Learning from Yucca Mountain

The US plan to bury used nuclear fuel deep in Yucca Mountain has been stalled for years, even though the site’s safety has been backed by science. Why?

The United States started with 50 possible sites. It quickly settled on Yucca Mountain, a former nuclear test site in Nevada. The US process lasted only a few years. It didn’t include public consultation, which gave rise to opposition.


There is a Canadian precedent too. In 1989, a commission studied the idea of placing a waste site in the granite of the Canadian Shield. In 1998, after public consultations, the Seaborn Commission said that the plan was technically sound: the waste could be stored safely there. But the commission also found that the idea hadn’t proven acceptable to the public. The Canadian government decided that public acceptability would be a requirement for any permanent storage plan.

Today in Canada, work is underway to find two sites for nuclear waste. One would store spent nuclear fuel. The other would store low- and intermediate-level waste.

Low-level nuclear waste includes mops, brooms, gloves and so on. It is not necessarily radioactive, but the nuclear industry takes a precautionary approach to protect people and the environment. Intermediate-level waste includes used reactor parts, and it is normally shielded from people and the environment.

Leaders of both Canadian projects are mindful of Yucca Mountain and the Seaborn Commission. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization has talked with 21 communities that said they might host a spent-fuel site. After screening for geological suitability, nine remain on the list.

For storing low- and intermediate-level waste, a site has already been selected, at Kincardine, Ontario. A federal government panel still has to approve the location. The panel found the site location and design to be safe – a finding backed by sound science. The panel also held extensive public consultations. As part of that work, the panel hired a group of experts to assess the public perception of risk about the project. According to Dr. William Leiss, who led that group, “This type of work exists in the shadow of Seaborn. It was quite clear that the Joint Review Panel was concerned about social acceptance.”

Kincardine’s mayor, Anne Eadie, agrees: “At the hearings, they really bent over backwards to hear everyone speak, and took any opportunity to hear all concerns.”

Back at the beginning of the consultation process, Kincardine asked its residents what they thought. In a 2005 phone survey, 60% of respondents agreed with the concept and 22% disagreed.

Ten years later, Mayor Eadie says, “The majority of residents still support the DGR. On the whole, they are much better informed, as most of them either work at the plant or have family members there.”

The report by Dr. Leiss’ group makes clear that public acceptance depends on a good understanding of risk. The consultations will continue as the project unfolds.


Why Store Nuclear Waste Near Lake Huron?

Ontario Power Generation plans to store all of the province’s low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste underground, beneath 680 metres of rock and clay at a site near Kincardine, Ontario. This Deep Geologic Repository (DGR) will also be about 1.2 kilometres from Lake Huron. Most Kincardine residents support the idea, but others are concerned.

So, why store nuclear waste there?CN-Tower-Orig

In public consultations, the most-common concern was that radioactive material might seep through the rock and contaminate the lake. But the report from a federal government review panel that studied the DGR says that it would take water about 10 million years to move just one metre.

Some critics fear that an earthquake could change this. But the rock in the area has been undisturbed for a million years. Burying the waste in rock also lessens the risk, because a DGR would not be affected by surface hazards such as flooding.

Critics are concerned about the amount of radiation stored in the Kincardine DGR. However, the Kincardine DGR will not store spent fuel.  It will only store low- and intermediate-level waste. This includes items such as mops, protective clothing, water filters, or replaced mechanical parts. This material is much less radioactive than spent fuel. Also, radioactivity reduces over time. Radiation from intermediate-level waste would fall by about three-quarters over 100 years after closure, according to the Joint Review Panel.

Some people worry about having nuclear waste buried nearby. And some First Nations people think the DGR might reduce the spiritual value of the land, or infringe on their treaty rights. These concerns must be addressed because public acceptance is essential. OPG plans to continue engaging with the community.

As Kincardine’s mayor, Anne Eadie, says of her community, “We live here, we too are concerned about safety, and we love our lake. We’re satisfied that due diligence has been done.”

Dr. William Leiss, who led a risk assessment of four ways to manage the nuclear waste, agrees. He says, “By far the safest option for the low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste is emplacement in a deep underground chamber in the sedimentary rock at the Kincardine site. I believe that it is extremely unlikely that any radiation generated by the waste will ever escape from that chamber.”


What is Nuclear Waste?

When people hear about nuclear waste, they usually think about spent fuel – the uranium that has powered nuclear reactors. Spent fuel is highly radioactive, but it makes up only three percent of the volume of nuclear waste worldwide. The remaining 97 percent is much less radioactive. Even so, all waste needs to be treated with care.

