Risk Methodology and Criteria for a Nuclear Waste Disposal Facility

Norman Rubin
Borealis Energy Research Association on behalf of Energy Probe
March 1, 1996

Part 4 of Energy Probe’s Submission on The Adequacy of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited’s Environmental Impact Statement on the Concept for Disposal of Canada’s Nuclear Fuel Waste. Submitted to the Federal Environmental Assessment Review Panel.



As part of its participation in the federal review of the concept of deep geological disposal of nuclear waste, Energy Probe commissioned Borealis Energy Research Association to examine Risk Methodology and Criteria for a Nuclear Waste Disposal Facility. In Part 2 of Energy Probe’s submission, dated August 8, 1995, we addressed the adequacy of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited’s Environmental Impact Statement on The Concept for Disposal Of Canada’s Nuclear Fuel Waste (AECL’s EIS) in that area. In this paper, Part 4 of Energy Probe’s submission, we address the merits of the opinions and conclusions of the EIS regarding risk issues, and recommend alternatives. This paper focuses especially on the following areas (though not necessarily in this order):
(1) total population, individual, and environmental risks, especially due to radioactive substances that may be released from the envisaged repository (Guidelines, pages 10-11), including the risks of human health impacts such as “additional cancers” (Guidelines, page 55);
(2) the criteria that relate to those risks (Guidelines, pages 13, 18, and 20, etc.);
(3) the definitions of safety and acceptability (Guidelines, pages 9, 11); and
(4) adequate proof of safety (Guidelines, page 11).
Some introductory comments to the Panel
In general, when we examine earlier attempts to bury hazardous waste – from Love Canal, to S-Area Dump, to Soviet injection of radioactive liquid waste in deep boreholes, to the radioactive “pits” and sand-lined trenches at Chalk River – we find that they were too careless, and did more harm than good. Put another way, our generation would be more grateful to earlier generations if they had kept those wastes in well-maintained barrels in well-maintained buildings, rather than “doing us the favour” of burying them in the ground. In hindsight, the reasons for our predecessors’ carelessness include a lack of attention (we have had another generation to think about these things), a lack of technology (we have had another generation to develop better technology), and a lack of adequate regulatory standards (we have had another generation to develop better standards – scientifically and politically).

Completely ignoring these obvious historical facts, the international nuclear establishment – including AECB and AECL and the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency and the UN’s IAEA – suggests that our generation has an ethical imperative to rush to implement a “walk-away” “disposal” scheme for this generation’s high-level nuclear wastes. We believe that it would be foolish to ignore the weight of historical facts, or to imitate the past generation’s mistakes, when choosing as important course of action as this.

When charitable people attempt to excuse those earlier generations for their sloppiness, they often use expressions like these: “Those times were different; they didn’t know any better then.” This brief is intended partly to prod this Environmental Assessment Panel (and AECB, AECL, Ontario Hydro, etc.) to know as much as we can know, and partly to document Energy Probe’s belief that this generation does “know better”.

The field of public-health protection against persistent toxic materials like these nuclear wastes is rapidly evolving and will continue to evolve. The 1996 view of technology, public opinion, acceptability, and regulation are all snapshots of a changing picture. Long before the waste has decayed – indeed, before it is buried – this Panel’s report is almost certain to look quaint and out of date, like 1940’s writings about controlling persistent toxic substances, or sustainable development, or energy alternatives. The Panel can only hope to advance the evolution of “official” government intelligence if it is sensitive to trends, makes an effort to be progressive in a changing field, and relies more on demonstrated leaders of public opinion than on guardians of the status quo.

The Panel must separate what must be done from what can easily be done. This will be especially difficult if – when – it appears that some of what must be done seems to be impossible, at least with AECL’s approach and today’s technology.
Our decisions will be so important to so many humans and other beings for so many years, that this Panel must make unparalleled efforts to find and speak the truth, even if doing so is impolitic, inconvenient, or unflattering – in short, un-Canadian! Matters that demand truthful appraisal, in our view, include AECL’s credibility, demonstrated biases, and ethical record; the adequacy of AECB’s regulations and enforcement record; and even the challenge this incredible task will pose to the wisdom of the Canadian and Ontario governments.

This Panel needs to make choices that humans should never be forced to make – and preferably to state clearly that humans should never be forced to make such choices. E.g., the panel was absolutely right to be concerned about the health risks to the entire exposed population, and not just to the individual or “critical group”. But if our generation is to proceed with anything remotely resembling AECL’s Concept, we must choose, or at least come to grips with, an “acceptable” number of estimated future cancers, hereditable defects, and deaths – and that number is almost certain to seem unacceptable to many thoughtful members of the public and the Panel.

This Panel needs to be confident that a sensible, thoughtful, heroic, wise, and truthful report will have an effect on the disposition of these wastes – whether the report is initially accepted, or rejected, or ignored, by the Canadian government. Once these findings are published, they will reinforce and resonate with the Canadian public’s (and Canadian public-interest groups’) concern for the environment, and their descendants – and their dislike for carcinogenic and mutagenic pollutants.

This Panel needs to choose a reversible option that will minimize the chance of disaster – monitored retrievable storage for perhaps a century, while looking for better long-term options – as recommended by people as diverse as nuclear physicist Alvin Weinberg and anti-nuclear philosophy professor Kristin Shrader-Frechette.

