Nuclear waste: Canada asks its towns if they'll give it a home

Canada's volunteer approach to finding a place to store spent nuclear waste, which is radioactive for 10,000 years, contrasts the US.

By , Correspondent

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    Nuclear future: Nuclear plant employees in Ontario take stock in the core vault of a reactor. Canadians are divided over where to keep toxic waste.
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If they were to take out a classified ad, it would read something like this: "Wanted: safe, willing home for 40,000 metric tons of nuclear waste. Must be Canadian. Phone for details."

That's what's on offer from Canada's Nuclear Waste Management Organization, the entity charged with finding a site for the spent fuel produced by the country's 22 nuclear reactors. While they don't advertise in newspapers, NWMO officials were in this rural province last month holding a public presentation to make communities aware that they're looking for appropriate candidates to be considered as hosts for the radioactive materials.

Canada, like the United States, is seeking a long-term solution for storing spent nuclear fuel, which will remain toxic for more than 10,000 years. But the Canadian approach to finding a central depository site has fundamental differences, most strikingly that potential host communities must volunteer. But, like the stalled US effort, its success or failure will bear on any decision to expand the country's nuclear power sector.

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US nuclear waste in limbo

"We have a huge problem on our hands, and the more we use nuclear reactors to create electricity, the bigger the problem will be," says Yves Gagnon, a sustainable development expert at the University of Moncton and critic of the industry. "We could replace them with other sources of energy that don't leave future generations with nuclear waste."

In the US, site selection has been a top-down affair, with politics playing a central role. In 1987, Congress passed a law ordering the Department of Energy to explore only one location, Yucca Mountain in Nevada, which billions in studies subsequently showed to be problematic. Nevada vehemently opposed the plan, as did Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada. President Obama canned the project earlier this year, leaving US nuclear waste policy in limbo.

Canada's plan aims to avoid local resistance by requiring communities to ask to be considered as hosts for an underground repository. Volunteers will be given extensive information on the ecological risks and economic benefits of the repository, which is expected to cost between $16 billion and $24 billion. After public endorsement via referendum or other means, the community would become a candidate for extensive technical review.

"The only way that a community will be involved in the process is by it choosing to be involved," says Mike Krizanc, spokesman for the NWMO, the entity charged with finding the site. "It will be an informed and willing community."

Created by federal statute in 2002, NWMO envisions burying the waste deep underground in a stable rock formation within a 2.3-square-mile site far from groundwater or national parks. The depository would be completed in 2035 and designed to allow spent fuel to be retrieved if future generations want to tap its residual energy. As many suitable sites may be on aboriginal land, NWMO studies have been translated into Cree, Mikmaq, Inuit, and other native languages.

No rush to relocate waste

But Darrin Durant, assistant professor of science and technology studies at York University in Toronto, says Canada made a key error in allowing the process to be controlled by the nuclear industry. NWMO is made up of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (which builds nuclear plants), and Hydro Quebec, NB Power Nuclear, and Ontario Power (which own them).

"NWMO is very much controlling the terms of discourse, saying the only concern is how to dispose of the waste we already have," Mr. Durant says. "But if you have an energy policy that involves building more reactors, this would change many of the specifications and issues. We should be choosing our options in consort with the consideration of what the future of nuclear power is."

NWMO is focusing on the four "nuclear provinces": Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick (which have reactors), and Saskatchewan (which produces the uranium). It held information sessions in several New Brunswick cities this summer. "We don't even know if New Brunswick has the geological conditions to satisfy the site," says Jack Keir, provincial energy minister. "Our view is to sit back and let the process unfold."

Others say the waste should stay put in special silos at the plants where it was produced. "Our view is that this stuff shouldn't be moved around, and that it's unfair to expect some community to take all Canada's nuclear waste," says David Coon, executive director of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, which opposes nuclear power. "Those who created it should be responsible for it."

Mr. Keir, who represents the Point Lepreau area in the provincial legislature, says there's no rush, as the waste is safe where it is. "There's no impact whatsoever, and we've only used 25 percent of the total space available," he says.

Economic risks of nuclear power plants

Point Lepreau, New Brunswick

After passing turnoffs for several fishing hamlets, the Point Lepreau road dead-ends at gates guarding Atlantic Canada's only nuclear power plant. Construction workers come and go, but the plant's owner isn't welcoming visitors.

The 25-year-old reactor at Point Lepreau is in the midst of a troubled $1.4 billion refurbishment.The plant was to open in September at a cost of $1 billion, plus $400million in replacement power. But delays, cost overruns, and technical issues have pushed that to 2011, forcing the province to spend an extra$400 million on alternate power and spurring calls to abandon the plant.

The problems with Atomic Energy of Canada's refurbishment of the plant have raised questions here about the soundness of large nuclear power plant investments.

Just last year, New Brunswick was weighing a second reactor to provide electricity to New England. New Brunswick Energy Minister Jack Keir says that's now on hold. Recently, officials admitted to doubts that the existing plant can be fixed at all.

Analysts say the delays may have contributed to the decision to sell the public company that owns the plant, NB Power, to rival Hydro Quebec for $4.75billion. NB Power has nearly $5 billion in debt – 40 percent of the province's total debts. Toronto-based energy analyst Tom Adams says the company has had difficulties for some time. "But the Lepreau refurbishment is the straw that broke the camel's back," he says. An NB Power spokesperson declined to comment.

In 2002, theprovincial public utilities board recommended against the refurbishment, saying it was an "economic risk" that was "not in the public interest." "We were guinea pigs for the refurbishment of thistype of reactor," says Yves Gagnon, a sustainable development expert atthe University of Moncton. "Now we're seeing the long-term pain."

– C.W.

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