(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.