Waste types

There are three main types of nuclear waste:

  • Low-level waste: Every nuclear facility uses cleaning tools (such as mop heads) and protective clothing. These items almost never touch radioactive material, but they’re still treated as nuclear waste.
  • Intermediate-level waste: These are reactor parts, such as water filters, that have been irradiated and become radioactive.
  • High-level waste: This is spent fuel. When fuel is removed from a reactor, it is very hot, and still radioactive. Its radioactivity will slowly decline over time.


Storage today

Canada’s nuclear energy facilities store different types of waste in different ways, depending on how hazardous they are:

  • Most low-level waste is no more dangerous than regular garbage, but it goes into long-term storage as a precaution.
  • Intermediate-level waste is kept in containers made of materials that block radiation (for example, lead). In storage, the radioactivity of these items slowly declines.
  • High-level waste is placed in a pool of water for five to ten years, which allows it to cool. Then it goes into special storage containers made of thick concrete and steel. Over time, the level of radiation declines, but the fuel will remain too radioactive to be safe for direct exposure to people and the environment for many years.

Storage for the future

Storing waste on-site, above ground is safe, but requires ongoing monitoring and security. An alternative way to keep nuclear waste safe is to bury it deep in the ground, in dry rock that is safe from earthquakes.

A federal government panel has recommended that the government approve a plan to bury low- and intermediate-level waste at a site near Kincardine, Ontario. As well, the government has approved a nuclear industry plan to find a site to store spent fuel. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization is reviewing sites that have both the right geology and a willing host community.


Talking Nuclear with Socrates

By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

A July 6 posting (“The future: No doomsday cult required”) noted some of the baggage one can find among advocates for new energy systems. Such evangelism tends to be connected to long-developed beliefs about the unsustainability of our moral and spiritual culture and/or the profit-based corporate world and/or our environmental practices.

As advocates for nuclear energy, we’re often not just in a conversation about energy. Sometimes we’re really on the fringes of a bigger battlefield that’s shaped by hundreds of years of ideology. And the views of those we’re talking to reflect that. As they see it, humans are self-destructively selfish and materialistic. We’re now a plague on the planet (two-thirds of respondents agree with this statement!).   Profit-obsessed corporations have made us that way, and capitalism is rapidly failing.  This is why our energy systems have to change, and fast.

As advocates in the public policy space, our conversations sometimes have either to work around or get beyond these unstated, perhaps unconscious views. The July 6 posting wrapped up by saying that we can do this. How so?


The Greek philosopher Socrates gave his name to a method. It involves asking respectful questions about another person’s thinking, in a way that may induce them to think more deeply about those beliefs and possibly discover for themselves what underlies them. That can lead anyone to more sound and balanced beliefs.

Based on a few chats from this summer (with a bohemian environmentalist, a solar energy salesman, a climate campaigner, and others), here are questions that might be used constructively in the conversations we’re likely to have about energy systems.

Why do you believe that? Did you accumulate some evidence, or is this an intuitive belief?

What’s the objective you’re trying to achieve with what you’re proposing? For example, do you hope to (a) reduce GHG emissions? (b) reduce land use or some other environmental impact? (c) reduce costs? (d) become independent of the public electricity grid? (e) some other purpose?

You express a view about future energy use (or production). Is this view something that you think will happen, or should happen, or both? What forces favour it happening, and what obstacles are in the way?

What investments need to be made for what you propose to happen? Who do you think should make those investments? If this happened quickly, wouldn’t some of society’s existing investments be made uneconomic (“stranded”)? Who would bear that cost?

You expect certain new or improved energy technologies. How ready are those technologies today? How sure are you that they will materialize? What kinds of scaling-up, testing, standardization, and cost reductions will be required in order for them to be widely adopted? How fast is the technology we currently use being replaced? Considering all these factors, how long might it take until most people use the technology you foresee?

Why are you so sure the electricity grid should change to become less centralized, or should be broken up altogether? How does the system currently fail to deliver the result you want?

What benefits do you expect, for yourself and for others, from selling power into the grid, or from going “off grid” entirely? What will be the effect on those who are not able to do these things, who must stay in their current relationship to the power grid?

Asking these questions doesn’t demand that the other side sit still and listen to your point of view. Rather, it shows interest in exploring the other side’s viewpoint, as well as willingness to take it seriously. Asking such questions helps the other side to probe, to question seriously and perhaps to improve, what it says it thinks.



