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Getting to ‘Yes’ at International Conference on Nuclear Waste

Story Brennain Lloyd/Special to

Story Brennain Lloyd/Special to

Toronto - A parade of country representatives took to the stage Tuesday in downtown Toronto at an international conference on nuclear waste burial, outlining programs and plans for what the nuclear industry calls “geological repositories”. The two-day international conference was the most recent in a series of gatherings convened every four years.

In an opening panel of “implementers” from Sweden, Finland, Japan, the U.K. and Switzerland, presenters flashed image after image of tunnels, shafts and caverns carved out of rock, all generated as part of national planning processes which would ultimately result in country stockpiles of high level nuclear fuel waste being placed deep below the surface, as a ‘final solution” to the to-date intractable problem of how to contain the radioactive wastes that are generated by nuclear power plants and will remain hazardous – and harmful – for hundreds of thousands of years.

Hosted by the Nuclear Waste Management Organization, a Canadian association of nuclear power plant operators and waste owners, the two-day conference brought together nuclear power companies, nuclear waste management agencies and companies, and national regulators from several countries who are pursuing plans to construct and operate geological repositories for high level nuclear waste.

There were several common threads throughout the country approaches. Like Canada, all countries pursuing approvals for a burial facility for nuclear fuel waste are still in either the site search, planning or review stage – none have yet received a final approval or begun construction or operation. And like Canada, most countries offer some financial incentive for communities to get involved, or at least a promise of financial benefits if community support results in an eventual approval and repository construction.

Several presenters told the story of searches for a “willing” community, and some talked about having had to restart their siting programs, changing either their search criteria or approach after they failed to find a “willing” community.

“You don’t want a ‘yes’ crowd because a ‘yes’ crowd incites a ‘no’ crowd and the ‘no’ crowd always has a lot of energy”, explained Saida Laarouchi Engstrom, from the Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Company.

The challenge of gaining social acceptance for nuclear waste burial projects was a key theme throughout the two day conference.

Don Howard from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission posed what seems to be the primary question in the minds of would-be implementing organizations to Jo-Ann Facella, director for Social Research and Dialogue for the Nuclear Waste Management Organization: “So how do we get social acceptance?”

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is the regulatory agency responsible for reviewing nuclear projects and licensing all nuclear facilities in Canada. CNSC President Michael Binder had been adamant in his remarks the previous day that social and economic considerations are not part of the Canadian regulator’s mandate.

There were also some important variations from the main theme of nuclear waste burial. In Finland, like Canada, the program does not allow the local community to opt out after the site investigations have been completed, whereas in Sweden that option remains open to the community until after all of the information about the site has been shared. Some countries, such as Switzerland, use geological information as their key siting criteria, where others – including Canada - have placed the emphasis in local “willingness”, with a site search that seeks to attract interest in the earlier stages and leaves detailed geophysical studies to later stages.

A final panel of speakers were from communities already selected for nuclear waste burial, including Mayor of Kincardine Larry Kraemer, who leads a municipal council which has a “hosting agreement” with Ontario Power Generation that sets out the terms of cash payment from Ontario Power Generation and support from the geological repository for low and intermediate level nuclear wastes that OPG is seeking approval to construct beneath the surface at the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station, which is within Kincardine’s municipal boundaries. Kraemer describes his community as being overwhelmingly in support of a proposal the OPG burial plan.

Asked to comment on what constitutes community support, Kramer replied that “Fifty (percent) plus one is not enough” and suggested that the ballot box was a way to measure support. Kramer said that those who support the nuclear waste burial project were elected, and those did not support it lost in the municipal elections.

According to OPG’s project summary, only 60% of the 71% who responded to a survey of Kincadine residents asking whether they “support the establishment of a facility for the long-term management of low and intermediate level waste at the Western Waste Management Facility”, which is the current above-ground storage facility at the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station. At best, the math would say that 42% of those included in the survey supported some action being take on the waste, although not necessarily burial on the shore of Lake Huron.

Throughout the two-day event, the approximately 50 attendees from the 21 Canadian communities currently being studied by the NWMO as potential burial sites for Canada’s high level nuclear waste sat quietly in the audience. Herman Dost of Ignace ventured to the microphone to ask a question about recycling, but the tough questions during Tuesday’s sessions about transparency in some of the siting process and the independence of the nuclear regulators came from outside Canada, or not at all.