Monday, March 21, 2011

Canada's nuclear waste management plan looks good on paper. Will it ever go beyond the planning stage?

Whooee! Well, friends an’ foes, the other day, I tweeted calling attention to an article in, Canadians can't afford Candu complacency, by Paul McKay. One of my Twitter followers took exception to a number of points in the article and since it’s dang tough to give a detailed response in 140 characters or less, I’m using this blog post to kick off a more in-depth discussion.

The first point of contention relates to a quote from Paul McKay’s artcle:
Some may contend that since our generation has already built two dozen Candu's that must be entombed some day, and created some 60,000 tonnes of lethal nuclear wastes, adding more is no big deal.

That might be plausible if there was a proven, safe method of dismantling defunct Candu reactors, and permanently isolating nuclear wastes for millenia. But there is not, and virtually no thought or resources are being devoted to such solutions.

Meanwhile, the Canadian inventory of hellishly dangerous radioactive materials grows — and that is a fact for which our grandchildren will almost certainly curse us.
The bold text is the part my Twitter friend took issue with. To dispute the veracity of McKay’s statement, his tweet linked to Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) website. According to the NWMO website, the “Government of Canada (GoC) selected Canada’s plan for the long-term management of used nuclear fuel in June 2007.”

Okay, so there’s a plan. The timing begs a question, though. We’ve been accumulating highly radioactive spent fuel since Canada’s first nuclear power plant (NPP) was commissioned in 1954. In the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s, most of Canada’s nuclear power plants were brought online and began creating 100’s of tonnes of waste annually. Doesn’t 2007 seem a bit late in the game to just be selecting a plan for dealing with such toxic and dangerous waste?

Considering the immediacy and severity of the waste problem, the mere fact that NWMO has a plan does not, at least to me, indicate a significant expenditure of thought or resources. Waiting until 60,000 tonnes of waste have accumulated on site at NPPs in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick before deciding on a plan borders on reckless endangerment… at least that’s how I see it.

So, how’s that plan progressing? Well, stage one of the plan is to find a willing host community that wants to have all of Canada’s nuclear waste stored underground nearby. Although NWMO and the GoC selected a plan back in 2007, they didn’t start actively soliciting for a willing host community until 2010. If – and it’s a big if – a willing host community comes forward and says it is willing to receive all present and future high-level nuclear waste, the geological conditions must be suitable. So, not only do we need a willing host community, that community must be located in an area with very specific physical attributes.

If the elusive willing community is found and if public resistance to harbouring deadly material is overcome, the plan then calls for building the deep geologic repository to safely contain the waste, isolated from ground water, for thousands of years.

Bruce Power's SWAT Team
Like the current stored spent fuel, the deep geologic repository will need to be kept secure by use of a well-equipped, well-armed security force. SWAT teams are on duty today safe-guarding our 60,000 tonnes of nuclear waste from those who could very easily fashion a dirty bomb from a small quantity of spent fuel.

Another big question: if the deep geologic repository is eventually built, how is highly radioactive waste going to be transported to the facility? Are the public highways and/or waterways to be used for carrying this deadly cargo? Will municipalities do as many European and American municipalities have done and declare themselves nuclear-free zones, thereby prohibiting the transportation of high level radioactive materials on their roads and highways?

Those 60,000 tonnes were created producing electricity that’s been used and paid for. Who pays for the construction of the waste storage facility? Who pays for the centuries of SWAT teams needed to secure that waste? Who pays for the transportation?

The expected lifespan of a nuclear power reactor is 40 years. That said, real life experience has shown that 25-30 years is more accurate. With costly, time-consuming refurbishments, it is conceivable that a reactor could deliver 60 years of service. The waste created during those 60 years, however, requires secure, safe storage for 100’s of years beyond the lifespan of the reactor. When the reactor is decommissioned, it obviously is no longer generating electricity… or revenue. There is a logical disconnect when we create an ongoing expense without creating an ongoing revenue source.

For what it’s worth, I can understand how this waste problem got to where it is. Back in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, the energy sector was brimming with optimism. Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrated that we could derive massive amounts of energy from tiny bits of nearly inexhaustible fuel. Nuclear electricity generation was going to make energy so inexpensive that it would be “too cheap to meter.”

The early investors, developers and scientists were aware of the problem posed by spent nuclear fuel. But they were understandably confident that a solution would be found relatively quickly. After all, the atomic age was upon us. Nuclear weapons proliferation and “Atoms for Peace” were both employing the world’s brightest minds. Remarkable strides had been made in the past 10 years. Einstein was involved, for heaven sakes. Surely, a small problem like spent fuel would be solved in short order. Five years was a widely accepted prediction.

Fast forward 50 years to 2011 – or 2007, if you prefer – and we’re not a whole lot further ahead when it comes to permanently storing waste. We’re keeping it in concrete and steel water-filled tanks and circulating cool water over it for anywhere from 1 to 10 years. At some point, it becomes cool enough to transfer to dry cask storage.  It is these dry casks that will be moved to that deep geologic repository… someday, somewhere, if a suitable location is found.