Finally, this Panel should endorse one simple and true statement that is absolutely revolutionary and heretical to the nuclear establishment: The presence and extent of other causes of cancer in our environment – including natural background radiation – has absolutely no relevance to the cancers that may be caused by radioactive pollution released from this generation’s nuclear waste repository. We are responsible for the risks we cause to future living things, and the fact that all of us “live in a sea of risk” is unfortunate, but it does not justify adding one iota to that risk. There may be levels of artificial radiation, or cancer risk, that are low enough to be universally acceptable or negligible (though we doubt it), but those levels cannot be determined by some simple proportion to background levels of radiation or overall cancer risks.
What should we require from a proposed repository?
In the absence of meaningful information in AECL’s EIS on most of these issues – see Part 2 of Energy Probe’s submission, dated August 8, 1995 (henceforth, “EP2”) – public-interest intervenors like Energy Probe, and the Panel itself, are left with the task of defining safety, acceptability, and proof from first principles. This “God-like task” is uncomfortable and vexing, but it is extremely important that the Panel be resolute in doing it, and doing it well – not least because AECL has consistently avoided the task, and AECB’s regulatory documents are much too lax in the protection of human health and the environment.

Energy Probe’s two submissions on siting and siting process (EP1 and EP3) have outlined the centrality of two principles – informed consent (of multiple “communities”) and the protection of individual property rights – in safeguarding existing communities and individuals from abuse. Indeed, these two principles, if applied faithfully and rigorously, may well suffice to ensure the safety of existing communities and individuals, the acceptability of the risks they face, and the adequacy of their proof of safety.

On the other hand, this empowerment of existing communities and individuals is unlikely to provide comparable, or adequate, safeguards to those communities and individuals most likely to suffer adverse health effects from radioactive releases from the envisaged repository – those living in future centuries and millennia. We are therefore faced with the central dilemma of these wastes – a dilemma that was created right along with the wastes themselves:

Future humans have done absolutely nothing to create or to “deserve” these hazardous wastes and have not used any of the electricity these hazardous wastes generated. It is therefore ethically essential that they be protected, beyond any reasonable doubt, from any associated risks that they themselves would object to. Yet they cannot be consulted for their preferences, nor can we assure that they will not be exposed to cancer risks and other health risks that many of us consider unacceptable, even in return for some of our electricity. Further, virtually all estimates of these risks – including AECL’s – show that the repository will subject future individuals to much larger radiation doses, and presumably much larger health risks, than present communities and individuals. Finally, it is generally conceded (although perhaps too quickly) that we cannot create either reliable perpetual funds to compensate them for their losses, or reliable accountability mechanisms to ensure that those of us who are responsible for the losses of future victims are actually held responsible, or expect to be.

Ironically, the dilemma is outlined, inadvertently, in AECL’s EIS, on p. 65:

Research into people’s perception of risk . . . suggests that people consider the risk of an activity to be . . . more acceptable if

  • they are familiar with the activity,
  • they engage in or accept the activity voluntarily,
  • they believe they have some ability to control the risk,
  • they believe the distribution of risks and benefits is equitable,
  • they trust the organization responsible for the activity, or
  • they benefit from the activity.

We believe that all these factors weigh heavily against AECL’s plans to gain acceptance from today’s Canadians; when applied to Canadians living thousands of years in the future, it is clear that essentially none of these grounds for acceptance can be met.

This dilemma requires that we take two actions, at a minimum: (1) establish stringent regulatory standards for total population, individual, and environmental risks; and (2) ensure that no irreversible steps are taken until we are confident that we can quantify those risks, and confident that we have done all that is humanly possible to minimize them.

What is an acceptable individual risk?

Goals and principles:

We begin with a clear goal, derived from our ethical principles, which is not to be found in AECL’s EIS or any of AECB’s regulatory documents:

Before a nuclear waste repository is authorized, we must have a very high level of confidence that it will not expose any future individual to health risks that today’s relatively risk-averse individuals would object to.

This statement, while leaving two key terms unquantified – “very high” and “relatively risk-averse” – represents our attempt to codify one requirement noted above:

It is therefore ethically essential that [future humans] be protected, beyond any reasonable doubt, from any associated risks that they themselves would object to.

Failure to achieve this standard would mean that at least some number of future human individuals might well face a choice among three unattractive options: bear a risk that they would likely object to, relocate to avoid the risk, or attempt to eliminate the source of the risk. Given the incredible difficulty of fixing or excavating a leaking nuclear waste repository (at least with our level of technology), and the involuntary imposition of the first two options, we believe that it would be unethical for us to begin to disperse these toxic materials into the environment without achieving this standard.
But how to define the two unquantified key terms? We suggest that the “very high level of confidence” be set, at the very least, at the 99% confidence level (p=0.01, one-tailed), after incorporating all the uncertainty in the entire analytical process: the uncertainties in individual parameters, the models’ calculated (“Monte Carlo”) uncertainty, and the independently estimated uncertainty that the models are incomplete, simplistic, or otherwise wrong.

The level of “health risks that today’s relatively risk-averse individuals would object to” is somewhat more problematical. Specifically, when dealing with dreaded diseases like cancer, leukemia, and serious hereditable defects, it is very easy to find members of the public – indeed, a significant portion of the public – who will object to any imposed, non-zero risk. As is clear from AECL’s EIS and the data from the U.S. and elsewhere, the concept of deep geological disposal of nuclear waste cannot guarantee zero risk of dreaded diseases to future humans.

These facts leave us with two unattractive options: (1) we can concede the impossibility of attaining our goal with any disposal technology now available, or (2) we can compromise our principles to arrive at a less stringent goal, in order to approve a plan which fails our ethically principled goal.

Accepting the first option leads logically to an alternative concept to AECL’s: monitored retrievable storage, combined with research to find a disposal (or transmutation) approach which can meet our principled goal. Energy Probe recommends that the Panel adopt this option, and recommends against proceeding now with a disposal concept that does not promise to meet our principled goal.

