

        In the third stage recycled uranium-233 is blended with thorium-232 and used again as fuel, creating even more uranium-233 for further use in the third stage.

      So far, the Canadian government has not approved commercial reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. However, AECL has been instructed by the government to study the disposal of both unreprocessed spent fuel and post-reprocessing high-level liquid wastes. Accordingly, some reprocessing of spent fuel (on a small scale) still went on in Canada as an integral part of the waste disposal research program. [ Note: during the FEARO Hearings process, reprocessing activities at AECL have been halted; but they can be resumed at any time. ]

      Some CANDU fuel has also been reprocessed in Italy. and there is a pilot plutonium fuel fabrication line at Chalk River. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency Bulletin of Summer 1983, the entire Canadian high-level waste research effort concentrates primarily on glassification of liquid wastes left over from reprocessing operations.

      In 1983, AECL tried to sell plutonium reprocessing technology to South Korea. The sale was halted by the American Government, because of the ominous weapons implications. Any country with plutonium reprocessing technology installed is only weeks or months away from having its own nuclear weapons. India exploded an atomic bomb in 1974 using plutonium produced in a small reactor given as a gift by Canada under the Colombo Plan. [ Note: In 1995 it was learned that North Korea has produced its own nuclear weapons using plutonium from reactors. ]

      3. DECOMMISSIONING OF NUCLEAR REACTORS

      [ . . . original version ]

      The Gentilly-1 nuclear reactor in Quebec (owned by AECL) is completely mothballed and ready for decommissioning. This plant only operated for a total of one hundred and eighty days, spread over a period of three years. (It was an experimental CANDU, in which the coolant was allowed to boil, creating a highly unstable situation in the core of the reactor. The safety systems, designed to shut down the reactor whenever dangerous conditions occur, worked exceptionally well -- they shut down the reactor whenever it was started up!)

      However, the Gentilly-1 reactor is not currently being dismantled, despite repeated assurances from AECL that decommissioning a defunct reactor poses no great problems. Nor is Gentilly-1 going to be dismantled in the near future -- despite the Unsworth Report (published by AECL in 1977), which states that total dismantling of a CANDU reactor can commence one year after shutdown. Instead, in the spring of 1986, at a cost of $25 million, the Gentilly-1 reactor was sealed up, so that it can be dismantled later -- in forty years time! (The Unsworth Report predicted that total dismantlement of a large commercial CANDU power reactor -- at least twice as large as Gentilly-1 -- would only cost about $30 million and could be accomplished within a few years following shutdown!)

      By choosing not to decommission the Gentilly-1 reactor, AECL is foregoing an opportunity to display its technical prowess, to silence its critics and to demonstrate to the world that the cost of decommissioning a reactor is within reason. Moreover, business opportunities are being passed up. Anyone developing expertise in the field of decommissioning can market those skills worldwide. The IAEA estimates that more than 100 power reactors will be retired and slated for decommissioning by the end of the century. Decommissioning will become a multibillion dollar business.

      It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that AECL, despite its bravado, simply doesn't know how to decommission a large CANDU power reactor. Precisely because it was a technical fiasco, the Gentilly-1 reactor is far less radioactive than any other defunct CANDU reactor will ever be. If radioactive demolition can't be carried out economically for Gentilly-1, then it can't be done at all.

      The biggest problem is what to do with the large reactor vessel, called the calandria, which Unsworth estimates will remain dangerously radioactive for about 700 years. Will it be cut into millions of tiny pieces for packaging, transportation, and burial as radioactive waste? or will it be demolished using explosives? How does one then control the radioactive dust from the cutting and blasting operations? or is the calandria to be removed in several gigantic pieces, to be transported intact? If so, where will it be taken for burial, what routes will be used, and what exposures will the population receive during transport? Until such questions are answered, one cannot pretend that the solution to the CANDU decommissioning problem is at hand.

      When the small NRX research reactor at Chalk River suffered a catastrophic accident in 1952, the reactor vessel could not be decontaminated. It was eventually lifted out by a crane and hoisted onto a flatbed truck. But the radiation fields were so intense that the entire area had to be evacuated, a relay team of drivers had to be used -- to avoid any one driver getting over-exposed -- and every radiation monitor in the vicinity went off-scale as the truck passed by. Clearly, the calandria from a huge power reactor located in a heavily populated area cannot be handled in quite the same way!

