Ontario Power Generation’s proposed nuclear waste site near Kincardine, Ont., will avoid flaws that triggered a leak of radioactive material at a similar site in New Mexico, the company says.
And new technology will probably emerge to curb risks that could result from the proposal to double the size of the underground waste site, OPG predicts.
But the Saugeen Ojibway Nation (SON), whose traditional territory includes the Bruce site, says it’s far from satisfied with the assurances of safety.
“What OPG now proposes and seeks approval for is an open-ended project, both in terms of size and nuclear waste streams,” says the SON brief.
“It now appears that what SON is really being asked is to open its territory, without limit, for nuclear waste disposal.”
The information is contained in a thick new batch of information filed for hearings before a federal review panel starting in September.
OPG proposes to bury low and intermediate level radioactive waste from its nuclear reactors in a limestone formation 680 metres deep at the Bruce nuclear station, on the shore on Lake Huron.
The waste has never had a permanent home, even though Ontario has relied on nuclear power for more than 40 years.
The province now generates more than half its electricity from nuclear stations; everyone in Ontario creates more nuclear waste every time they flip a light switch.
The federal panel reviewing OPG’s waste plans had wrapped up hearings last fall.
But it re-opened the hearings following two incidents at the WIPP nuclear waste site in Carlsbad, N.M., in February.
An underground truck fire on Feb. 5 was followed by an unrelated release of radiation from the facility on Feb. 14, exposing a number of surface workers to radiation.
The radiation release has been traced back to a number of waste containers that appear to have been damaged by fire or heat.
OPG had cited WIPP — where operations remain halted — as an example of an underground waste site in its application.
The review panel also asked OPG to flesh out its proposal to double the size of the Bruce site, to hold 400,000 cubic metres of waste.
Originally, the Bruce site was only supposed to hold operating waste; now, OPG wants to dispose of waste from de-commissioned nuclear plants when they are dismantled decades from now.
About half the of all the waste that’s to be stored underground is already on the site, produced over the past 40 years of operations, and held in a surface facility.
The site won’t contain used fuel; a separate process is underway to figure out what to do with that. The site will contain anything from slightly contaminated protective clothing to dangerously radioactive components from reactor cores that will remain “hot” for many millennia.
OPG says it is studying the incidents in New Mexico and is “committed to the development of a fire protection program” prior to construction.
“OPG is confident that these measures and processes will prevent or mitigate as similar event” at the Bruce, it says.
OPG’s assessments are generally backed up by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, which was retained as a consultant for the project.
OPG is also predicting that technical advances will solve problems with the proposed doubling of the site’s size. Decommissioning waste will contain more irradiated metal, which in turn generates radioactive gas as it corrodes in the underground caverns.
OPG says that since a final decision on de-commissioning waste won’t be made for several decades, it is “reasonable to assume” that technological advances will reduce the gas problem.
That thinking doesn’t sit well with the SON, many of whose members live in a community near Southampton, Ont., north of the Bruce site.
Setting aside problems to be solved later is inconsistent with the precautionary principle, SON argues in a detailed submission to the panel.
The proposed doubling of the site to include de-commissioning waste raises questions about what other changes might develop in the apparently “open-ended” process, SON says.
The nuclear jargon used for the site is “deep geologic repository,” or DGR.
“Could the DGR be constructed and ultimately used for the disposal of used nuclear fuel wastes?” the submission asks.
Or could it be used exclusively for intermediate-level waste — which is much more potent than low-level waste?
SON says that an expert group retained by OPG didn’t study the “reasonable and obvious” option of putting the potent intermediate-level waste in the eventual high-level waste site, with the used fuel.
SON also argues that the experts’ analysis of the option of storing the waste in a granite formation in the Canadian Shield is deeply flawed. The experts concluded that the granite option was a greater risk.
The experts assumed that a granite site would be as close to one of the Great Lakes as the proposed limestone location at the Bruce, SON says. But a granite formation would likely be far removed from one of the big lakes, it argues.
OPG’s proposal continues to get firm support from other quarters.
The Power Workers Union, which represents workers at the Bruce Power, remains firmly in favour of the project.
“Most people in the vicinity of the DGR have concluded that the proposed project is acceptable,” the union says. “Those who are opposed appear to base their opposition on a lack of factual information, misinformation, or a general opposition to nuclear power.”
The town of Kincardine is also a solid backer.
“The nuclear industry has been a part of our community for almost 50 years and will remain an important fixture for many decades to come,” Mayor Larry Kraemer says in a submission. “The combined decades of experience in operating nuclear power plants and managing waste in our community gives us confidence in OPG’s ability to bring the same careful and rigorous approach to the long-term management of waste in a DGR.”
A submission from Eugene Bourgeois, a close neighbour of the nuclear station, reiterates his call for a community health survey that would collect baseline health information from residents in the surrounding area, so any impact from future operations could be readily tracked.
And Frank Greening, a scientist and former OPG employee, has filed a new warning about the project.
Greening had earlier pointed out that OPG had significantly understated the level of radioactivity in material destined for the site. (OPG acknowledged the miscalculation, but said it doesn’t affect safety.)
In a new submission, Greening says that OPG has understated the risk of an explosion detonated by terrorists or other malevolent agents.
Zirconium alloys in used pressure tubes react with TNT to produce an even more violent and deadly explosion, Greening says. In fact, it’s the same chemistry used in cluster bombs.
The more violent explosion could puncture radiation-proof containers, releasing far more radiation than projected by the company, Greening argues.