The Bruce DGR: unnecessary and harmful to Canada’s nuclear industry.

 

Don’t let the facts interfere with the truth

 –Farley Mowat

In spite of the very high probability of being ignored, I decided to bite the bullet and submit a comment to the Environmental Assessment of the Bruce DGR. If I didn’t submit I’m sure my conscience would bother me when this outrageous boondoggle goes forward. My submission is reproduced below.

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The proposed Bruce DGR is technically unnecessary and potentially harmful to Canada’s nuclear industry. 

Canada’s strategy for the disposition of nuclear waste can be summarized in terms of four basic points:

  • High Level Waste (HLW) – Highly radioactive long-lived used nuclear fuel would be stored in a Deep Geologic(al) Repository (DGR) at depths of 500 m or more, designed to last for at least 100,000 years,
  • Low Level Wastes (LLW) – Low radioactivity short-lived wastes from reactor operations (tools, overalls, paper towels, and the like) is stored in near surface facilities to decay for a few 100 years and then go into engineered landfills.
  • Intermediate Level Wastes (ILW) – Mainly from reactor refurbishment and decommissioning (mostly low volatility metal structures) and small volumes of special wastes from operations (ion exchange resins) are stored in engineered surface facilities (concrete trenches, wells and similar facilities) with the possibility that small volumes needing special handling could be stored in the futures DGR for HLW.
  • Historical (Legacy) – Large volumes of wastes from uranium/radium mining and refining have relatively low radiation levels but are long lived, frequently occurring at defunct operations in remote areas and are dealt with generally using varied shallow land burial schemes involving excavation and covering with non-contaminated earth.

The Bruce DGR plan represents an abrupt departure from the above strategy in proposing that Low Level reactor operational wastes be treated in the same manner as High Level used nuclear fuel i.e. burial in a DGR. This is not only an unnecessary and uneconomic plan but it also sets a new and unrealistic standard for Low Level Waste disposal ultimately harmful to Canada’s nuclear industry. 

There is no operational need for the Bruce DGR.

  • The existing facilities for Low and Intermediate Level Waste surface storage at the Bruce site have proven satisfactory with an excellent safety record in terms of environmental, public and occupational health. These facilities serve all the Ontario reactors. There has been no technical or other development requiring a change to these arrangements.
  • The current Low Level waste stored in these facilities (volumes exceeding 200,000 m3) will decay naturally to radiation levels allowing their burial in engineered landfills after a few 100 years. Therefore, it is not necessary to isolate Low Level wastes from the public and the environment in a DGR for thousands of years as is the case for HLW.
  • The protections against such hazards as glaciation, human intrusion and loss of institutional controls provided by deep burial (~ 680m for the proposed Bruce DGR) while needed for used nuclear fuel repositories are not required for Low Level waste storage.

The Bruce DGR is not consistent with best international practice.

  • No other country is proposing to treat Low Level nuclear waste in the same way as used nuclear fuel. Such a strategy is considered by other nations as not only unnecessary but prohibitively expensive.
  • Sweden (Forsmark), Finland (Olklluoto) and Russia (Novouralsk) have opted for what one might call Shallow Geologic Repository (SGR) approach to store Low Level Wastes at depths of 60m, 70-100m and 7m respectively. These are essentially sub-surface storage facilities where surface storage buildings have been replaced by drive-in caverns. They are qualitatively very different than mine-like DGRs.
  • The US WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plan) facility, often cited in discussions about the Bruce DGR, is designed to hold wastes from nuclear weapons development containing significant amounts of plutonium and other transuranics. It is at a depth of 600m in a salt formation. The wastes stored at WIPP are neither Low Level nor short-lived wastes. Therefore, WIPP is not comparable to the proposed Bruce DGR. There is no US plan to store Low Level waste in DGR type facilities.

The Bruce DGR would probably not result in increased public safety and environmental benefits.