But hold on a minute. The waste inside the dry casks will remain hazardous to human health for thousands of years. How about the dry casks? How long are they expected to last? The manufacturers of the dry casks say they’re good for 100 years. Nuclear waste management professionals feel that’s a modest estimate and that the casks should be good for at least 150 to 200 years. What then?

I will concede that having a plan is better than not having a plan. But a plan is not a storage solution. It is a storage solution on paper. It requires a whole series of happy events to actually achieve fruition: willing host, suitable geology, continued public investment and perhaps most important, the forgiveness of future generations for saddling them with a radioactive toxic legacy.

The mere existence of a plan is held out by the nuclear industry as proof that the waste issue is being handled. In fact, the waste issue is only being temporarily handled and the permanent disposition of waste is still, almost inexplicably, in a very early stage – the planning stage. A plan is not a solution and, in my opinion, does not constitute justification for building even more NPPs and generating even more high level radioactive waste.

Well, friends an’ foes, I done rambled on longer than I thought I would. You might say my plan for a concise rejoinder didn’t quite come to the quick and easy fruition I planned for. I got more arguments to make against nuclear energy. Next time, I plan to post something about the relationship between nuclear power generation and nuclear weaponry.



The Mound of Sound said...

As I understand it, JB, there is hope in the new fourth-generation or Thorium reactors. These "fast" reactors are a different breed from the conventional "breeder" reactors, gens 1,2 & 3.

Fast reactors are able to extract most of the fissile energy remaining in supposedly "spent" fuel rods. Breeder reactors are only able to use a relatively small fraction of that energy. Fast reactors can also use decommissioned weapons-grade stuff for fuel. At the same time they produce very little enriched waste... sort of like a nuclear reactor/incinerator.

The technology is still in its infancy but China is believed by some to be well in the lead and may be the first to bring Thorium reactors online... if and when they get past the Fukushima panic.

Storing this stuff is a bad plan. Consuming it is a far better idea.

Alan Goodhall said...

Not producing it at all is an even better idea.

Sorry, couldn't resist.

The Mound of Sound said...

Sure, Al, provided you're content to leave us dependent on fossil fuels. If James Hansen is right - and I hope he's not but have to accept he might well be - we have but a few years to wean ourselves off coal and unconventional oil (seabed,tar sands, etc) if we're to have any hope of avoiding runaway global warming. The only viable interim energy option is nuclear.

Like my friends in the earth sciences I'm not optimistic that we'll avoid the worst even if we do embrace 4th-gen nuclear power. Fukushima set the whole industry back and may have dealt a fatal blow to a nuclear power resurgence just when we need it.

Oh well, it's best to put on a happy face. Those of us over 60 realize we have reserved seats on that last chopper out of Saigon anyway.

Alan Goodhall said...

Perhaps nuclear is the only viable interim energy option. But is it the only option?

Think of the example of the modern energy efficient home. Our new homes are far more energy efficient but are also becoming larger thereby nullifying the gains made in energy conservancy. Why? It seems the only way we can measure our worth is by the size of our house and the amount of crap we can squeeze into it.

I understand many people believe they deserve all the trappings of success but it is proving to come at a very high cost.

Producing increasing amounts of energy is only one solution. We can choose to consume far less and still be more than very comfortable.

Just as our North American diet leads us to suffer from all the diseases of excess the same applies to our insatiable appetite for consuming "stuff" and the energy it requires to do so.

Like you I'll most likely have a seat on that last chopper. My grandchildren won't. There is a big difference between what we need and what we want. The solution to our energy problems and the continuing collapse of our biosphere lies within each of us, not in the guise of a power plant, nuclear or otherwise.

JimBobby said...

Nobel laureate Physician for Social Responsibility (PSR) and the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) published a fact sheet on thorium.

The paper is too long to copy and paste into this comment but it concludes that thorium is not a panacea for nuclear power. They say that it is not a proliferation solution. The thorium reaction needs to be kick started with U-235 or PU239, both weapons grade fissile materials. U-233 that is produced by thorium fuel is as effective as PU239 for making bombs.

Thorium is not a waste solution in that fission of thorium creates technetium-99 with a half-life of 200,000 years and thorium-232 with a half-life of 14 billion years. These by-products present serious risks to human health.

Research and development of thorium fuelled reactors has been ongoing for quite some time (decades, in some cases) in Germany, India, Japan, Russia, the UK and the US. One of the big problems, apparently, has been that u233 is needed and when u233 is made, so is u232. U 232 is extremely radioactive and dangerous to human health.

A quote: "Compared to uranium, thorium fuel cycle is likely to be even more costly. In a once‐through mode, it will need both uranium enrichment (or plutonium separation) and thorium target rod production. In a breeder configuration, it will need reprocessing, which is costly. In addition, as noted, inhalation of thorium‐232 produces a higher dose than the same amount of uranium‐238 (either by radioactivity or by weight). Reprocessed thorium creates even more risks due to the highly radioactive U‐232 created in the reactor. This makes worker protection more difficult and expensive for a given level of annual dose.”

