Abandoning Nuclear Waste

Ontario Power Generation owns 20 nuclear power reactors. Two of them permanently shut down. Six more scheduled to be retired by 2020.

The largest nuclear power station in North America is the Bruce NPP, located close to the shore of Lake Huron. The Western Waste Management Facility (WWMF) is sited on land adjacent to the eight operating reactors at Bruce. At WWMF, radioactive reactor wastes of all kinds from all of Ontario’s reactors are stored in surface or near-surface facilities. In recent years, because of the removal of large volumes of materials from inside the cores of these reactors and other materials connected directly to the core reactor vessel, the amounts and levels of radioactivity have gone up dramatically in the nuclear waste inventory at WWMF.

Bruce NPP, Lake Huron

Bruce NPP, Lake Huron

These wastes will remain dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years. No one denies this elementary fact. But corporate bodies can not tolerate the concept of a never-ending liability, one that may require repeated expenditures far into the future, so they want to devise a protocol by which they can abandon these wastes. OPG describes the project as having four phases — construction, emplacement, closure, and abandonment. The object of the exercise is to abandon the waste. That is one of the chief motivations for burying nuclear waste — it’s a case of “out of sight, out of mind”. If and when this dangerous radioactive material escapes from the repository, as has happened at two such deep underground nuclear waste dumps in Germany and one in Carlsbad New Mexico — it will be somebody else’s problem. Not OPG’s. And not CNSC’s. Those bodies will have washed their hands of all responsibility. And if the radioactive material leaks out in the future, people will have no idea what those materials are or how to deal with them, and no resources to do so, because amnesia inevitably follows abandonment.


Alternatively, CCNR advocates a policy of Rolling Stewardship, by which the waste will never be abandoned but will be constantly monitored and kept in a retrievable condition indefinitely. We know how to package this waste very well so that it does not contaminate the environment. This information and this responsibility must be passed on to each successive generation with all necessary documentation regarding the dangers involved and the necessity of retrieving and repacking the material before any leakage problems develop. The necessary authority, information, and resources can be ceremonially transmitted to the next generation by means of a formal inauguration ceremony every 20 years or so. With the advance of knowledge and engineering capability, each generation will hopefully be able to do as well or better than the previous generation, until one day there may be a method for genuinely neutralizing these wastes or otherwise rendering them harmless. In the meantime, when the Bruce site closes down, the waste should be removed from the vicinity of the Great Lakes for greater security.

Abandoning the waste, as OPG plans to do in Phase 4 of their proposal, is not a solution to the problem. It is simply a corporate strategy for terminating liability.The waste is dangerous for much more than 100,000 years. The Great Lakes came into existence only 10,000 years ago. The pyramids of Egypt were built about 5000 years ago. OPG brags that it has studied this geological formation for 10 years. Over a period of 60 years, the USA has tried 8 times to locate a safe underground waste repository for its spent nuclear fuel, and it has failed all 8 times.

Why would anyone want to permanently lodge all of Ontario’s nuclear waste (except spent fuel) from all of its nuclear reactors right beside one of the most important reservoirs of fresh water in the world — the Great Lakes? The answer is simply: convenience. That’s where the reactors were built, so that’s where the waste has accumulated. And that’s where waste from other reactor sites has been dumped. There is no other reason for such proximity to the drinking water supply for 40 million people.

Gordon Edwards, PhD in Mathematics (Queen's University), co-founded the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, and has been its president since 1978. He can be reached at: ccnr@web.ca. Read other articles by Gordon, or visit Gordon's website.