  • Proponents of the Bruce DGR claim it will be have a greater margin of safety than the existing surface arrangements but no evidence to support this claim has been offered.
  • The hard rock mining involved in constructing a DGR is likely to be a much more hazardous activity in terms of worker injuries and fatalities than constructing extra building to house waste on the surface.
  • The thirty years or more of emplacement activities involved in filling up the facility with the large volumes of Low Level wastes would require workers be exposed to hazards typical of deep underground operations such as gas/dust explosions, cave-ins and tunnel collapses.
  • As the WIPP fire of 2014 showed fighting a fire underground in a DGR was difficult to locate and extinguish. The resulting contamination took about three years to clean up. It may well be that immediate access to a fire in a surface facility might limit damage and contamination.

Approval of the Bruce DGR would be harmful to the development of nuclear energy in Canada.

  • Requiring such extreme cautionary treatment of Low Level wastes as exemplified by placement in a DGR would raise unfounded and exaggerated fears of small levels of radiation in the public mind and hence, add credibility to anti-nuclear critics who make the false and alarmist claim that any amount of radiation however small is dangerous. By approving the Bruce DGR the CNSC would in effect appear to be endorsing this nonsensical point of view.
  • Implementing the Bruce DGR would set the precedent that Low Level wastes would henceforth have to be stored in unnecessary and expensive DGRs resulting in increased overhead costs for all reactor systems now and in the future. This could further discourage future investment in nuclear power.
  • Communities with Historical/Legacy Wastes could reasonably deduce from the Bruce DGR model the unrealistic expectation that their nuclear wastes should also be stored in DGRs. This might well provoke a strong reaction for fair and equal treatment from First Nations in whose lands much of the historical wastes are located.
  • The much more stringent treatment of Low Level waste from uranium mining and refining implied by the Bruce DGR would put another damper on the struggling Canadian uranium industry.
  • Fears have been expressed that the Bruce DGR with minor modifications could also be made to hold used nuclear fuel. Assurances have been given that this will not be allowed and this would require a true loss of institutional control.

The main reason given for OPG’s bizarre about face on the technology of Low Level Waste storage is simply that a DGR is the stated preference of the local municipalities. Thus, its rationale is based on a “social license” justification and not a technical one. Given this, it is not surprising the project has been debated on social, political, economic grounds rather technical ones. However, as argued above the unrealistic attitudes it fosters on Low Level waste are likely to have a negative impact on the future of the nuclear industry in Canada.

Therefore, it is concluded that the proposed Bruce DGR is technically unnecessary and potentially harmful to Canada’s nuclear industry.

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Bruce Nuclear Waste Repository: The Wrong Place at the Wrong Time – Part IV Economic & Political

When you find yourself in a hole stop digging.

People get so wrapped in their own activities that they don’t see the wider picture. We are all guilty of that to some extent.  Scientists and engineers in the nuclear industry tend to view situations in terms of technical problems and this is true of the Bruce DGR project. However, the decision to proceed will be made primarily for political and economic reasons as it should be.

Let’s consider economics first. How much will this DGR cost? We’ve haven’t built one in this country yet. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) has been conducting a well-planned transparent process eventually leading to establishing a DGR for the burial of used nuclear fuel but construction is still decades in the future. Funding for this DGR has been and will continue to be raised over many years by a small added charge to electricity rates.

The Bruce DGR is another matter. It will be funded by additional taxes and/or electricity charges to Ontarians o is let’s try to estimate its costs. The used fuel DGR planned by NWMO has an estimated cost of $18 billion but $10 billion of that is for transportation giving construction, closure, monitoring costs of about $8 billion.  OPG estimated about $2.1 billion for its DGR in a 2012 letter based on a consultant’s estimate from 2004. Multiplying by pi (Blackett’s rule of nuclear estimates) gives $6.6 billion. The recent Niagara tunnel excavation was completed in 2013 only four years behind schedule and only 50% over budget but this OPG project was hydroelectric and not nuclear.  The US experience also may help. Building the US Yucca Mountain DGR planned for used nuclear fuel cost $15 billion to when work was stopped although it may be restarted. Estimates indicate that WIPP, the US DGR that OPG held up as an example until its accidents earlier this year, has burned up about $5.5 billion to date and total costs are estimated around $9 billion far exceeding its original estimate of $440 million. Based on the foregoing, my nominal estimate for the Bruce DGR is $6-8 billion. That’s a lot of money for an optional project.