JimBobby said...

I think what we need to consider is the big lie that we cannot live without nuclear energy. Ontario’s energy mix is 40%-50% nuclear. Across Canada, however, nuclear only accounts for 15% of the mix. We can, as a country, implement efficiency and conservation measures that will shave 15% of our total national use.

Ontarians are big energy wasters. Just across the border in New York State, the average per capita consumption of electricity is 67% of what we use. Weather cannot account for all of that difference since most of Ontario’s population is along the Great Lakes and has very similar weather as New York State.

Rather than chasing pie-in-the-sky high tech unproven and possibly dangerous solutions, we could invest heavily into efficiency and conservation. This cost a fraction of what new energy production costs.

It’s worthwhile to note that in recent years, zero new nuclear has come on line. Yet, even without the massive taxpayer subsidies afforded to nuclear, a considerable amount of renewable energy has come online. And, we’re not suffering from a shortage of electricity. In fact, we have been is such a surplus position, we had to pay Bruce Power $60 million last year to NOT produce electricity because our grid would have been overloaded. Frequently in the past couple years, the price of electricity has “gone negative”, meaning we’ve actually had to pay big industrial users (mostly in Michigan) to take our excess energy off our grid.

Al’s point that it comes down to individual choices and commitment is a good one. In much of Europe, building codes require rooftop solar hot water heating systems. These systems and photovoltaic systems can and do work here in Canada, too. Solar energy technology is advancing rapidly and costs are decreasing due to higher usage.

Geothermal energy is clean, abundant and has barely been tapped.

New, modern appliances such as refrigerators and air conditioners use a fraction of the energy their older counterparts use. CFL bulbs use 20% the electricity to deliver equal light as incandescents. Small scale hydro electric using existing, unused dams originally built for 19th century spinning mills, flour mills, sawmills, etc can deliver distributed energy less subject to grid failure and widespread outages.

The Mound of Sound said...

Well JB what sort of political institution do you foresee that will be able to get us to conserve? Remember that will have to be imposed, in a pretty draconian manner, because we're all Easter Islanders at heart. Then again, maybe that's dispositive of the whole issue - we're screwed and we're not truly interested in unscrewing ourselves.

If, as we're regularly warned, the tipping points will be reached well before we recognize the fact, we're hooped anyway.

I hate to say it but the earth sciences types I've spoken with are two faced. They have a public face of forced optimism and hope. The private face comes out when you sit down over a beer. That's when the gallows humour rolls out.

JimBobby said...

"Well JB what sort of political institution do you foresee that will be able to get us to conserve? "

Yes, that's a big concern. Voters seem to like the liar who most convincingly tells them they can have their cake and eat it, too. Lower taxes = votes and unfortunately, the biggest motivator for conservation is raising the cost of energy.

But, there's another big question regarding political institutions. What political institution will be around 1000 years from now safeguarding the nuclear waste we've already created? How will they be equipped? Today, we have well-armed and well-equipped swat teams. What will the nuclear waste guard teams look like 1000 years from now? 1000 years ago, longbows were the high tech weapons and carrier pigeons were high tech communications.

Unless responsible authorities can ensure they are a step or two ahead of the bad guys in the weaponry and communications department, we have already doomed future generations by frivolously wasting energy today.

Perhaps the Japanese situation will foster some real advances in efficiency. With Japan being 305 reliant on nuclear and a good portion of that offline (and possibly more offline if public opinion prevails), they may have no choice but to lead the way and show the rest of us how we can do more with less.

Increased energy costs are certainly unpopular but there's nothing like rolling blackouts to really encourage cutting back on energy waste.

The Mound of Sound said...

The way we're going I'm not sure we need to worry much about who will safeguard nuclear waste piles in a thousand years. I'm not terribly optimistic our civilization, such as it is, will be intact into the 22nd century. If, however, we can muster the will, talent and technology to make it through this century, dealing with a nuclear wastepile probably won't be as monumental a hurdle as you fear.

JimBobby said...

Yeah, I'm pretty long in the tooth to think about making it through this century. I'm glad to have made it TO this century. My grandsons are 2 and 4 YO. It's them I worry about. Them and their generation and generations to come.

Scott in Montreal said...

Great post, JB, and comments. As someone who gets 100% of his drinking water from the St. Lawrence river intake, I can't say I like thinking about what is coming our way from upstream in Pickering.

My brother and his wife and dog bugged-out from their home in Tokyo late last week, settling in mainland Europe, but I remain hooked on the news from Fukushima I, where the last report I saw mentioned black smoke from reactors 2 and 3, and another full evacuation of plant workers. The fact the food supply there is now compromised - if not by radiation, then by the legitimate fear on the part of the consumer - means one more blow to global food prices at a time it can be ill-afforded.

And with a federal election looming, do you suppose we'll see much airtime in the media devoted to these truly important issues? It's like the newscasters and journos just click into partisan politics mode as soon as the discussion turns to our political leadership. I guess that's why I'm Green

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