      4. DISPOSAL OF URANIUM TAILINGS

      [ . . . original version ]

      Since 1978, when this CCNR report ("Nuclear Wastes: What, Me Worry?") was first written, much new information has become available on both the health risks from uranium tailings and the technical difficulties associated with their disposal. Indeed, the word "disposal" seems the wrong word to use. We do not really know how to dispose of any toxic materials, least of all uranium tailings. "Advanced dumping" might be a more suitable appellation.

      The largest single release of radiotoxic materials into the environment -- prior to the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986 -- occurred when a huge tailings dam in Churchrock, New Mexico, suddenly collapsed in 1979. Millions of tons of sandy tailings poured into the river, necessitating the wholesale slaughter of contaminated cattle downstream from the accident. The Churchrock dam was a brand new one, touted by those in the uranium industry as a "state of the art" structure. There have been over thirty less spectacular tailings dam failures in the Elliot Lake region.

      A major report from the British Columbia Medical Association (The Health Dangers of Uranium Mining, BCMA, August 1980: 500 pp) graphically highlights the medical risks associated with uranium tailings. The report, drawing on all available medical evidence, worldwide, comes to a grim conclusion: that radon gas and other alpha-emitting substances are far more potent carcinogens than any of the regulatory bodies are willing to admit. In particular, the BCMA report mercilessly exposes the Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB) as so lacking in medical competence, and so biased in favour of the uranium industry, that it is "Unfit to Regulate".

      The BCMA's numerical risk estimates, cited in the report, have received additional support from the US National Academy of Sciences' 1980 BEIR-III Report (especially the Lung Cancer section, which concentrates on radon) and from a 1982 AECB publication, the Thomas-MacNeill Report, which reveals (through a careful and exhaustive analysis of the existing mortality data from several countries) that radon is a much greater health risk at low levels of chronic exposure than the AECB's maximum permissible dose levels would suggest.

      Back in 1979 -- using the older, more optimistic assumptions about radon hazards -- the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) estimated about 10 premature deaths annually among the general public, as a result of radon gas released from uranium tailings in the American Midwest. Using the more recent estimates of the BCMA and the US National Academy, these figures appear to be too low by a factor of five or ten. The actual risk is more like 50-100 deaths per year, spread over distances of several thousand miles.

      Even so, this calculation ignores the fact that as the radon migrates there is a slow but steady fallout of solid radon daughters on the terrain. Fish and game, as well as farm produce, will exhibit higher levels of the radon byproducts lead-210 and polonium-210 as a result. It is already well-known that caribou and reindeer meat contains unusually high concentrations of lead-210 and polonium-210. High concentrations of polonium-210 have also been observed in the edible portions of fish and other aquatic organisms, especially in Northern latitudes.

      Everyone has heard about the radioactive fallout from a nuclear explosion. In a very real sense, a uranium tailings pile acts like an extremely slow bomb, spreading radioactive fallout over vast areas at an incredibly slow but remorseless pace. Unless something is done, these tailings and their radioactive emissions will menace the environment for hundreds of millennia.

      5. ASSESSMENT OF THE RISKS

      [ . . . original version ]

      It is sobering to realize that, during the Chernobyl reactor accident of 1986, only about three percent of the radioactive inventory inside the reactor was released into the environment. Yet thousands of people had to leave their homes forever, reindeer in Finland became too radioactive for human or animal consumption, and vast quantities of farm products throughout Europe had to be destroyed.

      In a 1980 report, the Select Committee on Ontario Hydro Affairs pointed out that a fresh CANDU spent fuel bundle will deliver a dose of about 200,000 rads per hour at a distance of one metre. At this rate, a 100 percent lethal dose would be delivered in less than 15 seconds.

      In a 1978 publication, the US Geological Survey discusses the toxicity of spent nuclear fuel from US reactors. The authors calculate how much water would be required to dilute the Wastes on hand in the US by the year 2000 to the maximum permissible level of radioactive contamination: it works out to about twice as much as all the fresh water in the world! "Even after a million years, the volume of water required to dilute these wastes to the levels specified ... is significant in terms at the water stored in individual major lakes and aquifers."