Accepting the second option leads logically to an attempt to define non-zero risks of dreaded diseases (especially cancer and hereditable diseases) that we are willing to consider “acceptable” for us to impose on some future human beings, with our generation’s nuclear-waste repository.

We begin by surveying today’s standards for “acceptable” cancer risks from cancer-causing pollutants. What we find is a plethora of inconsistent standards and loopholes, with two important general characteristics: (1) The standards have been steadily evolving from leniency to stringency, and increasingly deal with new notions like “virtual elimination” or “zero emissions” of even “phaseout and sunset” of long-lived carcinogenic and mutagenic materials, which are increasingly characterized as “priority pollutants”; and (2) There is an important “double standard” at work: the levels of cancer risks considered “acceptable” for radioactive pollutants are generally much greater than those considered “acceptable” for non-radioactive, “chemical” pollutants.
That regulatory “double standard” has only recently been acknowledged in Canada, and is still the subject of active scrutiny by the governments of Canada and Ontario – the two signatories to the agreement that led to this Environmental Assessment. The official discovery of the “double standard” happened in the course of an examination of drinking-water standards for tritium – a radioactive form of hydrogen produced in and emitted from Candu nuclear reactors in large quantities. But the general nature of the double standard applies, mutatis mutandis, across the board to the regulation of radioactive and non-radioactive pollution – including to AECB’s regulation of predicted emissions from a nuclear waste repository. Because of this widespread relevance, and because we believe that our generation must adopt the more health-protective approach when judging a nuclear waste repository, we outline the progress of the discovery and reconciliation of the double standard at length, below.

Ontario’s review of the regulatory “double standard”:

In Ontario, the May 1994 report of the Advisory Committee on Environmental Standards (ACES), A Standard for Tritium, recommended that the maximum permissible concentration of tritium in Ontario’s drinking water be tightened immediately from 40,000 Becquerels per litre (40,000 Bq/L) to 100 Bq/L, and further to 20 Bq/L over the course of five years. Instead, the Ontario government established an Interim Drinking Water Objective at 7,000 Bq/L – 20 times higher than the Advisory Committee’s recommendation – as recommended by Ontario Hydro, the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), and Ministry staff. At the 20 Bq/L level, according to ICRP’s risk coefficients, tritium in drinking water would pose a calculated lifetime risk of one fatal cancer per million people. That lifetime risk level is not quite as restrictive as the risk level of one cancer (fatal or not) per million people, which was the basis of the Ontario Drinking Water Objective for N-Nitrosodimethylamine or NDMA – also set after public consultation by the Advisory Committee on Environmental Standards. Moreover, all the tritium calculations here and in the ACES report adopt the latest cancer risk coefficients from the ICRP, despite ICRP’s historical record of underestimating cancer risks, and despite the plausible technical reasons to believe the actual risks are at least twice as high.

There are two other differences in the way the risks are calculated and controlled that make the tritium risks significantly higher than those from NDMA and other carcinogenic chemicals. They are (1) the way the Maximum Acceptable Concentration or MAC is interpreted, producing an estimated ten-fold difference in protection levels, and (2) the way the statistical data and models of carcinogenesis are applied, producing a further estimated three-fold difference in protection levels.
In summary: The calculated fatal cancer risk from tritium at the ODWO, using ICRP’s coefficient (including DREF=2) is 350-fold higher than the total calculated cancer risk from NDMA. Assuming, generously, that there are only 1.5 total cancers for every 1 fatal cancer, the tritium risk is 525 higher than the NDMA risk (350 x 1.5). But the three other differences in the way the risks are calculated and controlled (DREF, 95% confidence, and annual average vs. never-to-be-exceeded) together contribute, by our estimates, a further 60-fold excess (2 x 10 x 3) in tritium risks compared to NDMA risks, for a total difference of 31,500-fold. Put another way: The two regulatory regimes, for NDMA and tritium, would make perfect sense if members of the Ontario public were more than 30,000 times more willing to contract cancer from tritium in drinking water than from NDMA in drinking water! Not surprisingly, we know of no evidence that members of the Ontario public have any such preference.

Throughout the government of Ontario’s review of the regulatory “double standard”, the Atomic Energy Control Board played an unworthy role: to discourage the Ontario government from making its standards more protective of health. Unfortunately, the AECB frequently feels compelled to oppose the tightening of standards, wherever exposures to radioactive pollutants are concerned – more recently in dealing with the Toronto Board of Health and Department of Public Health and with the Ministers’ [of Environment and Health] Expert Advisory Panel on the Second Priority Substances List under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA).

The Ontario government’s decision to reject the Advisory Committee’s recommendation has been appealed under Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights, by the present author and several hundred other Ontarians, and is still officially under review. That review is awaiting the overdue results of the federal review of the regulatory “double standard”, discussed immediately below.

The federal government’s review of the regulatory “double standard”:

Federally, a Joint Atomic Energy Control Board / Health Canada Working Group On Risk Assessment Methods for Chemical and Radiological Hazards has been meeting and issuing drafts since early 1995, and has reportedly created its Tenth Draft, which is not available to the public, or to the present author. The final report was due on November 15, 1995, according to the Working Group’s Terms of Reference, but is still not finished. The introduction to Draft 6 (which Energy Probe received only via a “leak”, and not from the Working Group itself) explains that the purpose of the original AECB Working Group was “a close examination of the disparities and inconsistencies in the levels of risk considered acceptable for regulating nuclear power and those in use for regulating industrial chemicals and pesticides [emphasis added]”.
We believe that the sixth draft, although often incomplete or misleading, is significantly more open and honest than anything else ever published by AECB, Health Canada, or AECL on the subject of radiation control or regulation. That draft was circulated to reviewers outside AECB and Health Canada, which could be expected to lead to further improvements. But even in Draft 6, there are clear admissions that “the radiation paradigm” is less protective of health than “the chemical paradigm”; that unavoidable background exposures are considered in setting radiation risk levels, but not in setting chemical risk levels; and that “consultation with affected parties” plays a bigger part in setting chemical risk levels than in setting radiation risk levels. We hope that the Panel will be able to see the latest draft of this review, and discuss its implications with some members of the Working Group.

