Lawrence Solomon: A billion dollars full of nuclear waste

(November 21, 2013) The Deep Geologic Repository is a make-work project.

By Lawrence Solomon for the National Post, published on November 21, 2013

Ontario Power Generation, a government-owned corporation, intends to needlessly build a $1-billion facility near the Great Lakes to dispose of radioactive waste generated by the province’s 20 nuclear reactors. Citizens on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border as a result are now needlessly worrying that their health and that of their children would be at risk should radioactivity someday seep into the environment. Once the facility is built and begins to receive radioactive shipments trucked from across the province, people along the transportation routes will needlessly worry about the health and safety consequences of a spill or highway accident, even though the facility will handle no high-level waste, taking only medium and low-level waste.

This billion-dollar complex, called the Deep Geologic Repository, is in fact a make-work project, requested by the Municipality of Kincardine more than a decade ago to provide jobs and investment in anticipation of the eventual shutdown of the nearby Bruce nuclear reactors. The plan calls for the waste to be stored in vaults 680 metres underground, and monitored for 300 years. The radioactive material to be stored – largely contaminated clothes, mops and other materials used by nuclear workers — is now stored above-ground in a manner, according to experts, that is no less safe than the underground facility would be. Apart from saving a billion dollars, a continuation of above-ground storage – in use since the 1960s – would have the added advantage of sparing citizens in Ontario and Michigan needless worry about the safety of their air and drinking water.

The angst that citizens feel is needless, not because the underground facility will be as secure as advertised or because accidents can’t happen, but because, if they do happen, the health implications stand to be positive. Contrary to conventional wisdom, numerous studies show low levels of radioactivity to be beneficial to human health. A Nagasaki University School of Medicine study of victims of the atomic bomb found that those who received low to moderate levels of radioactive fallout subsequently enjoyed better health and outlived the general Japanese population. In North America, those who live in regions with high levels of natural radiation have 25% lower cancer rates than those who live in regions with low radiation. As it happens, the Great Lakes region is relatively starved of radiation – it has but one half to one quarter as much as, say, Alberta or Colorado – and would remain relatively starved even if an occasional accident released some radiation into the environment.

Needless though the angst may be, it will be real, affecting the citizenry’s wellbeing. Needless though the facility may be, the billion dollars squandered in its construction will also be real, affecting the pocketbooks of the citizens of Ontario. The needlessness extends far beyond Ontario and far beyond the billion dollars, though, because the West’s entire commercial nuclear reactor business has been a waste – uneconomic from the first, motivated not by commercial concerns but by Cold War geopolitics.

The commercial nuclear industry was a creation of government, promoted in the 1950s by the Eisenhower administration’s Atoms for Peace program. Although Eisenhower knew nuclear power was not commercially viable – his own Atomic Energy Commission spelled that out – he provided the subsidies and protections the fledgling industry needed on foreign policy rationales, to create an international system of regulation controlled by the U.S. that would discourage states from independently building reactors for military use.

In the subsequent decades, nuclear power companies around the world went bankrupt – OPG’s predecessor, Ontario Hydro, was but one of them, the U.K.’s British Energy was another. “Catastrophic” was how the president of Électricité de France, the state utility that became the world’s biggest backer of nuclear electricity, described the financial results of its nuclear investments.

The economic waste also failed to serve its foreign policy purpose of preventing the spread of nuclear weaponry – among others, North Korea and Iran have outfoxed the regulatory system that Eisenhower began, using it as a cover to develop nuclear bombs, and sometimes at Western taxpayer expense.

For many decades now, taxpayers have been supporting this awesomely, matchlessly wasteful technology. For many decades and perhaps centuries to come, although the commercial nuclear industry has all but died, its legacy of waste will remain with us in facilities such as the Deep Geologic Repository – as with some ancient monument, we will continue to watch over the nuclear industry’s relics and pay obeisance to its myths.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe.

To see maps of radiation zones in Canada and the U.S., click here and here.

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About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
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One Response to Lawrence Solomon: A billion dollars full of nuclear waste

  1. Ian Turnbull says:

    Dear Lawrence Solomon, I would like to contribute to this discussion about the waste materials in a round about way: firstly by promoting a distinctly Canadian view of the Atomic World: by which I mean – a synthesis of our scientific knowledge of the atom allied to a sense of the whole living nature of our Universe, being the wisdom and insight coming from the First Nation’s side of this nation.

