Are there lessons for Canada in Japan's nuclear near-meltdown?

As communities line up for a shot at storing Canada's nuclear waste, the industry's opponents point to the Fukushima Daiichi plant

Bruce Fidler is the mayor of Creighton, Sask., a town of about 1,500 people on the border with Manitoba. “It’s pretty much a one industry community,” he says. “Mining is the largest employer we’ve got.” If Fidler gets his way, that could one day change: this town could become a nuclear waste dump.

The nuclear reactors used in Canada are somewhat different from those used in Japan, but the way we handle spent nuclear fuel—which is what was under threat of melting down at the Fukushima Daiichi plant—is very similar. Canada’s nuclear power plants are fuelled by uranium pellets sealed inside zirconium tubes, and then arranged into bundles. (Ours aren’t as long as the ones used in Japan; in Canada, they’re about the size and shape of a fireplace log.) Once they’re used up, these bundles, which are still highly radioactive, are stored at the reactor site in large, water-filled pools, where they can stay for up to ten years. They’re then transferred to massive silos or vaults, where they keep cooling down.

“The spent fuel pools can contain more toxic material than the reactor itself,” says Tom Adams, an energy and environmental advisor. Used nuclear fuel remains a health risk for “many hundreds of thousands of years,” according to the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), an industry-funded group created in 2002 to manage Canada’s nuclear waste.

Canada has relied on nuclear power for over 40 years. In that time, we’ve produced over two million used fuel bundles, which—if stacked like cordwood—could fill six hockey rinks from the ice surface to the top of the boards, according to the NWMO. Like some other nations, including the U.S., Canada is working towards a more long-term plan: burying these used nuclear fuel bundles, about 85,000 of which are produced here each year, in a massive dump 500 metres underground.

Since May 2010, when the site selection process was officially launched, eight communities have passed a resolution asking to learn more about what it would mean to host such a facility. Three of these communities are in Saskatchewan, and five in Ontario, says Michael Krizanc of the NWMO. Hosting a nuclear dump would offer several benefits, Krizanc says: “It’s $16 to 24 billion over the life of the project, involving thousands of jobs for 60 to 100 years or more. This will have a significant impact on any community, and indeed any province, it’s located in.” Community interest is key, since this project won’t be imposed on anyone, he insists. “We are not going to go out saying, it looks like you’ve got nice rock here, do you mind if we drill a few holes?”

There are still several questions around how such a facility would work: for example, how nuclear waste would be transported across the country to the site. Just bringing in the existing fuel could take 30 years, Krizanc says. The dump will likely be expandable, so it can store all of Canada’s nuclear waste for the foreseeable future. And it would be designed in such a way that these fuel bundles could be retrieved if need be.

A site should be selected around 2020, and the dump could be operational by as early as 2035. Fidler feels hopeful about what a project could bring to his community. “Japan hasn’t changed our feelings about it,” he says. He’s hoping Creighton’s residents look at the proposal “with an open mind.”

For Brennain Lloyd, who lives in North Bay, Ont., the crisis in Japan raises serious concerns about how Canada stores its nuclear waste—and the NWMO’s plan doesn’t comfort her. “Events in Japan have illustrated how big a concern this used fuel is,” says Lloyd, project coordinator for Northwatch, an Ontario-based environmental group. “And now the NWMO is looking for some mythical rock to bury it in.”

In Ontario, where nuclear power accounts for about 50 per cent of the province’s energy supply, two new reactors have been proposed for Darlington, just outside Toronto. Northwatch was one of several groups that petitioned for public hearings into these reactors be delayed, at least until some lessons from Japan could be absorbed. (The three-week hearings are proceeding as planned.) For Lloyd, used nuclear fuel is a big part of the concern. “In the Darlington, they don’t really have a plan for the waste,” she says. Meanwhile, in Quebec, one of two other provinces—along with New Brunswick—to host nuclear plants, opposition parties are pushing for the province’s one reactor to be closed, to be eventually replaced with renewable energy.

Adams agrees that we shouldn’t rush ahead with plans to expand nuclear power. “I think we should not be making any decisions about our own nuclear industry,” he says. “We ought to focus on understanding what’s going on in Japan.” Depending on what lessons emerge, safety standards could be overhauled, which could affect anything from operating practices to plant design. For example, after the Three Mile Island disaster, “major changes were made throughout the industry and design upgrades had to be put into place,” says Gerry Frappier, Directoral General of the Directorate of Assessment and Analysis for the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC). And after a major blackout in 2003, updates had to be made to the Pickering nuclear plant, too. “I can’t understand the rationale for pursuing an inquiry into the environmental assessment of these reactors,” Adams says, “when we haven’t had a chance to digest what’s going on with the most informative reactor safety experience ever.”

“Right now, we’re very confident about the safety of our fleet,” Frappier says. Still, as a result of the earthquake in Japan, the CNSC has requested that all major nuclear facilities in Canada review their safety. “It’s normal practice whenever an event occurs in the nuclear industry,” he says.

In the wake of events of Japan, maybe it’s no surprise public opinion has turned against nuclear power: one new U.S. poll shows that 39 per cent are currently in favour of promoting increased nuclear power, compared to 47 per cent last October. It’s impossible to predict how those numbers will change as the situation in Japan stabilizes, but as provinces continue to pursue nuclear power—and to seek out safe, reliable energy sources—it’s an increasingly pressing question.

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