Incidentally, the Science Advisory Board of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also commented on the double standard, in a 1993 paper entitled “Harmonizing Chemical and Radiation Risk Reduction Strategies-A Science Advisory Board Commentary”. They were extremely clear in noting the difference in health-protection levels:
The discordance or lack of harmony between these different paradigms was not particularly evident until the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) started to deal with radiation issues in the context of decisions that also needed to be made about chemicals, for example with respect to radionuclides as hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act, or at hazardous waste sites, or in drinking water supplies where chemicals were also present. The application of standard chemical risk-reduction criteria to radionuclides in these situations leads to limitations on excess radiation dose that are small in comparison to natural background radiation. Knowing the history of the radiation paradigm, it should come as no surprise that some radiation scientists see such limitations on radiation exposures as unworkable or even misguided. Some chemical risk assessors who observe radiation protection guidelines corresponding to [lifetime cancer] risks greater than one in a thousand are similarly puzzled: how can such high absolute risks be tolerated?

Implications for this Review:

One reason that ICRP and AECB tolerate such high absolute risks is that they have always
traded off public health against the presumed “benefits” of nuclear technology, either explicitly or informally. This Panel, on the other hand, is expressly barred from duplicating that compromise by the Panel’s terms of reference, which prohibit the discussion of nuclear energy and energy policy. The Panel is therefore unencumbered by this controversial baggage in its search for a truly acceptable standard for nuclear waste disposal.
The “radiation-protection paradigm” and its approaches and standards, as codified by ICRP and practised by AECB and AECL and by nuclear polluters in most nuclear nations, are inadequate to protect the health of today’s people, who (we are told) receive benefits from the activities that create the pollution. That paradigm and those standards are much more inadequate to safeguard the rights and health of future people, who receive no such benefits. While we generally avoid seeing widespread conspiracies in the world around us, we must acknowledge that the durability and world-wide dispersion of the”radiation-protection paradigm” in official circles cannot be due to its prudence, popularity, or wisdom. In searching for alternative explanations, we do note the frequent international contact – personal and intellectual – among senior members of the nuclear-energy, nuclear-waste, “health physics”, and radiation-regulation establishment(s). Several submissions to the Panel must be read in this context, perhaps most notably that of the Nuclear Energy Agency of the OECD.

The Panel must expressly reject AECB’s regulatory approach to nuclear waste, specifically its suggestion that it would be “acceptable” for our generation’s nuclear-waste repository to expose individual future Canadians to risks of fatal cancer and serious genetic effects of 10-6 per year or even higher, within the first 10,000 years after closure, and still higher risks in subsequent years.
Recommendations on acceptable individual risk:

If the Panel wishes to adopt a non-zero definition of “acceptable risk” for future human individuals, from the planned repository, we recommend the following:

  • The general “Critical Group” approach to calculating individual doses should be amended to estimate and limit the dose to the hypothetically most exposed individual;
  • The maximum “acceptable” risk level should be set at least as low as today’s drinking-water standard for NDMA – at one total cancer, per lifetime, per million exposed individuals. Stated another way, the maximum acceptable individual lifetime probability of cancer should be set at 10-6, or one-in-one-million.
  • In converting that maximum “acceptable” risk level into a maximum “acceptable” radiation dose, the Panel should assume (1) that the total cancer risk of radiation is at least 50% greater than the fatal cancer risk; (2) that ICRP-60’s reasonably well documented coefficient of 0.10 fatal cancers per person-Sievert to a randomly distributed public is correct, but that its totally undocumented and non-conservative Dose Reduction Effectiveness Factor of 2 is not; and (3) that the average lifetime in future will at least equal today’s 76 years.

Combining these recommendations, the maximum “acceptable” dose to the most exposed future individual, at our (one-tailed) 99% confidence limit, would be calculated as follows:

1 x 10-6 lifetime cancer risk/ 0.15 total cancers per Sievert = 6.7 microSieverts (6.7 x 10-6Sv) over a lifetime.

Assuming (pessimistically) only 76 years per average lifetime yields a maximum acceptable annual dose of roughly 88 nanoSieverts (8.8 x 10-8Sv) per year.
This recommendation for maximum acceptable annual dose to an individual includes no explicit consideration for “genetic” (i.e., hereditable) health effects. Moreover, it is less than 500 times more stringent than AECB’s and AECL’s, despite our demonstration (above) that the chemical-protection approach, as used for NDMA in drinking water, is over 30,000 times more stringent than the corresponding radiation-protection approach. It is important that the Panel appreciate that, despite the significant difference between our proposal and AECB’s/AECL’s, we have not included every factor that our descendants’ descendants might want us to include.

Nonetheless, even this incomplete correction of AECB’s/AECL’s standards would disqualify AECL’s concept, as demonstrated by AECL’s computer simulations for its “reference case” site near Whiteshell. For example, Figure 7-7 on p. 297 of AECL’s EIS shows the mean individual annual dose rate exceeding that level (corresponding to just under 10-4mSv/a) at roughly 30,000 years, and rising to roughly 15 times that maximum acceptable level by 100,000 years, even without including the omitted radionuclide 36Cl.

