More than a quarter century after the nuclear industry started creating Canada’s largest collection of cancer-causing poisons, there still is no acceptable plan to get rid of these wastes. Worse yet, the waste producers haven’t set aside any money to do the job — not even the money they’ve taken from electricity customers in Ontario, New Brunswick, and Quebec for waste disposal. And now, while a federal Environmental Assessment panel is writing recommendations on the subject after years of public hearings, the federal government is quietly creating a new radioactive waste policy, and consulting only with the people who created the problem.
In the 1970s, Canada’s nuclear establishment concluded that we would trust them to bury highly radioactive used fuel from Canada’s nuclear reactors deep underground. The nuclear establishment, led by the federal Crown Corporation AECL (Atomic Energy of Canada Limited), settled on a plan that omitted any ongoing monitoring for radiation leaks and made no provision for fixing leaks if and when they were discovered. Put bluntly, they dreamed of finding a place called “away” — a place where we could put these wastes and forget about them forever.
Having decided that bury-and-forget “disposal” was the best option for nuclear waste, AECL (with the blessing of the federal government and its nuclear regulator, the AECB) then spent 20 years and over $700 million — partly from federal taxpayers, partly from electricity customers served by nuclear utilities — assembling its case. Every few years, AECL officials announced that they had “proved” — based on their forecasts of the distant future — that the resulting risks to humans and the rest of the environment, over the hundreds of thousands of years these waste remain poisonous, will be “acceptable”.
Only recently did AECL bother to ask the Canadian public whether their disposal plan bears any relationship to public values. The public wants an early warning system, in case the wastes start dissolving in groundwater or physically breaking up. The public also wants to leave future generations with some way to fix these problems if and when they occur. Canadians just don’t seem to believe in “away” any more. But the entire Canadian nuclear waste program has been based on the belief that “away” is a real place, and on the assumption that long-term monitoring and retrievability are both bad.
Rather than admit that they’ve spent $700 million of Canadians’ money pursuing an unacceptable approach, AECL, Ontario Hydro, and the others doggedly promoted their approach on two fronts:
- They spent the last several years trying to convince a federal Environmental Assessment Panel that their plan was acceptable, that their computer forecasts were reliable, and that their approach must be right, because of an “international consensus” — i.e., the nuclear establishments in most other nuclear countries agree with their counterparts here.
- Behind the scenes, while members of the public and groups like Energy Probe have been countering the industry’s arguments in these public hearings, the federal nuclear bureaucrats at the Department of Natural Resources have been quietly assembling Canada’s new official policy on radioactive waste disposal, working only with the people who created the problem!
I only uncovered this second, secret approach near the end of the public hearing, when an official with the Canadian Nuclear Society let its existence slip. When Energy Probe’s friends and I had finished asking questions, we had learned that the bureaucrats had been quietly working out their draft policy with the producers of radioactive wastes, and the associations that represent them. The public and environmental organizations weren’t included on the list of “major stakeholders”.
Whatever we eventually do with our nuclear waste legacy, the waste producers admit that it will be very expensive. AECL and Ontario Hydro both estimate that their disposal plan will cost over $10 billion in today’s dollars.
Unfortunately, nobody has set aside any cash to pay for the job. Canada’s three nuclear utilities have collected over $1 billion from their ratepayers, ostensibly to pay for waste disposal — but then spent the money.
This kind of irresponsibility is common to the nuclear establishment worldwide. When the British reorganized and partly privatized their “Hydro” (the Central Electricity Generating Board), they also found that there was no money for nuclear waste disposal, although the utility had been collecting from ratepayers for years.
Thanks to growing public awareness of the nuclear industry’s environmental and financial irresponsibility, and the progress we made in the recent hearings, we are more hopeful than ever that Canada’s radioactive waste policy can be substantially improved, and that we can loosen the waste producers’ stranglehold over policy.
Please contribute generously so we can keep working to protect the environment and future generations from Canada’s legacy of nuclear waste.
Director of Nuclear Research