As pointed out many times in this blog, the government of Ontario has complete control over OPG. The Liberal party of Ontario has a solid majority mandate to be that government for the next four years. However, in the recent election all the constituencies along the eastern shore of Lake Huron voted for the opposition Progressive Conservative party including Huron-Bruce where the DGR would be located.  It’s inconceivable that the Liberals would allow a tasty multi-billion dollar chunk of make-work pork to go to the Kincardine area simply to please its citizen who voted against them. It just makes no political sense and for that reason alone the DGR project is a non-starter.

The Ontario government is faced with a scary financial deficit.  They’re looking to cut budgets in the face of the pressing needs to replace $400 billion worth of crumbling infrastructure such as roads, bridges, public housing, transit, sewers and a multitude of other essential replacements and repairs.  Although it is not in that category of down-to earth rebuilding, it is arguable that OPG’s Darlington refurbishment project would provide economic stimulus especially to preserve the high-value high-tech nuclear industry.  Most of the companies associated with refurbishment are located in Liberal suburban or urban ridings including Darlington itself.  Personally I think refurbishment keeps the Canadian nuclear industry alive preserving the nuclear option for the future.

It is predictable there will be savings from deep staff cuts at OPG as it goes from the current ten reactors to four by 2020. It is also likely that OPG’s scandalously lavish pension plan (the company contributes four dollars for each employee dollar) will be scaled down. An independent committee on government assets has also just recommended that OPG be split into separate hydroelectric and nuclear parts. The next stage could well be leasing the nuclear part to Bruce Power who would much better manage OPG’s nuclear assets.

The projected cuts at OPG will make it more likely the refurbishment projects (at least the first reactor) will go forward provided they stay on schedule and on budget. The refurbishment budget is in the order of $15 billion an amount, if history is any guide, will be substantially over run. The DGR project would add a further $6-8 billion dollar project (assuming no cost overruns) on top of refurbishment. There’s no way the cash-strapped Ontario government is going to allow that. The taxpayers of Ontario will be made to pay for these additional nuclear program costs either through higher electricity bills (an increasing barrier to attracting new manufacturing to the province) or through higher taxes, both unappealing politically.

OPG senior management claim there is a “business case” for the DGR compared to the costs of continued above-ground storage. (One might question the real-world business experience of OPG senior management?) The documentation around the project shows the DGR advantage is thin even using low-balled construction costs. This margin would completely disappear when the usual overruns appear.  Some may think I’m being too hard on OPG to which I would reply it’s because they have had such an abysmal track record for not being able to bring nuclear projects in on time and on budget.

As explained in a previous post the Bruce DGR is not needed. A feasible solution is to leave the low-level operating waste in above-ground storage where it is now for few a hundred years after which its radioactivity levels will have decayed to a few percent of its initial level. At that point it could be safely placed in a well-designed land fill. The intermediate level waste, consisting mainly of used metal reactor parts arising from refurbishment and decommissioning, could also be left in above-ground storage as it is now or it could be buried in a designated section of the NWMO DGR eventually to be constructed for used nuclear fuel hopefully at a site far from important bodies of water.

My advice to OPG is to stop digging and abandon the Bruce DGR project in the face of the compelling economic and political reasons why it is simply not going to be allowed to happen.

 

Bruce Nuclear Waste Repository: The Wrong Place at the Wrong Time – Part III Social License

Local support and the sleazy politics used to obtain it were discussed in the Part I post. However, there is a serious issue concerning the social license per se namely whether it should be considered at all by the hearing Panel.

The first Canadian commission to consider a DGR was the Seaborn Commission formed in 1989 to do an Environmental Assessment (EA) of AECL’s technical plan developed over the previous twenty years to deposit nuclear fuel waste deep in a granitic rock pluton in the Canadian Shield. There was extensive public consultation with over 500 oral submissions and a similar number of written submissions over the nine year mandate of the Commission.  Its 1998 report concluded that while the technical plan was a sound basis for proceeding, public acceptability of the concept had not been demonstrated. In today’s terminology the proponents weren’t able to prove they had the necessary “social license”.  A few years later, the federal government passed legislation establishing the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) with a primary objective of ensuring the social licenses necessary for nuclear fuel waste disposal were in place.