Radiation-sensitivity: Rather than merely providing adequate protection for the average member of the public, the Panel should also seriously consider providing adequate protection for individuals who are more radiation-sensitive than average.

The approach we have taken above (like that of AECL, AECB, ICRP, OECD/NEA, etc.) calculates, and limits, only the risk to the average member of the public. But we already know that the public contains a number of smaller “publics”, some of whom are clearly more sensitive to radiation-induced cancer than others. For example, the brief from the National Action Committee of the Status of Women documents the higher radio-sensitivity of women compared to men (and compared to the average). In fact, women’s higher life expectancy makes them more susceptible to radiation-induced cancer than the age-corrected data would suggest. Similarly, it can be assumed that everybody who lives longer than average (roughly 50% of the public) will bear more risk of radiation-induced cancer than the ICRP’s “reference man” or any other average human. In the absence of informed consent from any of these future “publics”, it would seem prudent and ethical to afford them the same protection we have recommended for the average person.
In addition, modern science has discovered at least one extremely radio-sensitive “public”: the roughly 1% of all humans who are carriers of the rare, recessive hereditary disorder ataxia telangiectasia, or “AT”. Actual sufferers of this disorder – i.e., those who inherit it from both parents (parents who themselves are AT carriers ) – have an overall incidence of cancer which is roughly 1200 times greater than an age-matched control group, and usually die before adulthood from cancer and/or pneumonia. These AT sufferers are also well-known to be extremely sensitive to radiotherapy, and several have died as the result of radiotherapy treatments. Their cells, according to Malcolm Paterson’s research, are also 3 to 4 more times more sensitive to killing by gamma radiation than normal cells, and about 4 times slower in repairing (radiation-induced) base defects to their DNA. Even healthy AT carriers run an estimated five times the normal risk of dying from cancer before the age 45. Their cells are also more sensitive to killing by gamma radiation than normal cells, though less so than cells of AT sufferers. Paterson’s research does not expressly quantify the sensitivity of AT carriers to cancer from radiation exposures (and the latest ICRP report still claims that quantitative estimates are not possible), but he does conclude that “detection and protection” of such high-risk persons “could be used to reduce the amount of human ill-health arising from occupational exposure to radiation and toxic chemicals.

Our interest in AT carriers is not to suggest that they be barred from jobs in the nuclear industry. Rather, we recommend that the Panel recognize the rights of even these radiation-sensitive “publics” not to get cancer from our waste-repository’s leakage. Adopting this recommendation would further tighten the “acceptable” individual radiation dose by an unspecified factor – perhaps 5 for AT carriers, and perhaps much more for AT sufferers.

What is an acceptable total population health risk?

As we indicated and documented in Part 2 of Energy Probe’s submission, dated August 8, 1995 (henceforth, “EP2”), it is extremely unfortunate that AECL’s EIS does not estimate or discuss the planned waste repository’s total population risk (as opposed to its individual or “critical group” risk) despite clear direction from the Panel to do so. Moreover, we showed in EP2 that the EIS demonstrates a complete lack of serious thought about total population risk – culminating in the absurd suggestion that the potential “urbanization of the [radioactive] discharge site” would actually be an improvement, because it would lower the health impacts from the discharges! (See R-Postclosure, p. 56, table 4-1. Using the same “logic”, R-Postclosure also shows – as documented in EP2 – that there are health benefits from increasing the number of people who drink from a radioactive-contaminated well, and from releasing radioactive contamination into a lake, rather than a well! )

Unfortunately, pointing out the deficiency of AECL’s response to your Guidelines document in this regard is much easier than remedying it. Neither Energy Probe, nor anybody else without access to AECL’s computer models, is in a position to produce scientifically defensible estimates of the planned waste repository’s total population health risk. So, unless AECL decides to provide such estimates, the Panel will not have any total-impact estimates for AECL’s planned waste repository.

Nonetheless, we, and the Panel, are charged with defining safety and acceptability, and we do not believe that these terms can be defined without reference to total population health risk.
The basic question is as simple to ask as it is distasteful to answer: How many total cancers, genetic effects, and premature deaths can our nuclear-waste repository be predicted to cause and still be considered “acceptable”? We conclude from AECL’s failure to mention the issue in their EIS that the obvious answer – “None, of course!” – is far out of reach for AECL’s Concept. So, again, we must choose between the obviously “right” answer (we have no right to kill or maim or sicken anybody in the distant future) and something much worse, but more “practical”.

Unfortunately, we have no good suggestions for any acceptable level of total health effects, or deaths, other than zero. But if we are convinced that zero will remain forever unattainable (and we are not, although it would certainly take an enormous technological breakthrough), then we must choose as wisely as possible among the “non-zero-deaths” alternatives, just as we did in the case of individual risks.

Total population radiation dose is important even if it is not a standard: Even in the absence of any absolute non-zero standard or target, it is extremely important to calculate total population radiation dose, and total population health risks, in order to make important choices among alternative Concepts, technologies, sites, effort levels, and timing. Unfortunately, AECB’s regulatory document R-104 completely ignores the subject, and also rejects the traditional radiation-protection principle of optimization or “ALARA”, which logically would apply to the total population health risks. AECB’s and AECL’s abdication of responsibility to the future human population makes it imperative that this Panel be absolutely clear on this subject.

Ironically, AECB’s own Advisory Committee on Nuclear Safety (hardly a nest of nuclear-industry critics) has come out clearly in favour of both the calculation of total population radiation dose, and the traditional radiation-protection principle of optimization or “ALARA”, applied to the total population health risks.

