Cndn Government releases report of panel studying the disposal of nuclear fuel waste: backgrounder

Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency
March 1, 1998

In a 1978 joint statement, the governments of Canada and Ontario directed Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) to develop the concept of deep geological disposal of nuclear fuel wastes. A subsequent joint statement in 1981 established that disposal site selection would not begin until after a full federal public hearing and approval of the concept by both governments.

In September 1988, the federal Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources referred the concept, along with a broad range of nuclear fuel waste management issues, for public review. He made this referral under the federal Environmental Assessment and Review Process Guide-lines Order. On October 4, 1989, the federal Minister of the Environment appointed an independent environmental assessment panel to conduct the review.

The panel’s mandate was unusual compared to that of any other federal environmental assessment panel in that it was asked:

• to review a concept rather than a specific project at a specific site;

• to review a proposal for which the implementing agency was not identified;

• to establish a scientific review group of distinguished independent experts to examine the safety and scientific acceptability of the proposal;

• to review a broad range of policy issues; and

• to conduct the review in five provinces.

AECL describes its concept as a method for geological disposal of nuclear fuel wastes in which

• the waste form is either used Canada Deuterium Uranium (CANDU) fuel or the solidified high-level wastes from reprocessing;

• the waste form is sealed in a container designed to last at least 500 years and possibly much longer;

• the containers of waste are emplaced in rooms in a disposal vault or in boreholes drilled from the rooms;

• the disposal rooms are between 500 and 1000 metres below the surface;

the geological medium is plutonic rock of the Canadian Shield;

• each container of waste is surrounded by a buffer;

• each room is sealed with backfill and other vault seals; and

• all tunnels, shafts and exploration boreholes are ultimately sealed in such a way that a disposal facility would be passively safe—that is, long-term safety would not depend on institutional controls.

Such a facility would cost an estimated $8.7 billion to $13.3 billion in 1991 dollars, depending on the amount of waste to be disposed of.

The Panel conducted its review in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick. To develop guidelines to help AECL prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS), the Panel held scoping meetings in autumn 1990 in 14 communities. It also held a workshop on Aboriginal issues and met with members of Canadian Student Pugwash. The Panel then prepared draft guidelines, released them for public comment in June 1991, and issued them in final form on March 18, 1992. On October 26, 1994, AECL submitted an EIS, supported by nine primary reference documents. The period for public review of the EIS began on November 8, 1994, and ended on August 8, 1995.

Public hearings were held in 16 communities over three phases beginning March 11, 1996 and ending March 27, 1997. Phase I focused on broad societal issues related to managing nuclear fuel wastes; Phase II focused on the safety of the AECL concept from a technical viewpoint; and Phase III focused on the public’s opinions of the safety and acceptability of the concept. During all three phases, the Panel heard from a total of 531 registered speakers and received 536 written submissions, as listed in Appendix F. Participants were also allowed to submit brief closing statements in writing by April 18, 1997. The Panel considered all written and oral information received in the period from its appointment to the end of the hearings, as well as the closing statements, in preparing this report.

Among other activities, the Terms of Reference directed the Panel

• to examine the criteria by which the safety and acceptability of a concept for long-term waste management and disposal should be evaluated; and

• to prepare a final report addressing whether AECL’s concept is safe and acceptable or should be modified, and the future steps to be taken in managing nuclear fuel wastes in Canada.

CRITERIA FOR SAFETY AND ACCEPTABILITY

The Panel examined the criteria by which the safety and acceptability of any concept for long-term waste management should be evaluated (Chapter 4 of the report). In doing so, it came to the following key conclusions.

Key Panel Conclusions

• Broad public support is necessary in Canada to ensure the acceptability of a concept for managing nuclear fuel wastes.

• Safety is a key part, but only one part, of acceptability. Safety must be viewed from two complementary perspectives: technical and social.

On this basis, the Panel defined the safety and acceptability criteria as follows:

To be considered acceptable, a concept for managing nuclear fuel wastes must

• have broad public support;

• be safe from both a technical and a social perspective;

• have been developed within a sound ethical and social assessment framework;

• have the support of Aboriginal people;

• be selected after comparison with the risks, costs and benefits of other options; and

• be advanced by a stable and trustworthy proponent and overseen by a trustworthy regulator.

To be considered safe, a concept for managing nuclear fuel wastes must be judged, on balance, to

• demonstrate robustness in meeting appropriate regulatory requirements;

• be based on thorough and participatory scenario analyses;

• use realistic data, modelling and natural analogues;

• incorporate sound science and good practices;

• demonstrate flexibility;

• demonstrate that implementation is feasible; and

• integrate peer review and international expertise.

SAFETY AND ACCEPTABILITY OF THE AECL CONCEPT

After applying these criteria to the AECL disposal concept, the Panel arrived at the key conclusions listed below. The rationale for them, and an elaboration on the technical and social perspectives of safety, are documented in Chapter 5 of the report.

Key Panel Conclusions

• From a technical perspective, safety of the AECL concept has been on balance adequately demonstrated for a conceptual stage of development, but from a social perspective, it has not.

• As it stands, the AECL concept for deep geological disposal has not been demonstrated to have broad public support. The concept in its current form does not have the required level of acceptability to be adopted as Canada’s approach for managing nuclear fuel wastes.

FUTURE STEPS

The Panel considered the steps that must be taken to ensure the safe and acceptable long-term management of nuclear fuel wastes in Canada (in Chapter 6 of the report). It arrived at the following key recommendations.

Key Panel Recommendations

A number of additional steps are required to develop an approach for managing nuclear fuel wastes in a way that could achieve broad public support. These include

• issuing a policy statement on managing nuclear fuel wastes;

• initiating an Aboriginal participation process;

• creating a nuclear fuel waste management agency (NFWMA);

• conducting a public review of AECB regulatory documents using a more effective consultation process;

• developing a comprehensive public participation plan;

• developing an ethical and social assessment framework; and

• developing and comparing options for managing nuclear fuel wastes.

Taking into account the views of participants in our public hearings and our own analysis, we have developed the following basic recommendations to governments with respect to a management agency:

• that an NFWMA as described in Chapter 6 of the report be established quickly, at arm’s length from the utilities and AECL, with the sole purpose of managing and co-ordinating the full range of activities relating to the long-term management of nuclear fuel wastes;

• that it be fully funded in all its operations from a segregated fund to which only the producers and owners of nuclear fuel wastes would contribute;

• that its board of directors, appointed by the federal government, be representative of key stakeholders;

• that it have a strong and active advisory council representative of a wide variety of interested parties;

• that its purposes, responsibilities and accountability, particularly in relation to the ownership of the wastes, be clearly and explicitly spelled out, preferably in legislation or in its charter of incorporation; and

• that it be subject to multiple oversight mechanisms, including federal regulatory control with respect to its scientific–technical work and the adequacy of its financial guarantees; to policy direction from the federal government; and to regular public review, preferably by Parliament.

Until the foregoing steps have been completed and broad public acceptance of a nuclear fuel waste management approach has been achieved, the search for a specific site should not proceed.

If the AECL concept is chosen as the most acceptable option after implementation of the steps recom-mended above, governments should direct the NFWMA, together with Natural Resources Canada and the AECB or its successor, to undertake the following: review all the social and technical shortcomings identified by the Scientific Review Group and other review participants; establish their priority; and generate a plan to address them. The NFWMA should make this plan publicly available, invite public input, then implement the plan.

 

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