Cracks in the nuclear storyline
I remember watching the B-movie “THEM!” as a teenager and laughing at how ridiculous the scenes of gigantic ants roaming the town were — mutated, gigantic irradiated ants getting exterminated with x-ray guns by men dressed in lab coats.
Although this is not a set from a B-movie, it is however a tale that feels like it is set in that time: the non-fiction storyline begins in 1952 with the creation of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, a federal crown corporation. AECL built four nuclear power demonstration reactors in Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec, as well as two research reactors at Chalk River, Ontario.
Here we are nearly 70 years later where all six of these reactors are shut down, awaiting final decommissioning, and Canada is beginning to write the final chapter of this story. We all should have serious concerns about how it’s going to end. Pretending this waste is not dangerous is not only irresponsible — it’s unacceptable. Nuclear waste at these sites currently sits in temporary storage, which is problematic in and of itself. At the Chalk River Laboratories – a site located upstream from Ottawa and the source of drinking water for nearly two million people – Canadian Nuclear Laboratories actually recognizes that radioactivity from existing nuclear waste is present. Clearly the status quo is not acceptable. What’s needed in Canada is the safest possible, world-class permanent storage of nuclear waste. Unfortunately, from what we have seen, the federal government is very ill-prepared to oversee this transition. Former minister Jim Carr admitted, “Canada does not yet have a policy for the long-term management of non-fuel radioactive waste.” (Non-fuel waste consists of all types of radioactive waste aside from spent fuel rods.) The International Atomic Energy Agency has also weighed in: “The Government of Canada should enhance the policy and strategy for radioactive waste management.” Rather than developing strong policy and regulations to protect the health and the environment of Canadians, the federal government has deferred to the private sector to write the rulebook, which is akin to “suggested action plans”.
As we continue to track the final chapter of this story, a new one is already upon us. Small Modular Reactors, as well as Micro Modular Reactors, are currently working their way through the regulatory process in Canada, possibly creating more waste that will still have no clear policy around how it should be disposed of in the future. At a recent nuclear industry conference, Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan told attendees: “As the world tackles a changing climate, nuclear power is poised to provide the next wave of clean, affordable, safe and reliable power. (...) We have been working so hard to support this industry. We are placing nuclear energy front and centre, something that has never been done before.” According to the 2019 Public Accounts, AECL’s decommissioning and waste management liabilities already stand at over $6.6 billion dollars! How can we enthusiastically embrace another round of nuclear reactors when we don’t even have a credible strategy to deal with existing radioactive waste?