      The Ontario Royal Commission on Electric Power Planning, in its 1978 report on Nuclear Power entitled A Race Against Time, shows a chart giving the toxicity of CANDU spent fuel as a function of time. The time scale runs from 1 year to 10 million years after removal from the reactor. The chart shows that after the first 100,000 years, the toxicity of the waste is increasing rather than decreasing.

      Overheating of the Wastes

      [ . . . original version ]

      According to AECL's Second Interim Assessment of the Canadian Concept for Nuclear Waste Disposal (published in four volumes in 1985) the temperatures in the waste repository will reach a peak sometime between one and three thousand years after it has been sealed up. The temperature of the repository will eventually return to something like ambient temperatures after thirty to fifty thousand years. They think.

      Disintegration of the Waste Containers

      [ . . . original version ]

      As of this writing, AECL has two contingency plans. The first involves the disposal of unreprocessed spent fuel bundles, which would be sealed in titanium baskets using molten lead, then placed in the repository. The second involves the glassification of post-reprocessing high level liquid wastes. In either case, it seems prudent to expect the disintegration of the waste containers over a period of centuries -- since both metallic structures and glasses are thermodynamically unstable.

      Chemical Reactions in the Waste Repositories

      [ . . . original version ]

      Geological scientists working for AECL have confirmed that the repository will become completely flooded with water in less than a century, no matter how well sealed it is. The heat from the wastes will surely cause convection currents within the flooded repository, thereby facilitating many chemical reactions.

      Integrity of the Waste Repository

      [ . . . original version ]

      When a shaft is sunk into a granite formation and underground chambers are excavated, the shaft and the chambers are at atmospheric pressure, whereas the surrounding rock is at geologic pressures. This introduces a considerable imbalance in the stress field surrounding the repository (which is why the repository must inevitably fill up with water, driven by the resulting pressure gradient). Moreover, the shaft and the chambers will never be restored to the original geologic pressure, no matter what kind of backfill material is used, so the disturbance in the stress field is irreversible. The shaft and the chambers will therefore constitute, in effect, a newly-created fracture zone in the rock formation, enjoying nothing like the integrity of the original undisturbed rock formation.

      Pathways to the Environment

      [ . . . original version ]

      Hard rock formations always contain fracture zones. Within these fracture zones, water frequently flows downwards (from the surface) and then upwards (back to the surface). In other words, the fracture zone acts somewhat like a siphon turned upside down. Now, the repository's shaft is almost certain to intersect some of these fracture zones. Moreover, the shaft itself is likely to behave like a newly created fracture zone leading directly to the nuclear wastes.

      As the heat from the wastes sets up convection currents within the repository, it is entirely possible that the entire system will function as one extended fracture zone -- from the surface to the shaft, from the shaft to the wastes, and then back to the surface again. Because geology is not a predictive science, it will be impossible to predict with any certainty how this complex interactive fracture zone, driven by artificially created heat loads and pressure gradients, will actually function over a period of decades or centuries, let alone millennia.

      Biological Effects of Escaped Wastes

      [ . . . original version ]

      The Government's 1977 Green Paper states that "some release of certain radionuclides is allowed, but no individual will receive a damaging amount of radiation" -- a truly astonishing assertion. How on earth can the authors of the Green Paper, or the experts at AECL, or the bureaucrats at AECB, or the decision makers in Ottawa, know whether or not anyone will receive a damaging amount of radiation?

      In Britain, many years ago, the longest pollution pipeline in the world was built to carry plutonium-contaminated low-level liquid waste from the Windscale reprocessing plant far out into the Irish Sea. This was to ensure that no individual would receive a damaging amount of radiation. But in 1983, a BBC documentary team found that the sand on the beach along the shore of that part of Northern England is all contaminated with plutonium; the plutonium was somehow washed back up on shore. It was also found that cottagers along the coast have unwittingly picked up plutonium dust in their vacuum bags.

