Canadian Coalition
for Nuclear

Regroupement pour
la surveillance
du nucléaire

High-Level Radioactive Wastes in Canada
~ The Plutonium Agenda ~

by Dr. Gordon Edwards
(written in 1986)

Table of Contents

High Level Wastes ~ No Problem?

When the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility (CCNR) was formed in July, 1975, very few Canadians understood the scope of the high-level radioactive waste disposal problem. The majority of Canadian politicians didn't even realize the problem existed.

In the years that followed, a vigorous public debate was pursued by CCNR on every aspect of Canada's nuclear policies, including the management of nuclear waste. It soon became apparent to everyone -- especially Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) -- that the unsolved problem of waste disposal had become a major stumbling block to the expansion of the industry.

The Madoc Awakening

In  1977,  AECL  selected a granite formation called Mount Moriah near the town of Madoc, Ontario, to test the hypothesis that such rock bodies could be used to store radioactive wastes safely for the next few million years. When the details of the plan came to light, however, the public response was electrifying -- and overwhelmingly negative.

On March 16, 1977, twelve hundred determined citizens crowded into a school auditorium in Madoc to tell the assembled  AECL  officials -- politely but firmly -- that they wanted nothing to do with a high level radioactive waste repository sitting on their doorstep. "Bury it on Parliament Hill," read one of the placards.

An ad hoc committee of professors, activists, and geologists from the area (CORP: Committee on Radioactive Pollution) wrote an impressive brief detailing many technical reasons why the nearby rocks are not suited for the storage of high-level radioactive wastes. The committee's analysis was quite correct; the plan was scuttled for technical as well as political reasons.

Reprocessing ~ The Plutonium Agenda

It soon emerged that  AECL  was interested in much more than just dumping its nuclear waste. On May 25, 1977, the Toronto Star broke the news that  AECL  had hosted an all-day lobbying session in Ottawa on February 28, to solicit support from senior civil servants for its Master Plan: a multibillion dollar factory known as a Fuel Cycle Centre. From the point of view of the nuclear lobbyists, waste disposal was a means to an end: it was just one step on the long road towards a Plutonium Economy.

Ross Campbell, Chairman of  AECL, opened the Ottawa seminar as follows:

"We would not have asked you to set aside a whole day if we had not considered the subject matter both important and urgent for Canada's energy future. The separation and use of plutonium [requires] careful planning and research. We are already late in bringing this new energy source on stream in the critical last decade of the century, when real shortages of energy will appear."

Briefly,  AECL  wanted to build a large plutonium extraction plant right above a geological repository for high-level waste. Inside this "reprocessing plant", the fiercely radioactive fuel bundles would be dissolved in nitric acid and the plutonium would be chemically separated out, leaving behind thousands of gallons of liquid high-level waste. The plutonium would then be fabricated into fresh fuel -- called MOX or mixed-oxide fuel -- for CANDU reactors, while the liquid waste would be resolidified and buried in the geological repository.

The reasoning behind  AECL's  Master Plan is simple. Nuclear power will never become a significant energy source -- that is, it cannot possibly replace all, or even a sizable fraction, of our present oil consumption -- unless we turn to artificial nuclear fuels like plutonium. Why? Because, with many thousands of reactors operating in the future, uranium supplies are not expected to outlast oil supplies. Unless the plutonium in the spent fuel is recovered and re-used as fuel, nuclear power will be just a flash in the pan. Hence the industry's commitment to "reprocessing" and "advanced fuel cycles". Yet none of these long-term plans will come to fruition unless public resistance can be overcome. Among other things, the public has to be convinced that some satisfactory method exists for radioactive waste disposal.

Official Notice

During the summer of 1977, three men worked for three months preparing the Canadian Government's Green Paper on Nuclear Waste Management, commonly known as the Hare Report (EMR Report EP 77-6). Never mentioning  AECL's  Master Plan, the Hare Report nevertheless makes a series of recommendations and lays down a timetable that coincides to a remarkable degree with the blueprints that  AECL  had already aired during the February briefing session in Ottawa. The Hare Report favored granite formations in Northern Ontario for the burial of Canada's high level radioactive waste.