The CNSC has recently stated in the slides from a recent Calgary speech by its president:

“[CNSC’s] Mandate does not include social licence” [but rather] “Commission makes science-based risk informed decisions”

“The CNSC does not make determinations based on social acceptance or economic benefits”

Since it’s acting on behalf of the Commission the Panel reviewing the Bruce DGR according to the CNSC president should have no business assessing social license issues and must stick to technical matters only.  I find it remarkable that they can make this claim in view of the historical precedent of the Seaborn Commission.  However, as the recent Federal Court decision has shown the CNSC doesn’t have a good handle on how to conduct an EA.  This position is also taken in spite of CNSC’s aggressive promotion of the nuclear industry under the guise of providing technical information (personally I’m all in favour of promoting nuclear power but the-should-be-unbiased CNSC is the wrong agency to do it).

At the Panel hearings OPG highlighted the approval of the local community as a major argument for the Bruce DGR and thus, the Panel accepted lots of testimony on this issue. By so doing the Panel now can’t avoid making a pronouncement on whether there’s a social license for the facility. If it doesn’t then that omission alone would be grounds for an appeal to the Federal Court of Canada especially since the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) requires an EA to take into account factors relevant to the social license such as: public comments, purpose of the designated project and alternative means of carrying out the objective of the project. An EA must be conducted in accordance with the CEAA and the opinions of the CNSC president quoted above are totally irrelevant.

During the hearings intervenors noted that some 125 municipalities around the Great Lakes had passed resolutions opposing the Bruce DGR and so OPG’s social license was obtained by dubious means from only 11,000 people in the Bruce area and not the 11,000,000 represented by the resolution s. Clearly, the major reason for the widespread public opposition is that the proposed DGR is at the Bruce site beside the Great Lakes. Thus, ironically the factor most attractive to OPG is exactly why the social license is lacking.

Some nuclear types will fulminate that this is just another instance of “politics” creating opposition to what they believe a good technical solution. This attitude reflects an all too common belief in the industry that the public doesn’t understand the technology and thus, makes wrong decisions based on scientific ignorance implying an educated public would approve all of their actions.  They are mistaken because perception is reality in this case. Most people have a bad gut feeling about storing nuclear waste beside the Great Lakes.  The technical presentations at the hearings could only lay out the physical parameters of the problem but they didn’t convince the public to change its common sense view that the Bruce DGR is dumb.  While some technical idealists may conceive of a perfect world where all decisions are based solely on science, I’m glad I live in a democracy where the politics of public acceptance trumps the opinions of technocrats like me.

I’m afraid that the Bruce DGR may poison the waters for the NWMO’s planned DGR for used nuclear fuel. A negative finding by the Panel on the Bruce DGR or its cancellation by OPG would make it more difficult to secure the social license for the used nuclear DGR sought by NWMO since an inference might be drawn that DGRs in general are undesirable. I would find this distressing since I fully support the need for the used fuel DGR and the process being used by NWMO to find a site for it.

The following statements by Bruce Power chief Duncan Hawthorne quoted in the Kincardine News of February 14, 2013 are worth noting:

“Among them was his belief residents of potential host communities are unable to differentiate between the plans for two DGRs.”You’ve confused the whole community,” Hawthorne said he had written to the NWMO. “We’re looking at something that’s 125 years from now. Go away for a decade.”

He’s got it completely wrong; it’s the Bruce DGR that should go away.

In the last post in this series I’ll discuss the political and economic reasons why the Bruce DGR is unlikely to happen.

 

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.

 

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

As the second round of public hearings approaches the Panel examining the OPG proposal to establish a Deep Geological Repository to bury nuclear waste at the Bruce reactor site has become even more mired in an avalanche of crap. I won’t give into my inclination to compare the Panel to the inimitable Three Stooges but one of their lines (from the 1941 movie Time Out for Rhythm) is appropriate:

 “Stupidity!? We’re technical experts!”

As I noted in my November 11, 2013 post on this issue

 “psychological intimidation and harassment of hearing witnesses by the police was appalling… the Panel did a poor job of preserving the integrity of the process … I feel the hearings were badly flawed and the Panel’s conclusions should be considered as tainted.”