The June 1988 publication ACNS-11, Principles and Guidelines for Radioactive Waste Disposal Facilities, devotes all of section 4 to “Collective Risk and the ALARA Principle”. In subsection 4.1, “ALARA”, we read, “It must be agreed that . . . no further improvement to reduce the predicted risks to present and future generations is warranted. Therefore an ALARA-type process should be applied to ensure that the predicted collective risk commitment is acceptably low.” The following subsection, “4.2 Estimation of Collective Risk Commitment” includes the following thoughtful suggestions, not one of which has been implemented by AECL in the EIS:

For widely-dispersed, and in some cases longer-lived, wastes (e.g., H-3, C-14, Kr-85, I-129), the integration limits for evaluating collective risk commitments should, in principle, encompass the Earth’s surface and extend for a time that is long in comparison to the half-lives of the waste products. The dispersion models available, however, are not always sufficiently accurate for such extrapolations, . . . judgment will have to be exercised concerning any integration limits, and the implications of these limits will have to be recognized and accepted. . . .
. . .
It can be expected that estimates of the global dose commitment will show that a substantial portion of the doses would be received at very low individual dose rates, less than a few microsieverts per year. Although this collective dose commitment may be considered significant, . . . For this evaluation, international boundaries should be ignored.
It should be noted that the collective risk calculations described above can also be used for comparing improvements to a chosen concept.

The following two sections of the ACNS report, “5. Selection of Preferred Disposal Concept” and “6. Improvement of the Chosen Disposal Concept”, both recommend “ALARA-type” procedures to compare alternatives on the basis of their predicted collective risk commitment, as well as their costs. AECB, unfortunately, has expressly rejected all of the ACNS’s sensible suggestions in their regulations, and AECL has provided none of the information that would be essential to carry out these comparisons: (1) a range of alternatives to be compared, (2) the “predicted collective risk commitment” (what we have called “total population radiation dose”) of each alternative, and (3) the approximate costs, and social impacts, of each alternative.

Of course, while we are happy to praise ACNS-11 for its inclusion of total population dose and ALARA-type optimization in their discussion, we totally reject its views on acceptable and de minimis dose rates and risk rates, which (like AECB’s, AECL’s, and ICRP’s) are firmly grounded in the old, outmoded “radiation paradigm” which (as discussed above) we believe and hope will soon be discredited. At any rate, ACNS’s definitions of acceptable cancer risk (like AECB’s, AECL’s, and ICRP’s) bear no resemblance to cancer risks that most informed people will actually accept, even in return for acknowledged benefits. They must not be used in a case like this, where we can offer no compensating benefits to those we put at risk.

Based on its disregard for the total health harm predicted from the planned repository, this Concept, as presented and defended by AECL and as regulated by AECB, must be rejected by this Panel. We urge the Panel to condemn these organizations for their decisions in this regard, and to avoid vesting in them any unnecessary responsibility in these important matters.
We are surprised that very few other reviewers of the adequacy of AECL’s EIS commented on AECL’s refusal to quantify or discuss total population radiation dose or total population health risks. But we note with satisfaction that the report of the Panel’s Scientific Review Group did give clear support to Energy Probe’s – and this Panel’s – position:

The SRG notes that the effects assessment relied upon the estimation of dose to an individual member of the critical group. This reliance was apparently based upon the assumption that if the greatest individual risk is acceptable then the total risk to all persons exposed over all generations would also be acceptable. This assumption requires detailed justification which was not presented in the EIS. [Op. cit., p. 84; similar paragraphs appear in Appendix E at pp. 188 and 192.]

The Postclosure Assessment does not meet the SRG criteria for acceptability. If analyses show that the greatest individual risk is acceptable, it cannot without justification be assumed that the total risk to all persons exposed, over all generations, would also be acceptable. Furthermore, should analyses show that the individual and collective risks to humans are acceptable, it cannot without justification be assumed that the risks are also small for all else that is of value in the environment. The SRG does not have sufficient confidence in the application of the performance assessment methodology to be convinced that predicted effects on the natural environment and particularly on human health would be below what is currently accepted and follows good engineering practice. [Op. cit., Appendix E, p. 193]

It must be noted that (1) we share the SRG’s lack of confidence in AECL’s Postclosure Assessment and AECL’s application of performance assessment methodology, but (2) we do not share the SRG’s definition of the test of acceptable performance, as stated in abbreviated form in the last sentence quoted above, and in full at p. 24:

SRG criteria for Acceptable Performance are that predicted or expected effects on the natural environment, and particularly on human health, are below what is currently accepted by the federal and provincial governments and that the concept follows good engineering practice. . . . (“Currently accepted” means standards that are current at the time of implementation, development and closure and does not imply 1995 standards alone.) [Op. cit., p. 24; bold in original.]

This definition, which at least allows for the tightening of standards since 1987, is certainly better than AECL’s or AECB’s definition, but still implies far too much legitimacy to “[standards] accepted by the federal and provincial governments”. As shown above, these standards have not been widely discussed, are not based on effective public consultation, and in fact are widely rejected by informed, concerned sectors of the public – including, but not restricted to, Energy Probe and other environmental Non-Governmental Organizations.
The Panel must expressly insist – and must demand that the regulatory regime insist – that any proponent or implementer of nuclear waste disposal must assess the total predicted impacts of its proposal, for both average and more extreme scenarios, and must demonstrate that those total impacts are less than those of alternatives that are available or likely to become available in the next several decades.
What is an acceptable environmental risk?