    The aspect of our nuclear work that I believe deserves attention is how we presently look down into the realm of the atomic particles with an inherited covert colonial attitude. This attitude is hard to isolate and identify because it is incorporated seamlessly into the scientific method. This attitude affects every nation working with nuclear power. I would suggest it arrived from the British/European ‘scientific explorers’ who basically discovered the particle/Atomic World, and then described what they had found in the patrician and imperial language of their time: which still retains authority to guide how we see and think about this smaller (to us) world of the atomic particles.

    Without quite realising it, we are working in the Atomic World as colonists. The same consciousness that took Britain and other European nations to colonise Africa and the Americas, Asia and Australasia, now has exclusive authority over how we see and approach and treat the world of the atomic particles.
    If we are to ever properly address the phenomena of radiation, and escape the consequences of the existence of nuclear weapons … now is the time to look again at how we look and perceive the Atomic World.

    Canada is blessed with the important sage in recent years of having to apologise and recompense the First Nations people, for the policy of the Canadian Governments of yesteryear, that their children must attend the Residential Schools spread across the nation, designed to eliminate the indigenous knowledge and nature of the aboriginal people of this country.
    Look with the learning of that sorry story, and see that we are re-enacting this same process within the Atomic World. The same covert colonial attitudes that create the Residential School policy now has charge of our perception of the particle world. We ‘nuclear nations’ are prosperous and powerful because we choose not to concern ourselves with the subjective and mythic and symbolic and spiritual nature of the atomic particles. Even while they are as the aboriginal indigenous population of the Atomic World.
    History is repeating itself. We are repeating ourselves. The Residential School caused enormous harm to the family and community lives and fabric of the First nations people. Nuclear fission work for us by devastating the social fabric of the atoms of the “uranium band”, who are the largest particle community in the Atomic World. History is repeating itself. We are repeating ourselves.

    Yes, it is a big challenge for our imagination to start thinking of the particle world as social and sentient. But as soon as we enlarge our scientific inquiry to include subjective data, instead if excluding it, as we now do – then the living nature of the particle world becomes evident. The need now is to look into the particle world with civil eyes, with civilian eyes, rather than soldier’s and scientist’s eyes.

    I have developed a web site – nucleargodeeper dot com – which seeks to highlight the rewards of observing universal phenomena with both a scientific/Western mind-set (which excels at see the objecting nature of things) and with indigenous aboriginal eyes (which are good at interpreting subjective effects).
    The outcome of this ‘dualistic approach’ is that we again get to see the “holographic nature” of our Universe: which the ancients knew by the simple phrase: “As above, so below”. The ‘holographic principle’ helps us see the universal nature of the particle world. Which in turn flags up the universal nature of us humans, of us Humanity.

    I have commended this line of inquiry to the nuclear agencies like NWMO. It is not easy for groups already endowed with rank and resources and expertise to see the deeper nature of the story we are within. But Canada is in a favoured position, more than the other ‘nuclear nations’, with the symbolic partnership with the First Nations people already written into the Constitution. It feels like we have on hand a reservoir of universal awareness, that is waiting to be drawn upon. Whereas the other nations have virtually eradicated indigenous knowledge from their cultures, and look trapped to only ever see the Atomic World through colonist’s eyes.

    Scientific inquiry has brought us to a place which now needs us to add in our experiential knowledge of the nuclear processes. Then the whole and wholesome nature of the particle world can slowly becomes apparent to our imagination. I’d go on to say that I believe the reward of integrating a scientific and indigenous/spiritual awareness of the Atomic World – is the distinct possibility that we will then have the insight to create a process that can address (‘heal’ is the better word) the phenomena of radiation. If this proves possible, then the nuclear weapons will also start to look mutable.
    The phrase that seems to sum up this approach is … “The only way out is to go in deeper”.

    I trust you’ll hear that I think we’ve far to go, before we can get serious about burying the rad.waste materials. We need to think deeper, look wider. It is the universal nature of our nuclear work that needs our attention. I think this will take us along a yet more creative path of inquiry.

    Thanks for the space to post. Good wishes. Ian Turnbull. Findhorn. Scotland.

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