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Magical thinking about nuclear waste – but that doesn’t solve the problem

A conversation with Dr. Gordon Edwards: contemporary issues in the Canadian nuclear industry, and a look back at the achievements of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility (CCNR), Montreal, August 25, 2018,   Nuclear waste management: an exercise in cynical thinking., 24 Sept 18, Dennis Riches (DR): Instead of a question I thought we would ask you to comment on something that has been published by an organization called Waste Management Symposia (Waste Management Symposia Inc. ). They are a non-profit organization, but they seem to be something that was set up by the nuclear industry so that different players in the field could get together and talk about waste management issues. They have a symposium coming up in March of 2019

 Gordon Edwards (GE): Well it’s an exercise in cynical thinking……….Of course, the problem is that there’s no way of destroying this stuff. There’s no way of getting rid of it that is technically or economically feasible, so all we’re really doing is repackaging. We’re not getting rid of it, and of course the packages do not last forever, so you can’t eliminate this liability by simply repackaging it and moving it from one place to another. It may be justified on the basis of environmental protection—for example, moving it away from waterways and so on so as to have less opportunity for the material to be dispersed, but once again you really can’t get rid of it. So the with language itself, they talk about “disposal.” Disposal implies that you somehow magically eliminate or get rid of this waste when in fact all you’re doing is reconstituting it in a different form, a different physical form, a different chemical form, but generally not changing the nature of the problem fundamentally.
2. Private solutions for public problemsSo when the last government approached this problem they decided, being Conservative, that it’s better to get private enterprises to look after these things, so they hired a consortium of multinational corporations to solve the problem for us, and in the absence of any policy—the trouble is that Canada has absolutely no policy regarding any nuclear waste except for the irradiated nuclear fuel itself………..

3. Early days: ignorance about nuclear wasteBut if we just back off on all this, the way my organization sees the picture, my organization being the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, which formed in the early 1970s—Well, basically in 1974 we formed, and from our view, the first thirty years of the nuclear age were characterized by a total ignorance about nuclear waste. That is, the public was not informed that there was such a thing as nuclear waste and the decision-makers who authorized the spending of billions of dollars in building a nuclear infrastructure and nuclear reactors were also not informed that this was a major unsolved problem. So it was basically a lie

Nuclear energy was presented as an absolutely clean energy source and people interpreted that to mean, “Hey, no problem. There is no waste.” When it became clear that it is, in fact, the most dangerous industrial waste ever produced on the face of the earth, in the form of the irradiated nuclear fuel, the industry then embarked upon a second lie which was, “Yes, we do have this waste product, the irradiated fuel, and it is very dangerous, and it is essentially indestructible, but we know exactly what to do with it. We know how to solve the problem, and the solution is simply to stick it underground in an undisturbed geological formation and then it’s all safe. We just walk away from it, and no problem.”

4. Belated realization of the problemWell, of course, that was then and this is now, and in the light of experience in the intervening years…  In the mid-1970s there was a series of reports in Canada, the United Kingdom, the USA and other countries calling attention to this nuclear waste problem and basically saying quite plainly that unless this problem could be adequately solved that there should be no more nuclear power plants built. So I call this the nuclear ultimatum. It was really an ultimatum to the nuclear industry: You do not have a future if you don’t solve this problem. And because the industry said that they knew what to do with it, the expectation was that they could solve it in ten or twenty years. It would only take ten or twenty years……….

DR: But it seems like they want to keep up the impression that the solution is being worked on. It’s underway. As long as they can keep doing that, the nuclear plants can keep running.

GE: That’s correct, and people have been bamboozled by this empty promise really, and of course it’s become increasingly clear. There have been eight attempts in the United States to locate a high-level waste repository, all of which have failed. There have been two underground repositories in Germany which have failed, for low-level and intermediate-level waste. There’s no facility anywhere in the world which is operational for high-level waste, although there are some that have been built like the one in Finland, for example, near Olkiluoto.

