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International conference promotes nuclear waste burial

Story Brennain Lloyd/Special to

Story Brennain Lloyd/Special to

Toronto - The upscale and high-tech Telus Centre for Performance and Learning in downtown Toronto seemed worlds away from the dozen struggling communities in northern Ontario who have signed up to studied as possible burial sites for high level nuclear waste, but it was the scene of an international discussion about nuclear waste burial, an idea the communities are currently exploring, drawn in by the promise of significant economic benefits.

A light scattering of representatives of municipal councils who have become involved in Canada’s search for a nuclear waste burial site sat among the 200 delegates to an international conference on geologic repositories for its opening day Monday, guests of Canada’s nuclear industry.
The International Conference on Geological Repositories is being hosted by the Nuclear Waste Management Organization, the national association of nuclear power companies that was established at the direction of the federal government in 2002 to take charge of Canada’s nuclear fuel waste program. The conference brings together senior-level “decision-makers”, primarily from the nuclear industry and nuclear regulatory agencies, from countries who have accepted as an end goal the burial of their stock piles of high level nuclear waste deep below the surface in what the industry and regulators refer to as “geological repositories”.
Twenty-one communities in total have signed up for the Nuclear Waste Management Organization’s study program, including three in northern Saskatchewan and a dozen in northern Ontario. Six more encircle the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station, most of them already parties to an agreement with Ontario Power Generation through which the municipalities - in exchange for cash payments - provide political support for Ontario Power Generation’s plan to bury lower-level nuclear wastes under the Bruce station. That project is currently undergoing a federal environmental assessment review, with a decision expected by the end of 2013.

Ignace and Ear Falls were the first communities to sign up with the NWMO’s siting exercise for a high level nuclear waste repository, and they - along with Wawa, Schreiber and Hornepayne -have already moved on to the third step in the NWMO process. Those five communities are in the early stages of a feasibility study, with NWMO offices established and regular visits from NWMO “relationship managers” hired this year to provide ongoing attention to the potential host municipalities. Elliot Lake, Spanish, Blind River and the Township of the North Shore were provided with the results of “initial screenings” of their communities last month, and have yet to decide on whether to move on to the next stage of the NWMO’s nine step siting process.

Most in the room were true believers when it comes to nuclear waste burial. Luis Echavarri, Director General for the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, took the lead as the opening speaker, proclaiming that “geological disposal remains a controversial subject, but is inescapable”.

The next speaker – Director General for Energy for the European Commission – was one of several to either claim or imply an international consensus on the subject of nuclear waste burial, as she outlined a pan-European program for advancing nuclear waste burial projects.

But some remain unconvinced. Eddy Martin, chair of the Cumbria County Council in the U.K. – the only area in the U.K. where municipalities have expressed interest in that country’s “voluntary” siting process – asked what any of the national or international programs have in place to prevent nuclear burial sites being imposed on communities.

“At what point does the principle of volunteerism become something more sinister?” Martin asked, adding that his concern is that if only one area is investigated then the nuclear waste facility might be imposed.

“As an implementer, if we don’t get a volunteer community in this round, we will go around again”, replied Bruce McKirdy, speaking as Chairman for the International Association for Environmentally Safe Disposal of Radioactive Materials, of which the NWMO is a member.

Also unconvinced is Michel Marie from the small village of Bure in France. Marie has travelled to Canada to attend the conference and express his concern about the French plan to bury nuclear waste near his village, on the border between the regions of Lorraine and Champagne.

“Twenty years ago the government announced that they were going to be building an ‘underground scientific research laboratory’ in our area”, explained Monsieur Marie.

“After their different attempts in different regions failed because of opposition from local residents and their elected representatives, they stopped calling it ‘burial’ and began talking about a laboratory.”

“Bure was only supposed to be the site of the laboratory, and now ANDRA (the agency in charge of the nuclear waste program) has announced the construction of underground repository”.

Marie says they have had an independent expert look at the technical reports, and the expert has “sounded the alert”, warning that the area is unsuitable and is too risky to move forward with.

Discussions continue Tuesday.