Just as AECL has avoided discussing the planned waste repository’s total (human) population risk, it has also avoided discussing the total inventory of persistent toxins which the planned waste repository is predicted to release into the environment. Instead, it has focused on concentrations, thereby taking credit for the fact that the Earth is a large planet. In the parlance of environmentalists, focussing on toxic concentrations rather than on total loadings or emissions is dismissed with a short rhyming phrase: “The solution to pollution isn’t dilution.”

It is that perverse attitude toward the release of large absolute quantities of persistent toxins that has led AECL to conclude (for example) that toxic releases into a lake would be better than release into groundwater-supplied wells.

Moreover, AECL has again confused two separate issues: (1) Is the estimated harm acceptable? and (2) Could the estimated harm be statistically proven and linked to the cause? For example, the fact that raised radio-toxic concentrations would be masked by “natural, local, spatial variation in concentration” would prevent even relatively large – and unacceptable – increases from causing “detectable environmental effects”.

We are pleased to announce that the nuclear establishment’s historic disregard for environmental risks may be nearing its end, through the involvement of Environment Canada. Late last year, the Ministers’ [of Environment and Health] Expert Advisory Panel on the Second Priority Substances List under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) included “Releases of radionuclides from nuclear facilities (impacts on non-human species)” among its twenty-five priority substances, out of about 600 substances initially considered. “The Ministers accepted the recommendations and published the list of 25 substances in Part I of the Canada Gazette on December 16, as the second Priority Substances List.” The next step is to determine whether or not these substances are indeed “toxic” in the meaning of CEPA; if so, management strategies may be developed.
The last time Environment Canada got seriously involved in the matter of radionuclide releases into the environment was in 1983-84, with the drafting of Environmental Codes of Practice for Steam-Electric Generating Stations. That document attempted to use the same approach for controlling radionuclide releases from nuclear stations to water as it used for chemical releases from fossil-fueled stations to water. The fossil-fueled recommendations generally became practice in Canada. The nuclear recommendations – which called for emissions reductions by factors of hundreds or thousands from current practice – created a furore among the nuclear establishment, led (again!) by AECB, which successfully neutered them all between the draft and the final document.

We are hopeful that Environment Canada will repeat its vigilant performance of the 1980’s, and that the concerned public will be able to prevent AECB and the rest of the nuclear establishment from overpowering them.

Regardless of the outcome of that process, however, it is incumbent on this Panel to ensure that the natural environment and its non-human species are protected, beyond reasonable doubt, from significant total loadings of persistent toxins like 14C, 129I and 36Cl.

We believe that this requirement may be more restrictive and demanding than the Panel’s requirement for total (human) population radiation dose (and total human population health risk), based on the following reasoning:

  • Many non-human species – at least the more complex mammals – appear to exhibit similar radiation sensitivities to humans.
  • Even in the “primitive” mid-1990’s (primitive compared to the era in which our repository’s predicted impacts mushroom), our willingness to expose non-human species to serious health detriment from environmental toxins is apparently decreasing. Arguably, we are willing to expose non-human species to perhaps only one or two orders of magnitude greater health risks than human species, and that “acceptable risk” can be expected to decline in future (judging by today’s trends).
  • Collective dose: Any one generation of humans can only be expected to consume a relatively small fraction of any widespread environmental pollutant, including the radionuclides of concern, when they are released into the environment. The coexistent population of non-human species can be expected to consume a somewhat larger fraction, given their lifestyles.
  • Individual dose: Compared to the humans in the Critical Group, or even the most exposed individual human in each generation, many non-human beings can be expected to be exposed to much higher doses of any widespread environmental pollutant, including the radionuclides of concern.

At any rate, when environmental laws and regulations governing releases of such persistent toxins are increasingly dedicated to the “virtual elimination” of emissions – even at the expense of banning commercially useful substances or phasing them out – this Panel should not condone any Concept which promises wholesale emissions of uniquely persistent toxins, in quantities predicted to increase for at least one million years!
Other issues

Funding for further research, and for implementation:

The Panel should ensure that today’s consumers of nuclear electricity (and, to a much lesser extent, commercial and medical radioisotopes) pay in full for the storage and disposal of the wastes generated along with those products. At present, there is every possibility that other parties – most likely present or future taxpayers – will bear part or all of these costs, for several reasons:

Federal taxpayers have paid, and are now still paying, part of AECL’s costs to develop and defend the Concept;

  • Funds collected from Ontario Hydro ratepayers for many years for reactor decommissioning and waste disposal – now totalling over $2 billion – have never been segregated from the near-insolvent activities of Ontario Hydro, despite a commitment by Ontario Hydro’s Board of Directors to segregate them. These funds are unlikely to be available when needed;
  • Those funds (and the much smaller amounts being collected by New Brunswick Power and Hydro Québec), even if available, will likely be insufficient to do the job. For one thing, the rate of collection is based on Ontario Hydro’s goal of amassing ten percent of the total real-dollar cost, by the time the nuclear station shuts down at the end of its predicted 40-year lifetime. The other 90% of the necessary funds are expected to be generated by investment returns above inflation over the ensuing 30 or 40 years. We believe this practice is imprudent and recommend that the Panel require the collection of adequate funds by the time the nuclear stations retire.
  • The assumption that each nuclear station will operate, and generate revenues for nuclear waste disposal, for 40 years, is already proving overly optimistic and therefore imprudent. For example, Bruce-A Unit 2 has shut down, apparently forever, after operating for about 19 years, and Bruce-A Unit 1 is scheduled to follow in about four years. Neither of the other two reactors at Bruce-A is expected to live to be 40 years old, either. These reactors’ diminished volumes of spent fuel, while welcome, will not diminish the total costs of the planned repository (according to AECL’s calculations) as dramatically as the early shutdowns will diminish the funding available. We believe the assumption of a 40-year life expectancy – especially combined with “straight-line” collection of waste-disposal funds – is imprudent, and recommend that the Panel require that the collection of these funds be “front-end loaded”, to minimize the adverse effects of early retirements.
  • The need to spend more time and money on research than Ontario Hydro and AECL have anticipated – very likely more time than even the newest Canadian reactor will operate – may require significantly more funds than will be available. The Panel should state clearly that inadequate funding provisions by the owners of Canada’s nuclear reactors must not limit or foreclose opportunities to do what is right in the disposal of Canada’s nuclear wastes.