5. Barbaric plans for nuclear wasteAnd now we have this consortium of private companies that has come into Canada to deal with not the irradiated nuclear fuel, but the decommissioning waste and the other post-fission waste, and they have come up with what we consider to be barbaric suggestions.One of them is to, just less than one kilometer from a major river—the Ottawa River which flows into the St. Lawrence River and which comes right down here to Montreal flowing through the nation’s capital—they wanted to build a gigantic mound, basically a surface facility, which is simply a landfill, nothing more than a glorified landfill, and put all the low-level and intermediate-level waste into this one facility which would be five to seven stories high and cover an area which would be equivalent to 70 major-league hockey rinks, and this would basically have no solidity to it. It would be just a mound, an earthen mound of radioactive waste, about million cubic meters.

There has been a massive outcry over this. For example, the twenty-eight communities which make up the municipality of Montreal, as an agglomeration of municipalities, have all come out unanimously against this project. And there are over a hundred municipalities up and down the Ottawa River.

DR: How about Ottawa itself?

GE: No, not Ottawa itself, unfortunately. Most of the opposition has come from the Quebec side of the border. There has been far, far less opposition on the Ontario side. Of course, Ontario is also largely dependent upon nuclear power and so that may be the reason why.

We do not find that Canada has produced any enviable plans for nuclear waste disposal. On the contrary, we feel that they’re setting a terrible example for the rest of the world, and we are fighting to stop it cold in its tracks. We actually had a press conference just last week in Ottawa, just the last few days, in fact, and a march and a demonstration and so on, calling upon the federal government to stop these plans which are underway right now.

6. In situ abandonment of nuclear facilitiesIn addition to piling up the waste on the surface, as I was mentioning, in a huge mound, they’re also planning to take four prototype nuclear reactors, or at least two of those four (they haven’t talked about the other two), and use a process of entombment whereby they will simply dump all the radioactive waste from the reactor itself into the sub-basement and then flood the interior of the building with concrete and turn it into a concrete mausoleum, very close to various rivers, including the Ottawa River, and the Winnipeg River in Manitoba. This they call in situ decommissioning. What it means is that you are taking a facility which was originally licensed to house a nuclear reactor, and you’re turning it into a permanent nuclear waste repository, even though it was never chosen with that in mind. It never went through the examination, the scrutiny, and the qualification that would be associated with a permanent waste repository. And yet that’s what they’re planning to do: just wave their magic wand and turn it from a reactor into a waste repository. We are totally opposed to this, and we’re mobilizing citizen opposition to it……….

7. Wrong people in charge, telling rather than consultingThe nuclear industry wants to abandon these wastes because they cannot possibly look after them for the period of time we’re talking about. Who can really? But we feel that they’re the wrong people to be in charge of this because they have a clear conflict of interest, and this conflict of interest manifests itself in many different ways.

There has been no consultation with Canadians to arrive at these plans. These plans have been announced, and then there have been meetings to inform the public of what they’re planning to do, with no opportunity to change those plans other than to criticize them. Basically it is regarded as a fait accompli.

DR: Yeah, in Japan they call those setsumeikai—explanatory meetings, which means it goes in one direction—we’re explaining to you what’s going to happen.

GE: Yeah. This is by no means a consultation. And we’re calling upon the Canadian government to actually stop these plans and to launch true consultations with Canadians and with First Nations, and to follow up on the recommendations that have been made by several independent bodies in Canada, all of which have recommended that there should be a nuclear waste agency completely independent from the nuclear industry and which has on its board of directors major stakeholders, including First Nations people, in order to ensure that the sole efforts of this organization should be the protection of the public and the environment, and not the furtherance of the nuclear industry, the promotion of expansion of the nuclear industry, which is what the consortium is interested in……….

September 26, 2018 - Posted by | Canada, wastes

1 Comment »

  1. Great article. Loved this passage “Take a simple example like Polonium 210 which was used to murder Alexander Litvinenko, and which will breed into the irradiated fuel as time goes on… According to the Los Alamos nuclear laboratories (it’s on their website), this material is 250 billion times more toxic than cyanide. That’s a staggering concept. In fact, nobody can wrap their mind around that, really. 250 billion times more toxic?! Theoretically that means that if you had a lethal dose of cyanide, and you had the same amount of Polonium 210, the cyanide could kill one person. The Polonium 210 could kill 250 billion persons. That’s amazing. How do you possibly wrap your mind around that?”

    This is what I have been saying, as a toxicologist for years. How is it so hard, for so many, to get this through their heads? It goes across such a wide spectrum of radionuclides that are acutely lethal to billionths of grams?

    Comment by Ken | September 26, 2018 | Reply

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