Nuclear Waste and the Common Good

By Scott Harris, board member of Environment North.

Originally published in the Chronicle Journal on February 6, 2012.

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) wines and dines our job-starved northern community town councils in its quest to find "a willing host" for a deep geologic nuclear high-level waste (HLW) repository. I was encouraged to learn that the township of Saugeen Shores, adjacent to the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station is showing an interest in hosting such a storage facility.

NWMO spokesperson Mike Krizanc states “… this will not be imposed on any community. The community would have to demonstrate its willingness in a compelling way” to host such a site.

The basic criteria of “willing to host” sounds socially admirable, but fails to address the fundamental principle of common good, defined as “the greatest possible good for the greatest possible number of individuals” so key to our governance. With apologies to the good folks who live near nuclear facilities, that is where the waste should be kept, for the common good. The waste is already being stored there at ground level. Deep-six it where it sits. Sweden recently sponsored just such a willing-to-host competition, the only two competitors deemed acceptable being home to nuclear power stations. Finland’s repository, under construction, is also located next to a nuclear power station.

The NWMO’s “willing to host” criteria could conceivably have us trucking, boating, railing some 3.6 million radioactive HLW fuel bundles from nuclear power plants, primarily located in southern Ontario but one as far east as New Brunswick, all the way to northern Saskatchewan, where the most westerly communities considering being “willing to host” a repository are situated. It would be hard to avoid a good deal of community imposition in the form of safety concerns, not to mention community divisiveness along such extensive, shared public highways. Question: Will the NWMO be sponsoring a “communities willing to host a nuclear HLW transportation corridor” competition?

The NWMO concedes that the sedimentary rock in Southern Ontario is just as safe as the Precambrian granite of Northwestern Ontario for hosting a nuclear HLW repository. We have generated nuclear waste since the 60’s and plan to use nuclear energy in the short-term while we improve energy conservation and develop more benign energy alternatives. However, let’s not needlessly transport nuclear waste thousands of kilometres. At the very least, a HLW storage site should be located near the Bruce-Darlington-Pickering triangle, where 94 percent of Canada’s high-level nuclear waste is created, thus limiting transport and the risks and costs associated with it.

In any case, the phase-out of nuclear energy in Ontario is advisable when you consider the exorbitant price we now pay, and will continue to pay for nuclear energy. There is still 26 billion dollars in stranded debt from unbridled nuclear power plant construction in the 1980s. There are plans for multi-billion dollar new reactors and a 24 billion dollar nuclear HLW repository. These are likely to have large public-purse cost overruns as past cost estimates of construction and repairs were frequently only 25 to 50 percent of the final cost. There are also potential unforeseeable costs in safeguarding the stored nuclear waste for 100,000-250,000 years (the time to decay to relatively harmless levels).

Add in the cost of long distance transportation, an estimated two truckloads a day for at least three decades. Costs will also include training and equipping thousands of first-response and emergency services personnel across the country and maintaining nuclear accident “swat” teams. Phase-out of nuclear energy makes good economic, environmental and public safety policy.

In addition, creation of an out-of-public-sight, out-of public-mind nuclear HLW repository would simply encourage the acceleration and proliferation of more nuclear reactors, and more potential for nuclear calamity, just what this world doesn’t need.

To expose hundreds of communities, habitats, and watersheds along transportation corridors to the risk of a nuclear waste accident when such waste could be kept on-site, at source is unacceptable. If there ever was a need for the Canadian government to apply the principle of common good, it is with regard to this issue of high-level nuclear waste disposal. Just as the Swedes and Finns have determined, storage at source is for the common good, and it just makes common sense.