No consensus on nuclear waste

Norman Rubin
National Post – Letter to the Editor
December 4, 1998

Neville Nankivell’s “Nuclear waste becoming hot issue” (November 26) brings much-needed attention to the important issue of nuclear waste, and the crucial decision now facing the federal government. Most vividly and sympathetically, he presents the “disgruntlement” of Canada’s nuclear industry over recent setbacks.

And who wouldn’t be disgruntled?

The nuclear industry spent 20 years and $700 million to make their case before an independent blue-ribbon review panel, and came up empty! Specifically, they failed to get the two things they wanted: validation of their plan – to put million-year wastes irretrievably down an unmonitored disposal shaft – and permission to choose a site for the shaft.

But Nankivell doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that the independent review panel made its decisions based on evidence, facts, intelligence, and common sense. Rather, he seems to accept without question the world-view of the hearing’s losers – the industry whose case was found wanting on safety, credibility, feasibility, and public acceptance.

It is one thing to share the nuclear industry’s frustration with the independent panel’s findings; it is another thing to misrepresent those findings. AECL and Nankivell persist in claiming the panel was convinced of the plan’s safety; it was not. The panel was divided into two factions, each of which wrote a chapter on safety. One group – the one the industry quotes – found the safety case acceptable “for a concept”; the other did not. The entire panel agreed that acceptability demands agreement on the plan’s safety.

The panel was also unanimous on the larger questions – questions like “Is AECL a credible proponent?” and “Is the AECB a trustworthy regulator?” and “Does the plan have broad public support?” On all those questions and more, the panel unanimously rejected AECL’s case.

But then, how credible a waste plan would you expect from the same institutions who swore that Canada’s nuclear plants would generate cheap, reliable electricity? These are, after all, the same well-educated geniuses whose false promises convinced our governments to sink over ten billion dollars into nuclear research, and tens of billions of dollars more into nuclear reactors. That successful investment pitch was based on forecasts, as are AECL’s claims of safety for its disposal plans.

The difference is, we already know how the investments turned out. Ontario Hydro’s reactors (20 of Canada’s 22) are now considered worthless by the Ontario government and its expert consultants, while the cost of cleaning up after them was recently estimated at over $18 billion, in today’s money. Ontario Hydro has set aside NO money to clean up that radioactive mess.

That is why Nankivell’s last sentence is so vitally important: “It’s now up to the politicians to take policy action that ensures radioactive waste is managed in a way that won’t leave the financial burden to future generations.” Unfortunately, neither Nankivell nor the review panel explained how this bankrupt, sunset industry is going to produce that much cash.

As to AECL’s (and Nankivell’s) claim that “all countries that have looked at safe ways of managing nuclear waste have found the best approach is sealing it in deep underground vaults,” the panel discovered that no alternatives were seriously considered before AECL and its international counterparts declared this one “best”. Furthermore, the old international consensus on irretrievable, unmonitored disposal isn’t what it used to be, as several countries have realized that our children will want – and deserve – early warning of leakage from the underground repository.

Several countries have realized that our children will want – and deserve – early warning of leakage from the underground repository. They also deserve to have this generation set aside the money to clean up the mess.


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