The choice of an Implementing Organization

It should be obvious to this Panel, as it is to Energy Probe, that AECL and its EIS are biased and unsatisfactory. We believe the examples of imprudence, inadequacy and bias identified by Energy Probe’s submissions and many others suffice to establish that AECL, regardless of how many millions of dollars it spends, is unlikely to gain the trust of the Canadian public, Canadian environmental groups, or any well informed potential host community. Of course, there are also very good reasons for this conclusion outside the EIS and this Concept. We refer here to AECL’s position as a radioactive polluter, a marketer of nuclear reactors, and the owner of a radioactive-contaminated site. In addition, AECL has a long history of unfortunate public statements about nuclear waste disposal (and impartation), and a long history of questionable business practices and unfortunate choice of business agents and customers. Any one of these characteristics would be a serious obstacle in gaining public trust; together, they would make the job completely impossible, even if AECL’s EIS and Concept were thorough, adequate, satisfactory, or even above criticism.

We recommend that the Panel call for the establishment of a new and independent entity to carry on research in Canada, and monitor research internationally, to develop an acceptable Concept. It must be completely independent from the waste generators and from AECL, and must have no promotional or marketing responsibilities. This entity should receive its funds from the generators of nuclear wastes, including as much of those funds already collected as can be retrieved from the general operations of those companies.
In a research community as small as Canada’s, it would probably be unrealistic to restrict the new entity in hiring staff from what is now AECL. However, given the history of the matter, it would not inspire confidence of the new entity resembled Whiteshell Nuclear Research Establishment with a new sign in front.

We recommend that a future public review – perhaps the same one that is convened to review the next proposal for a Concept – should determine whether or not that new and independent entity should pursue the implementation of that Concept, based on its performance until then. (In Part 3 of Energy Probe’s submission to this Review, we address the question of whether the Implementing Organization should preferably be publicly or privately owned.)

Importation of high-level waste from other countries

Especially in light of (1) the numerous and recent statements by highly-placed AECL officials about the desirability of disposing of other countries’ nuclear wastes in a Canadian repository and (2) the apparent discrepancy between the capacity of AECL’s repository, as designed, and the volume of high-level waste that today’s Canadian reactors will generate, even if they live to be 40, the Panel must decide what to recommend on this subject. One option would be to acknowledge the inadequacy (or absence) of discussion on this subject in this Review, and reiterate recommendation 13 from the January 1988 report of the Standing Committee on Environment and Forestry:
A public review process should be launched if the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources should envisage the possibility of accepting nuclear waste from other countries.
Or course, the need for a public review is not limited by the source of the proposal (and “EM&R” is now renamed Natural Resources Canada), but by the prospect that another country’s waste would be entering Canada.

Possible fissioning of weapons-grade Plutonium
The Panel directed AECL to discuss “the possible changes in the nature and characteristics of nuclear fuel waste due to changes in nuclear power technology or in energy policies (Guidelines, page 4)”, as well as the effect of changes in nuclear technology on the amount of nuclear fuel waste (Guidelines, page 8). One change in nuclear power technology which is currently being proposed by Ontario Hydro and AECL to the U.S. government is the fissioning, in Canada (probably at the Bruce-A Nuclear Generating Station) of fuel containing weapons-grade Plutonium from U.S., or possibly former Soviet, nuclear weapons. Reportedly, the preferred option being proposed by Ontario Hydro and AECL involves the operation of the Bruce-A Nuclear Generating Station for many years longer than is currently planned by Ontario Hydro. Further, in all current proposals discussed in public, the resulting nuclear fuel waste would remain in Canada. This proposal could therefore change both the quantity and the nature and characteristics of the nuclear fuel waste awaiting disposal in Canada. The EIS documents do not discuss these changes, or their impact on the concept, but the Panel should either invite comments and make a recommendation, or again adopt and reiterate recommendation 13 from the January 1988 report of the Standing Committee on Environment and Forestry, quoted above.

“Postclosure” retrieval of buried nuclear fuel waste

In Guidelines, §3.3, page 11, “Retrieval of Buried Nuclear Fuel Waste”, the Panel directed AECL as follows:
The EIS should outline plans and procedures which would be required for the retrieval of nuclear fuel waste from a sealed and decommissioned disposal vault under emergency or other circumstances. This should include estimates of the cost of such an operation . . .
Appendix A of the EIS volume refers to two sections in that volume as addressing this topic: § 3.6.6, “Retrievability”, and § 5.8.9, “Waste Retrieval” (EIS, pp. 72-72 and p. 199). Neither provides the cost estimates specified in the Guidelines. Further, the description of “the reference disposal vault” on pp. 42-43 of R-Postclosure makes no mention of the topic at all.

We continue to believe that it is no favour to future generations to place extremely long-lived wastes irretrievably into a repository which will surely leak. Practical retrievability is an essential feature of an acceptable repository, at least until absolute safety can be guaranteed.

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