Nuclear waste – burying a problem, or a solution?

Quirks & Quarks, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
September 18, 2004

In Canada, we are now storing more than 20-million kilos of nuclear waste in pools and concrete storage facilities around our nuclear reactors. If no new reactors are built, when the current reactors are decomissioned, there will be twice that amount. The waste will be lethally radioactive for hundreds of years, and toxic for tens of thousands of years. At the moment, we have no long-term policy for dealing with it.

For thirty years scientists have been working on ways to deal with this waste but, to date, the only permanent solution that seems workable is burying the waste in stable geological repositories – chambers built in ancient and undisturbed rock, where it can remain forever. Scientists like Dr. David Shoesmith, a professor of Chemistry at the University of Western Ontario, and Lawrence Johnson, senior scientist and research and development coordinator at NAGRA, the Swiss government’s nuclear waste management agency, believe in geological disposal. They worked on developing a plan for a Canadian repository at Atomic Energy of Canada Limited’s Whiteshell research Laboratory before that lab was closed down.

That proposal, however has met with considerable criticism from people like Norm Rubin, director of Nuclear Research at Energy Probe, a Toronto-based environmental group. He doesn’t trust the idea of burying nuclear waste in the ground and forgetting about it. He’d like to wait to find a better solution in the future.

Liz Dowdeswell, President of Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization, says that may be a viewpoint shared by much of the Canadian public. The problem is, scientists think there is no better solution on the horizon, and delay may not necessarily be reasonable. We could lose the technical ability to dispose of the waste over time, and if we don’t take responsibility for solving the problem now, it might never get solved.

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