      Plutonium is extraordinarily toxic, especially when inhaled. Just a few milligrams of plutonium dust, breathed in, will cause massive fibrosis of the lung, leading to certain death within two years of exposure. A few micrograms -- one one-thousandth as much -- will cause fatal lung cancer with almost 100 percent certainty. In such circumstances, any measurable amount of plutonium is a damaging amount.

      Retrievability of Nuclear Wastes

      [ . . . original version ]

      Permanent, safe disposal of toxic materials is an unsolved problem of the human race. As far as we know, no civilization has ever successfully disposed of anything. For example, dangerous chemical wastes which were long ago "disposed of" by deep well injection have now surfaced in the St. Claire River as "toxic blobs".

      Without solid proof, it would be irresponsible to assume that buried radioactive wastes can never return to the biosphere. Since geology is not a reliable predictive science, it is not even possible to say what would constitute a standard of proof.

      Irretrievable deep storage of radioactive wastes is dangerous precisely because, if anything goes wrong, there is little that can be done to correct the situation. By the time significant leakage has been detected on the surface, it is already too late to repair the damage underground.

      This being so, a strong case can be made for leaving the wastes where they are -- safely stored on-site near the nuclear reactor, under close observation at all times -- until we know for certain that we have a safer location for them. Although these wastes are potentially very dangerous, they are at present not harming anyone. Moving the wastes from point A to point B will multiply exposures as well as releases to the environment (see next heading) besides incurring the obvious risks associated with major transportation accidents.

      Until the human race has figured out how to deal with toxic materials in a permanently satisfactory manner, retrievability should be a cornerstone of Canada's policy on the management of high-level nuclear wastes.

      Transportation and Immobilisation

      [ . . . original version ]

      It is impossible to provide perfect shielding against the intense gamma radiation from spent nuclear fuel. According to AECL's Second Interim Assessment Document (volume 3, page 32), people along the entire transportation route will be exposed to radiation from the truck carrying the spent fuel. These doses are classified by AECL scientists into four categories:

        Psame = dose to people traveling in same direction as truck;

        Popp = dose to those traveling in opposite direction to truck;

        Pmove = dose to all those along transport route during shipment;

        Pstop = dose to people in vicinity of truck during short stops.

      In the same AECL document, it is revealed that there will be routine radioactive emissions to the atmosphere when the spent fuel bundles are unloaded and packaged for disposal. Since some of the fission products are gases, and others vaporize readily when heated, any mechanical defects (pin holes, cracks, blisters, or scratches) in the metallic cladding of the fuel bundles will surely result in radioactive releases during handling. Some of the radioactive gases and vapors will be given off immediately, while some will be driven off when molten lead is used to seal the fuel bundles firmly inside their titanium baskets for burial.

      Among seven radio-isotopes listed by AECL expected to be routinely released during fuel handling, three are isotopes of plutonium. Reprocessing, of course, will result in much greater releases!

      6. SITING A WASTE REPOSITORY

      [ . . . original version ]

      In 1985, the US Department of Energy tried to site a high level waste repository in the Northeastern region of the USA. Hundreds of candidate sites -- all crystalline rock formations -- were chosen for further study in seven states: Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Kentucky, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

      The public outcry was astounding. Many thousands of ordinary people -- not just political activists -- turned out at public meetings. Politicians of all persuasions declared their opposition to the plan. Lawsuits were launched against the DOE by the Attorney Generals of several states on the grounds that the siting criteria were discriminatory. (If waste disposal is so safe, why should "low population density" be a criterion?)

      In the Eastern Townships of Quebec, as well as in Manitoba and New Brunswick, citizens mobilized and protested so vigorously that the siting of a nuclear waste repository in the US threatened to become an international incident. Our Ambassador in Washington made it clear to the Americans that Canada would not look kindly on any nuclear waste dump sited close to the border.

      Faced with such unprecedented opposition, the DOE did the smart thing. It announced that all its plans to site a waste repository in the Northeast region would be put on hold for an indefinite period of time. (The project was postponed, not cancelled.)

      These events have dramatically highlighted a conclusion made in 1980 by the Select Committee on Ontario Hydro Affairs:

        Communities are not likely to easily accept the siting of what will be perceived as a garbage dump for frightening nuclear poisons. It is most likely that governments will have to choose where the unpopular site will be located.

