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.

 

 

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.