If that wasn’t bad enough I also pointed out OPG’s unilateral and previously unannounced intention to put long-lived decommissioning and refurbishment wastes in the DGR in addition to the relatively short lived operational wastes from reactor stations.

A lot has happened since the last round of hearings.

My previous post concerning the Federal Court decision on the bungling of the Environment Assessment for new reactor construction at Darlington argued that this ruling had focused a higher degree of legal scrutiny on CNSC decisions.  I suppose that an on-going process at this and other such hearings in the future will be looking for what lawyers call “grounds for appeal”  Again I repeat my regret that there is a legally amateur Panel rather than an experienced judge in charge of the hearings. I think it’s a safe bet that if the Panel approves the DGR then there will be an appeal to the Federal Court of Canada.

Another relevant but unrelated recent decision by the Supreme Court of Canada on First Nations land claims may also impact the hearings.  These claims span a large complex of issues in Canada and I don’t pretend to understand the decision. However, my interpretation is that it refers to aboriginal groups whose land claims have not yet been settled (“un-extinguished” in legal jargon). The Court held that bands in this position are entitled to be involved in and profit from the economic development of the claimed areas, even lands where nomadic tribes used to hunt and fish without necessarily establishing permanent settlements.  The Saugeen Ojibwa Nation (SON), the main band taking part in the DGR hearings, claims the Bruce nuclear site as traditional hunting and fishing grounds. I don’t know the status of SON land claims but I would think the Supreme Court decision will strengthen their already very strong position at the hearings.

The DGR has raised substantial protests from Great Lakes communities and from the state of Michigan in particular. The two US senators from Michigan are opposed and interestingly enough it is reported the state has a law that forbids nuclear waste storage within ten miles of the Great Lakes.  The international embarrassment the DGR has caused could be turned into a positive.  The Panel report has to be submitted to the federal government for a final decision on approval. Perhaps, cancelling of the DGR plan could be made a bargaining chip in getting US approval for the Keystone XL pipeline that Prime Minister Harper is pushing so hard. Cancellation might put two US Senators side for Keystone.

As I noted before, the DGR scheme is being pushed by local politicians from communities around the Bruce site. As a result of secret meetings with OPG that began in 2005 five local Bruce area municipalities agreed to support the DGR for a total payoff of $35 million between them to be paid over 30 years.  However, no evidence has come to light that individual politicians received personal pay offs.  Under the deal the local municipalities apparently won’t get the money if the DGR is not approved – a clear incentive for them to keep pushing it.  An independent investigation released last week showed that the municipal councils negotiated the deal in secret meetings with OPG that initially had no minutes and about which their citizens didn’t know. Voters only found out about this deal at the DGR hearings last year. The investigator concluded that this under-the-table proceeding was in clear violation of the Ontario Municipal Act. The gravity of this revelation is stressed in the Sun Times of nearby Owen Sound editorial of August 16.

“It was and remains a disgrace that a publicly owned corporation should effectively buy the influence of elected representatives and a disgrace that those municipalities allowed themselves to be bought off and still do to this day. “

If OPG management were smart, they would realize that these hearings are a continuing public relations disaster and they should use one of many possible excuses to gracefully withdraw the proposal.  They could then wait ten, fifty or even a hundred years to try again with no real harm to their corporate objectives. But in the last few years no one has accused OPG management of being smart.

The above has covered some non-technical developments since November 2013.  I intend to discuss technical issues in the next post.

 

 

Canada’s nuclear regulator gets spanked by the Federal Court

A recent Federal Court of Canada decision found that the license issued by the CNSC to construct two new reactors at Darlington was invalid because the required environmental assessment was incomplete.

First a little background might help. In 2008 the Ontario government was actively seeking to construct new reactors but hadn’t decided on what type of reactor to choose or on how many to build. Nonetheless they wanted to start environmental assessments right away and so they opted for a scheme that apparently some consultant convinced them had worked in the US.  This idea was to do a generic assessment in which the number or type of reactor to be built is not specified but based on keeping emissions to the environment, accident characteristics, and other factors within certain boundaries, later called a Plant Parameter Envelope (PPE) approach presumably to give it more technical credibility.