      How are local rights to be protected? How is democracy to be preserved? Are our laws adequate to cope with the conflicts which will arise? The political complexities are compounded by the fact that detailed requirements for siting a waste repository have not yet been laid down by licensing agencies. Without realistic criteria for acceptability, drawn up in advance, there is a danger that whatever the researchers find will automatically be judged acceptable by the licensing agency. (First you throw the dart; then, wherever it lands, you draw the bull's-eye around it!)

      In Canada, people may be effectively disenfranchised by procedural maneuvering. Long before site selection begins, the Government plans to approve the CONCEPT of geologic disposal of nuclear wastes in granite. Then, when an actual site is sought, local residents will likely be told that they cannot take issue with a concept which has already been approved! Anger, frustration, polarization and political turmoil may well result.

      There are major technical problems too. One of the most exasperating is the inevitable trade-off between knowledge and safety. The only way to get reliable information about an undisturbed geological formation is to disturb it. But the more it is disturbed, the less suitable it will be as a waste repository. On the other hand, leaving the site undisturbed also leaves us ignorant of its precise characteristics, making it virtually impossible for us to know just how suitable it may be.

      Manitoba or Ontario?

      Since the Madoc fiasco in Southern Ontario, it has been widely assumed that the first nuclear waste repository in Canada will be sited in Northern Ontario. But during the late 1970's, when AECL tried to do field research related to geologic disposal in Northern Ontario, the political opposition was absolutely fierce. Citizens felt totally excluded from the decision-making process by AECL's practice of meeting behind closed doors with local town councils. In Atikokan, a petition calling for public hearings and a referendum, signed by 17,000 local people, was totally disregarded by AECL -- as was an earlier petition signed by 18,000 people in the Thunder Bay area. The resulting loss of confidence was devastating. It set the stage for AECL's withdrawal into Manitoba.

      At the research level, the only shaft that has been sunk in a hard rock formation in Canada is AECL's Underground Research Laboratory (URL), near Lac du Bonnet, north of Winnipeg.. The URL is located on a 900-acre site leased from the Government of Manitoba on the explicit condition that no radioactive wastes will be placed there. Some Manitoba citizens have misinterpreted this to mean that Canada's nuclear wastes will never be buried in Manitoba. No such conclusion can be drawn.

      It is most unlikely that AECL would want to start all over again from scratch, with a brand new rock formation. when it comes time to build an actual waste repository. There is so much invested in the Manitoba site -- lots of money, much effort and several years -- that it is far and away the most promising candidate for becoming Canada's first high-level nuclear dump.

      The Lac du Bonnet batholith is a gigantic granite formation, hundreds of kilometers wide. While the URL itself won't likely become a waste repository, since it will be drilled full of holes in an effort to get as much information as possible, AECL can very easily choose a site on a different part of the same rock formation. Indeed, AECL's Whiteshell Nuclear Research Establishment (WNRE) sits on the very same batholith as the URL. AECL could therefore build the waste repository on property that it already owns in Manitoba, thus avoiding the need to submit to any restrictive terms which might be contained in a lease from the province.

      AECL spokesmen have repeatedly assured the public that the corporation has no plans to bury nuclear wastes in Manitoba. But these assurances are largely irrelevant -- and not merely because they aren't legally binding. During the Nuclear Waste Issues Conference held at the University of Winnipeg (September, 1986) AECL spokesmen Egon Frech and Robert Dixon admitted under questioning that no one knows for sure where the wastes might be buried, nor can any location be completely excluded from consideration.

      In fact, Mr. Frech revealed at the conference that the responsibility for choosing a site has not yet been assigned to any agency. Since no one yet knows who will do the choosing, any assurances from AECL that the final site will not be in Manitoba are quite without foundation.

      Past experience suggests just how unscientific the site selection process is likely to be. The line of least resistance will be followed, as in so many other aspects of political life. When the US DOE narrowed its list of candidate sites for a waste repository in crystalline rock from several hundred to a mere handful, none of those sites that had sported a population passionately opposed to the concept, made it to the short list: a curious convergence of politics and geology!