Environment Guest Blog Nuclear Energy

Talking Climate Change at WiN Global

Heather Kleb
Heather Kleb

By Heather Kleb
WiN Canada

In late August 2015, I had the pleasure of joining more than 400 Women in Nuclear (WiN)–Global members, from over 60 countries, at our annual conference in Vienna, Austria. Hosted by WiN–IAEA at the offices of the United Nations, the conference featured sessions on: medical use of radiation, safeguards and non-proliferation, nuclear security, and energy, environment and climate change.

Agneta Rising
Agneta Rising

One of the highlights of the conference was a climate-change panel with representatives from six countries. Among them was the Director General of the World Nuclear Association, Agneta Rising. Ms. Rising reminded participants of how quickly nuclear ramped up in the 70’s and that only one country (Germany) is now phasing out nuclear. This important context needs to be included in any discussion of the future of nuclear, and its role in mitigating climate change.

Climate change was also the focus of discussions during the WiN–Global board and executive meetings, where board members agreed to call for member support of a “Declaration of Nuclear for Climate.” The Declaration, which builds on the May 2015 agreement signed by 39 nuclear associations and 50,000 scientists from 36 countries, supports Nuclear for Climate’s global initiative to recognize the contribution of nuclear as a solution to climate change.

The WiN–Global declaration further reinforced that any discussion of low-carbon solutions that excludes nuclear is incomplete. Members of WiN-Canada were among the signatories to the Declaration, which requested that the “UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) Protocols recognize nuclear energy as a low-carbon energy option, and that it be included in its climate funding mechanisms, as is the case for all low-carbon energy sources.”


What’s it Like to Work Inside a Nuclear Power Plant?

The planned refurbishment of 10 of Ontario’s nuclear reactors is going to help keep electricity prices low in Ontario. It’s a big project that will take 15 years to roll out – and it’s expected to create more than 10,000 jobs, about 90% of them inside the province. But what kind of jobs are they?

Peter Weekes should know: he’s been at Bruce Power since 1977, and has worked on many of the key projects in running the plant. And the variety is something he likes. “Within the company, there’s a breadth of experience to be gained,” he says. “I’ve alternated my time between engineering, operations, and large projects.”Editorial - jobs

Some of those projects are the restarting of the Unit 1 and 2 reactors in 2012, and managing the replacement of steam generators for the upcoming refurbishment. He retired during the restart of Units 1 and 2, but loved the work so much that he came back the next day as a contractor. “I like working with the people, particularly in planning for the major component replacement for the refurbishment,” he says. “The people here want the refurbishment to go forward – we feel we’re contributing to the future, and we are. We’re extending the reactor’s life and making it better.”

One of the people he worked with throughout his career is his wife, Linda, who was involved in the restarting of Units 1 and 2, and in changing the reactors’ fuel channels. Peter says that she was the only woman in the engineering program at Queen’s in the late ’60s and early ’70s. “It’s come a long way since then,” he says. “It’s a very diverse workforce – gender-wise, ethnically, religion, sexual orientation, and so on.”

But that workforce still needs new talent, he says. “We need to get people into the front end of the chain, so that they’ll be experienced by the time they can lead the projects later on. I see a lot of people from the next generation working here, and it’s rewarding.”

One of that next generation is Matthew Saldanha, who joined Bruce Power in 2013. As a senior technical engineer officer, Matthew is part of a team that manages any design changes to the plant. He works with his mentors to ensure that the plants’ design integrity is kept intact. By doing this, the team is able to protect the stations’ assets and the public.

As a new recruit in the nuclear industry, Matthew says, “It was a little overwhelming, but I had my mentors, and worked with a good group around me. The learning curve was steep, but I wasn’t doing anything by myself.”

Matthew describes relations between the plant and nearby communities as very good. “Most people living in the town work at the plant, and in some way or another the plant touches everyone’s lives. It only brings positive things to this area,” he says. Peter agrees, noting that Bruce Power contributes to the community through social events such as beach parties and golf tournaments, and by supporting charities. And both are very comfortable living so close to the plant. “I would live right up against the fence if that’s where I had to be,” says Peter.

Matthew expects his stay near Bruce to be long too. “I see myself staying here, though probably not at the same job: there’s lots of room to move up, and the company is very receptive to that. I’d recommend it to anybody.” Peter says that the refurbishment has opened up new career opportunities. “I might not have recommended it ten years ago, because the industry had levelled off: plans for the next station after Darlington had been shelved. Now that we’re on the cusp of the refurbishments, I would certainly encourage people to get into the industry. This work will last another generation.”

And even after the refurbishments are done, the plants will keep running for decades, needing skilled people. According to Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, a single nuclear reactor employs about 640 people full-time, with great pay – and Ontario has 18 of these reactors.