OPG (Ontario Power Generation) enthusiastically endorsed this concept. However, it was obvious even then that Ontario had again opted for political expediency over science.  In evidence I offer this quote from a post on this blog dated May 16, 2008:

“Generic environmental assessments of the new Ontario reactors to be located at the existing Bruce Power and Darlington nuclear sites are being organized.  The value of these assessments is questionable when the number and type of the reactors to be considered is unspecified. However, in an even more bizarre turn of events initial indications are that these reviews will be conducted by commissioners of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) who will in effect be reviewing their own licensing process. “

The Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) eventually took the CNSC to Federal Court after they granted a license to OPG to build two new reactors at Darlington based on a PPE-based generic environmental assessment (EA). The resulting court ruling of May 14, 2014 can be found at

http://decisions.fct-cf.gc.ca/fc-cf/decisions/en/item/71634/index.do

Interestingly, the Court did not find the EA to be flawed because of the PPE method per se but ruled that it failed to take into account differences in waste emissions, disposal of used fuel types and aspects of accident mitigation measures. As the Court pointed out the EA could be remade to be acceptable if it were revised to address these issues.

Like many other nuclear types this development surprised me. I suppose I’d always pictured the CNSC as all powerful in the nuclear field meaning “its word is law”.  Apparently this is not the case at all. On the contrary as this judgment shows CNSC decisions can be successfully challenged in court. Understanding what this means is well worth considering since it will have major consequences for the nuclear industry down the road.

At first sight some industry observers said the ruling didn’t matter since last October (2013) Ontario finally decided not to build any new reactors (after wasting a great deal of money and many people’s time). I think claiming this makes the ruling “moot” is a naïve reaction.

The main impact is that the Court has severely undermined the credibility of the CNSC and opens up its future licensing processes to protracted litigation. Precedent is a powerful concept in law. If you don’t believe that, just look through the ruling linked above which seems to refer to lots of what previous judges have said about EAs. From this time on important decisions of the CNSC (the significant ones involving an EA) will be questioned by law suits. The suits will probably start out by noting this ruling that effectively says the “CNSC blew an EA” with the implication it may well screw up others.  With this victory the courts have now become the new battleground for anti-nuclear groups and the only limitation I can see is how much money (or legal volunteers) these organizations have for legal work.

In recent years I have noted with dismay in this blog the CNSC’s increasing inclination to agree with most schemes proposed by OPG including the not-so-clever PPE approach. The tendency has been for them to come down full bore on small firms that use radioactive sources to show they are tough regulators but to essentially agree with anything OPG suggests however dumb presumably in a  “go along to get along” spirit. This may well be, as I’ve suggested in previous posts, because the CNSC has become the main promoter of nuclear power in Canada.  I think it’s high time the CNSC reconsider its too close relationship with OPG because this ruling in part resulted from that attitude.

Only a short time ago the federal government gave the CNSC full authority to conduct its own EAs of nuclear proposals only referring when needed to Environment Canada and other federal entities such as Fisheries and Oceans and Health Canada.  That had no sooner been done when this ruling made the CNSC look incompetent after one of its licences was bounced by the Federal Court because of a bungled EA.

To be slapped down by the Federal Court constitutes a severe embarrassment to the CNSC, itself a quasi-judicial federal tribunal.  I believe it’s time for far-reaching reforms at the Commission including a weeding out of its senior management.

 

The Hearings on the Deep Geological Repository at Bruce

These hearings which concluded at the end of October 2013 concerned Ontario Power Generation’s plan to build a Deep Geological Repository (DGR) at its Bruce nuclear site to bury low level (LLW) and intermediate level (ILW) nuclear waste.

The story we are asked to believe is that Bruce area municipal politicians approached OPG in 2004 with their own plan to build this DGR. The motivation was that their towns needed money and the locals were nuclear friendly. OPG, the ever benevolent organization that it is, decided that it would like to have a DGR and agreed to pay the surrounding municipalities some $35M over a similar number of years. OPG then discovered much to its surprise and delight that the local geology was suitable even if the DGR would be built very near Lake Huron. They then applied to the CNSC which in turn set up a panel to hear the environmental arguments pro and con.

