Monday, August 8, 2011

Nuclear Waste to be Transported through Greater Sudbury?

An interesting article appeared in last Friday’s edition of the Sault Star. It seems that two northeastern Ontario communities are in the running to host Canada’s first underground permanent burial site for radioactive nuclear waste. Now, most people might think hosting this kind of site would have to done against any community’s will, but the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), in charge of site-selection, has actually been working with a number of Ontario communities (and a few in Saskatchewan) which have expressed a willingness to accept spent fuel rods from Canada’s nuclear plants.

A few years ago, the NWMO people were in my community hosting an open house. I didn’t attend, but I understand that many in my community were initially against the idea. I found this clip from The Northern Life about the 2009 open house: “Sudbury unlikely to host nuclear waste facility”, along with this article from the Sudbury Star, “No plan to bury nuclear waste in Sudbury, agency says”.

The long and short of it for Sudbury has been that although a storage site on the Canadian Shield would be ideal from a long-term storage perspective (due to the Sheild’s geologic composition, and it being relatively free of tectonic pressures), burying nuclear waste in proximity to mineral deposits such as those found in the Sudbury basin could create issues for mineral extraction. Better to create an underground storage facility in locations where mineral extraction isn’t expected to occur. So that eliminates Sudbury and places like Timmins and Kirkland Lake from the running.

According to the Sault Star, Hornepayne, along with the municipality of Wawa, are two communities in the northern part of Algoma District which have expressed an interest to the NWMO about playing host to Canada’s nuclear waste materials (see: “Hornepayne, Wawa enter nuke burial discussions”). At stake is somewhere between $16 and $24 billion of infrastructure improvements to whichever community is eventually chosen by the NWMO, as well as medium-term construction jobs (as such a facility will likely take several years to construct) and a number of well-paying operating jobs. There aren’t many specifics at this time, as the NWMO believes that operation of the facility is still at least 20 years away, and that a community likely won’t be chosen for 7-10 years.

The northwestern Ontario communities of Ear Falls, Schreiber and Ignace, along with two communities in northern Saskatchewan, are also in contention.

Ontario Power Generation (OPG) has a great brochure on the transportation of radioactive materials (see: “Radioactive Materials Transportation”). Although spent fuel bundles are much more of a radioactive risk than the kinds of low-level waste currently being transported around Ontario by OPG, it would seem to make sense that similar safety precautions are exercised by Canada’s nuclear industry when it comes to transporting the fuel rods. Used fuel rods are currently housed on site, outside of the reactors in which they are produced. Even when a long-term storage facility is constructed, used rods won’t go straight from the reactor to the facility; they’ll continue to be housed on site for a period of years, in order to cool.

What I found interesting is that the OPG has been safely transporting radioactive materials around the province for the past 40 years, to the tune of about 800 shipments a year. No incidents have been reported. It seems that most shipments of low and intermediate radioactive materials are headed for the OPG’s Western Waste Management facility in Kincardine, Ontario, near the Bruce Nuclear Power station.

As one would expect, safety is foremost in the minds of those handling the transport of radioactive materials, according to the OPG. Emergency Plans are in place along all routes, just in case.

Interestingly, although Canada’s nuclear industry is 40 years old, we have not yet come to terms with how best to dispose of the most egregious and radioactive by-products of the industry. From my readings, it appears that this situation isn’t unique to Canada: no long-term storage facility for spent fuel bundles appears to have been constructed anywhere in the world, although a community in Sweden has recently begun to. So, although we’ve been managing the low and intermediate waste generated from nuclear power plants, there remains no plan on what to do with the really bad stuff.

Hopefully this doesn’t come as a surprise to you, given that spent fuel bundles have been in the news a lot this year. In Japan’s Fukushima Daichi plant, the meltdown was said to have occurred as a result of the overheating of spent fuel rods being stored at the reactor. They couldn’t be cooled down, due to power loss and structural issues with containment pools, which led to a partial meltdown. It seems that the Japanese nuclear industry was reluctant to be completely honest with the its government (and the rest of the world) about the specific sequence of events which led to the meltdown, and for a number of days, even denied that there was a meltdown.

And there may be more to this story yet which the mainstream media hasn’t been following up on, as reported on August 4, 2011, in the “Japan’s Fukushima catastrophe brings big radiation spikes to B.C.” Reports about other nuclear leaks and minor incidents have been all over the alternative media since the Japanese tsunami. That the nuclear industry seems to first resort to information management and spin at the time of a nuclear incident has led to increasing public distrust with the industry.

Earlier this summer, Germany announced that it would shut down its nuclear reactors ahead of schedule. Italy decided that it would no longer pursue nuclear options. Here in Ontario, however, the government and the opposition have both reaffirmed our province’s commitment to nuclear energy. It seems that we can expect to continue to make a contribution to the production of highly radioactive materials well into the century, even without a plan for their storage. Any plan which will be developed, however, is likely to have an impact on my own community.

Currently, the OPG transports nuclear materials by road, rail and ship. If nuclear materials are going to be transported from southern Ontario’s nuclear facilities, there’s a good chance that they may be transported through Greater Sudbury, as the quickest and most direct routes from the south to Wawa, Hornepayne and other northwestern Ontario communities in the running lead directly through Greater Sudbury. Whether it’s the Highway 69 north / Highway 17 west route, or the CN or CP rail, Greater Sudbury could potentially be one of those cities along the route for which the OPG would need to engage in emergency planning.

While it may be that shipping materials out of Kincardine directly to an existing deepwater port in Wawa would prove to be an easier route (despite having to travel to through the Sault Locks), it’s worth pointing out that Hornepayne is located on the CNR mainline, and is directly accessible from Sudbury and southern Ontario. Wawa can be accessed via the Algoma Central Railway and a spur line into that community.

What’s clear right now is that these issues of transportation aren’t being discussed by the NWMO in the same manner that host communities are being assessed. Certainly, the transport of waste to a host community will help inform the site selection process. But what of communities along the preferred routes? Will they have any say in which community is eventually chosen?

Until these questions are answered, it seems to me that maybe Greater Sudbury still has a little something to remain concerned about when it comes to the disposal of Canada’s most radioactive nuclear wastes. Perhaps it’s time to begin asking some of these questions, before the site selection process is completed.

Although the nuclear industry likes to trumpet its safety track record, the world’s experiences with Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima have left many concerned about the industry’s long-term viability.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

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