      7. ASSIGNMENT OF COSTS

      Research & Operating Costs

      [ . . . original version ]

      Hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers' money have so far been spent on waste disposal research in Canada -- much of it related to AECL's Underground Research Laboratory (URL) in Manitoba. The eventual construction of a geologic repository will cost billions more. According to conventional thinking, these expenditures are totally non-productive, unless some way can be found to make money from waste disposal.

      Accordingly, many people in Ottawa and in the Canadian nuclear establishment are promoting the idea that Canada should accept nuclear wastes from other countries for disposal, charging a suitable "user's fee" for the service. In exchange, Canadians will suffer the added radiation exposures and releases, as well as the risks of leakage, spills, transportation accidents, and long-term corrective actions if disposal schemes prove unsatisfactory.

      Already the US Department of Energy (DOE) is contributing over forty million dollars to the Canadian research effort. Most of this money will be used to extend the main shaft of the URL (which is now three hundred meters deep) to a depth of five hundred meters, where DOE scientists will conduct experiments they have been unable to conduct in US crystalline rock formations because of political opposition from state governments.

      There is another way, theoretically, to make money from nuclear waste: don't view it as a waste product, but as a significant energy resource, equivalent to many billions of barrels of oil. Canadian nuclear proponents believe that spent nuclear fuel is too valuable to bury because of all the plutonium that is locked up inside. They want to reprocess the spent fuel so as to rescue the plutonium before burying the rest of the garbage.

      Although the economics of reprocessing look dismal indeed at present, the dream of a plutonium-powered economy still lives in the hearts of nuclear technocrats the world over. Canada is no exception. A great deal of the basic research done at AECL's Whiteshell Nuclear Research Centre in Manitoba has centered on the glassification of post-reprocessing high-level liquid wastes. A small amount of laboratory-scale reprocessing has also been done there, even during the 1980's. In this way, taxpayers' money which was intended to solve the problem of disposing of spent nuclear fuel has been used to finance AECL's expansionist dream for the eventual emergence of a plutonium economy.

      Because of the inherent conflict of interest situation, whereby AECL -- a promoter of nuclear technology -- has been put in charge of the nuclear waste disposal research effort, there is a very real danger that Canadians will find their money misspent and their wishes frustrated. Instead of simply getting rid of our own nuclear waste, we may find ourselves importing other people's nuclear waste from all over the world. And instead of just burying this radioactive garbage, we may find ourselves reprocessing it, releasing large quantities of radionuclides into the environment and vastly complicating the waste management problem.

      It doesn't require much thought to realize that, in the long run, these short-term schemes for generating revenue from waste may prove to be terribly costly to future generations of Canadians.

      Transportation Costs

      [ . . . original version ]

      A typical shipping flask for spent nuclear fuel is a massive steel-and-lead container weighing between 20 and 100 tons. Because of intense radiation fields, the loading of spent fuel into a shipping flask is performed by remote controlled cranes operating under water. Although drying techniques are subsequently used, there is almost always some residual moisture left in the flask.

      The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has estimated damage as high as four billion dollars (plus thousands of latent cancer-deaths) under conditions in which radioactive water from a shipping flask is accidentally released in a highly populated area. This accident scenario, involving the leakage of up to 154 curies of cobalt-60 in the form of "crud", does not postulate any damage whatsoever to the spent fuel itself.

      In case the cladding of the spent fuel inside the flask is damaged in a really severe accident, much greater releases of radioactivity can occur -- particularly if a high-temperature fire accompanies the accident. As the temperature of the spent fuel increases, significant amounts of radioactive cesium and tellurium isotopes can be driven off into the environment.

      Businesses and property-owners have no financial protection against such accidents because every insurance policy contains a "nuclear exclusion clause" which voids coverage in the event of radioactive contamination. Meanwhile, a special Act of Parliament -- the Nuclear Liability Act -- limits the liability of any party involved in shipping nuclear waste to $75 million maximum.