Why does OPG want to build the DGR at Bruce so near the Great Lakes? Why do they need to build it now given they have lots of room to safely store the waste for decades? I find it rather cute that the answer to both of these key questions is the same namely that local municipalities want it. In my opinion there is no need for a DGR for decades and when the time comes for one the Bruce site isn’t an appropriate place for it.

One of the local mayors is the preferred media spokesman for the DGR rather than an OPG executive presumably in order to maintain the script. I don’t think anyone is buying this story but on the plus side we should give OPG credit for not using “once upon a time” in their media releases.

To put it kindly the issue of what’s going to be buried in the DGR has evolved with time. At first it was just LLW and ILW (200,000 cubic metres) from routine reactor operations in proportions of 80% and 20% respectively.

As far as the stuff OPG said originally that they are going to bury I wouldn’t personally be upset if the whole lot was dumped off a pier into the lake at Bruce. The level of activity per unit volume is very small and the dilution factor is so huge that I wouldn’t expect more than a miniscule increase in the total radioactivity of the Great Lakes water I drink. Heaven knows there are numerous other chemicals and pharmaceutical residues already in the water. However, I wouldn’t want to see old overalls or mop heads floating around and I would hope OPG reduced such items to ashes prior to them going into the repository.

OPG has now started talking about putting the waste from refurbishment of the Darlington reactors and presumably also from decommissioning the Pickering reactors in the DGR up to another 200,000 cubic metres. This “mission creep” for the DGR is a huge step beyond from the original plan of waste from reactor operations and several intervenors pointed that out at the hearings.

Human nature being what it is, in a decade or so I would expect OPG to start talking about this DGR as a repository for high level (used fuel) waste. It’s easy to imagine the type of arguments that would be made: we already have a DGR and we don’t need to spend the extra money building another one; the Bruce DGR is working well and the locals accept it; adding the used fuel would only mean a relatively small expansion to the existing DGR; and, it’s proven too hard to get anyone else to take the used fuel and the Bruce DGR is now the only option. I don’t believe I’m being overly cynical in predicting that the Bruce DGR could well become the one and only DGR for Canada. The CNSC says that this would be illegal. This is true under current legislation but, as we have seen recently with environmental assessments, laws can easily be changed by Parliament.

I would suggest that the only type of undertaking that would guarantee that no used fuel (and if desired no decommissioning/refurbishment wastes) could be buried in this DGR would be a treaty with the Saugeen Ojibwa Nation (SON). SON has been a key player during the hearings questioning many of the issues mentioned above. Treaties with First Nations are very sensitive and, unlike in the past, are hard to break in today’s social context. More generally this could be an opportunity for First Nations as a group to demand from the federal government a comprehensive treaty covering all aspects of radioactive materials in and around the Great Lakes (Remember Bruce Power’s attempt to ship its steam generators via the lakes.) Such a document would serve to clarify future relations between the nuclear industry and First Nations to the benefit of both parties. There’s lots of time to do this because there is no urgency whatever for the DGR.

One development at the hearings I found very disturbing. Prior to the hearings the Ontario police came to the homes of some intervenors who opposed the DGR and telephoned others in order to “maintain order” although there was never any prospect of even mild public protests. They also stationed plain clothes police in the hearing rooms to discourage protests. I realize that the readers of this blog are from some 70 countries outside of Canada and may not understand or care about what is politely called “asymmetric policing” in Ontario. In a nutshell this means the OPP, the Ontario provincial police, take positions on public issues as ordered by the Ontario Liberal Party ruling the province. They then selectively enforce existing laws ignoring those that do not conform to the party’s position. The OPP has this in common with other infamous police forces that I won’t name here to avoid excessive drama.

This psychological intimidation and harassment of hearing witnesses by the police was appalling. I don’t agree with much of what the intervenors said or would have said. Nevertheless it was their democratic right to have free speech without police threats. I was unpleasantly surprised that the Panel would continue the hearings after police interference was proved. In this respect the Panel did a poor job of preserving the integrity of the process. It would have been much better to have an experienced judge in charge to ensure fairness rather than an amateur Panel chair. For this reason I feel the hearings were badly flawed and the Panel’s conclusions should be considered as tainted.