Bruce Nuclear Waste Repository: The Wrong Place at the Wrong Time – Part II Technical

Continuing from the previous post let’s look at the technical issues introduced in the just completed round of hearings on OPG’s plan to construct a Deep Geological Repository (DGR) to bury low-level wastes from the normal operations of reactors (those of both OPG and Bruce Power) and used reactor parts with long-lived radioactivity arising from the refurbishment and decommissioning projects of both entities.

Dr. Frank Greening, a retired OPG expert, pointed out that the radioactivity levels in the reactor parts to be stored in the Bruce DGR were a factor of 100 to 600 higher than OPG had claimed in its original safety case. OPG initially dismissed this as unimportant because essentially it didn’t make any difference but later they included it in a revised safety case. This failure of institutional professional expertise was unsettling and raises serious questions about the competence of those who wrote the safety case and especially the CNSC staff who reviewed and approved it.  During the hearings I would have liked to hear someone from OPG or CNSC say something like “we’re sorry we screwed up on this and we’ll try to do better in future” Instead all we had from them was smoke and obfuscation around this point.  Greening later left his wheelhouse ( as the current cliché goes) and made other accusations whose validity I’m unable to judge.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), an underground nuclear waste facility near Carlsbad New Mexico, was held out as a model in the 2013 OPG submissions for the Bruce DGR as the only one comparable to it. The facility has been operated for fifteen years by the US Department of Energy (DOE) to store low level waste from nuclear weapons development work done decades ago at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). On February 14 this year there was a fire at WIPP during which thirteen workers were mildly exposed to radiation with elevated radiation levels detected in the air around it. The cause of the accident is still unknown and WIPP will not reopen until it is fully understood which may take some years.  (The DOE safety case for WIPP calculated that the odds of a radiation accident were one in 10,000 to one in 1 million per year of operation.) Paraphrasing the OPG response at the hearings, it was argued that a similar accident couldn’t happen at the Bruce DGR because OPG’s waste is different and OPG is more careful/smarter/safety conscious than LANL, DOE and the WIPP operators. Both argument s are hard to sustain when the cause of the accident remains a mystery.  If WIPP is a model for the Bruce DGR then a fire or leak deep underground would be a much greater burden on future generations than any other option.  In my opinion the WIPP accident may ultimately kill the Bruce proposal.

The report of the so-called Independent Experts Group (IEG) was supposed to demonstrate that the risks of the DGR were less than leaving the waste above ground or depositing it in a giant granite boulder (pluton) in the Canadian Shield far from any significant body of water. The Panel wanted the IEG to use the well documented DGR prototype that AECL originally developed based on data from experiments in its Underground Research Laboratory (URL) in Manitoba just for purposes of a comparison. Instead the IEG used a hypothetical pluton located on the Bruce site beside the Great Lakes.  This misses the Panel’s point entirely. When challenged by the Panel, IEG members made several unconvincing excuses for this serious gaff. For example, they said they couldn’t consider the URL for comparison because Manitoba had a law against depositing nuclear waste in the province and AECL had declared none would be buried there.  Why either of these circumstances would rule out using the data purely for comparative purposes wasn’t clear.  In my opinion considering the fictional Great Lakes pluton came across as rather foolish.  Any numbers that could have been included from the AECL work for example were avoided in their written report which was purely subjective.  It used simple two-axis log plots that reminded me of the kind used in business schools and while reading it I expected them to discover a “cash cow” at some point in their deliberations. To say the report was highly qualitative is an understatement.

One point the IEG did make with which I fully agree is that nothing needs to be done with the waste in question for at least a hundred years. In effect they argued that there’s absolutely no need for a Bruce DGR at this time which I assume was not what OPG hired them for.

This again raises the critical argument for me. Namely is the DGR proposed for Bruce really needed?

To answer this question it’s important to emphasis that OPG has opted to build a DGR. This is purely a matter of choice and no convincing arguments have been advanced by OPG to show that a DGR is a necessity. In fact, most of the world’s reactor operators have opted to continue to store these wastes above ground as has been done in Canada to date.  In the 2013 round of hearings OPG admitted they had selected the DGR option primarily based on local support or a “social license” by the local communities given that they own the Bruce land and much of the waste is already at Bruce. A “business case” and a geological argument were later constructed to support the plan. No additional technical rationale for the necessity of the proposed DGR was presented at the hearings and therefore, I conclude it is not needed.

The answer to the key question is “no” we don’t need the Bruce DGR. .

In the next post the social license issue will be discussed.