      For many years, AECL has shipped spent fuel from Chalk River to the US military reprocessing facility at Savannah River, South Carolina. In 1982, the Thousand Island Bridge Authority refused to permit such shipments to cross its bridges unless insurance in the amount of $500 million were provided. AECL tried to divert the spent fuel across the bridge at Sault Ste. Marie, but the Governor of Michigan would not allow it. AECL then sent the spent fuel across Montreal bridges -- with no insurance -- into Vermont, but dozens of Vermont municipalities passed local ordinances making such shipments virtually impossible. Finally, in 1984, the US DOE gave the Thousand Island Bridge Authority a certificate of indemnification for $500 million, and AECL's spent fuel shipments over the Thousand Islands Bridge resumed: "Business as Usual!"

      As noted in section 5 of this Update, there are also routine population exposures during transportation of spent fuel and routine radioactive releases during fuel Immobilisation. The remote handling of ten-year-old spent fuel may very well lead to additional cladding failure, and occasional ruptures, which will increase the releases associated with fuel immobilization -- even without reprocessing. Such releases may substantially increase the cost of transportation and Immobilisation, because of the lingering radioactive contamination of shipping flasks and loading areas.

      The Council on Economic Priorities has produced an excellent book on the transportation and storage of nuclear waste in the US, entitled "The Next Nuclear Gamble", by Marvin Resnikoff. In it, a strong case is made for the cost-effectiveness of using dry storage casks to accommodate spent nuclear fuel at the reactor sites themselves, instead of incurring the expense (and the risk) of transporting the nuclear waste away from the reactor to another site. It's also cheaper to supervise one site than two!

      Tailings Management Costs

      [ . . . original version ]

      In Saskatchewan, the most radioactive tailings from the Cluff Lake mine were not buried underground in carefully constructed concrete vaults with domed, asphalt roofs, as promised during the Cluff Lake Inquiry. Instead, a much less expensive route was chosen. These dangerous radioactive wastes were dumped into several thousand concrete "pots", and stored at the surface. The "pots" were often stacked seven high. By 1985, many of the stacks had fallen over, and many of the pots were cracked and leaking.

      In 1982, the company announced its plans: to remove the tailings from these pots, process them to extract the residual gold from the tailings, and then dump what's left back into the tailings ponds. This will result in the production of radioactively contaminated gold, which will be sold to unsuspecting customers. Meanwhile, most of that concentrated radioactivity, initially regarded as far too intense to be dumped into ordinary tailings ponds, will end up in the tailings ponds after all.

      A front page story in the Wall Street Journal of February 25, 1986, described the 222 million tons of uranium tailings in the US as an ecological and financial time bomb (since the cost of "disposal", once we know what that word means, will surely run into the billions of dollars). With uranium currently selling for less than $20 per pound, and with about 200 million tons of tailings currently on hand in Canada, even a disposal cost of $30 per ton would be prohibitively expensive, making uranium mining a totally uneconomic activity.

      Decommissioning Costs

      [ . . . original version ]

      In 1978, Howard Morgan (a member of the Federal Power Commission under the Kennedy Administration) put it bluntly:

        When a large portion of the structure is too 'hot' to approach, let alone to touch; when dust from demolition or rainfall over it present a spreading deadly hazard; when thousands of tons of radioactive metal and masonry somehow have to be cut up into chunks of practical size for handling, and then sealed away safely for many centuries; when even the most skilled and experienced engineers don't know how to begin; then it becomes obvious that the burial cost of a dead power plant can equal or exceed the already alarming cost of its construction.

      To avoid the cost and the difficulty of total dismantlement, some nuclear proponents speak of "mothballing" or "entombing" a defunct reactor. André Crégut, head of France's decommissioning research program, thinks however that total dismantlement is essential: "Even if we entombed these plants, there is no way to be certain that after 500 or 600 years the protective casing will be physically maintained or properly guarded."

      In 1981, Mr. Sissingh -- the author of an Ontario Hydro decommissioning study -- pointed out in an interview with the Globe and Mail that "after 32 years, all equipment outside the reactor vault could be removed with a minimum of shielding. The reactor would then be disassembled under water by a remote-controlled plasma arc cutter, using teams of workers rotated to keep the radiation doses within permitted limits."

      But work in a radioactive environment can be extremely costly. Retubing two CANDU reactors at Pickering following a 1983 accident will take at least four years and cost about $700 million. In a non-radioactive plant, the job would be easy!


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