As public concern rapidly mounted, the House of Commons'  Standing Committee on National Resources and Public Works  held open hearings on the Hare Report, beginning in Ottawa in November 1977. At the same time, in Toronto, the Porter Commission (the Ontario Royal Commission on Electric Power Planning) was turning its attention to the same topic. Over the next few months, hundreds of presentations were submitted -- both to the federal and to the provincial authorities -- on the subject of nuclear wastes. The Canadian Geological Association, the B.C. Medical Association, and the Dean of Engineering at Queen's University were among the hundreds of parties who sharply criticized the underlying assumptions of the Hare Report. Things were not going smoothly for the nuclear lobbyists.

Suddenly, in June 1978, without waiting for the findings or recommendations of either the federal or the provincial inquiries, without even notifying these bodies that something was in the works, a formal agreement was signed between the Energy Ministers of Ontario and Canada authorizing  AECL  to proceed along the lines outlined in the Hare Report. The House of Commons Inquiry dissolved in confusion, amidst great consternation, without ever publishing its findings. However, in September 1978, the Porter Commission published a major Interim Report on Nuclear Power in Ontario entitled A Race Against Time.

The Interim Report concluded, among other things, that reprocessing of spent fuel should play no part in Ontario Hydro's planning for the rest of the century. The idea of transporting spent fuel to a centralized location was likewise frowned upon because it would "presuppose" reprocessing. Instead, every effort should be made to find a method for safely storing unreprocessed nuclear fuel. And -- most importantly -- unless satisfactory progress in waste disposal is made by 1985, the Report concluded that "a moratorium on the construction of nuclear power plants would be justified".

The writing was on the wall. Finding an acceptable solution to the high level waste problem was now perceived as a prerequisite to expanding the nuclear power industry.

Northern Ontario Opts Out

Meanwhile,  AECL  was looking for a site to do test drilling and other field research, but was antagonizing many communities in Northern Ontario by its obvious pro-nuclear bias and its slick but vacuous public relations approach. The idea of using pre-Cambrian rock in the north as a geological repository for nuclear wastes seemed to many northerners to be politically inspired, since most northern communities have little political or economic clout to resist such an intrusion. Moreover,  AECL  seemed to have prejudged the research effort and concluded in advance that it was bound to succeed -- a highly unscientific predisposition.

To make matters worse, citizens felt totally excluded from the decision-making process because of  AECL's  practice of holding closed-door meetings with local town councils. Before long, in response to local backlash, many northern communities had passed resolutions barring  AECL  from carrying out any activities within their jurisdictions. By the end of  1979AECL's  program of field research was in a shambles.

Select Committee Speaks Out

Meanwhile, the Select Committee on Ontario Hydro Affairs had begun Hearings into Ontario's nuclear policies following the  1979  Three Mile Island accident. Representatives of the Canadian Geoscience Council, during testimony to the Committee, suggested a number of improvements that would help to restore public and scientific confidence in the nuclear waste management program:

In its report, published in the summer of 1980, the Select Committee was supportive of these suggestions. In addition, the Committee stressed the need for more effective mechanisms to ensure adequate public participation in the decision-making process, since

"it is most likely that government will ultimately have to choose the siting of what will be perceived as a garbage dump for frightening nuclear poisons."

AECL Goes Underground

In response to all this, AECL  became more secretive than ever. It boycotted public debates and shunned any public meetings to which well-informed nuclear critics had been invited. It revised its own internal policies so that community approval was no longer a condition for field research. It retreated from Northern Ontario into neighbouring Manitoba, where it quietly leased 900 acres of crown land from the provincial government for the purpose of excavating an underground research laboratory.

The tiny village of Lac du Bonnet, not far from the  AECL  company town of Pinawa (site of the Whiteshell Nuclear Research Establishment), was caught completely off-guard by the company's decision to sink a 300-metre shaft into a large granite pluton just outside of town. Vigorous opposition from a handful of knowledgeable residents was countered by blanket reassurances from employees of  AECL's  Whiteshell Research Establishment who live in Lac du Bonnet. The community was subjected to a barrage of one-sided propaganda, including a series of paid pro-nuclear articles in the local newspaper. The story is well told in Walter Robbins' paperback book, Getting the Shaft, available from CCNR.

AECL  had finally found a winning formula: do it quickly and quietly; avoid debate. When opposition to the project was expressed,  AECL  stated that the underground laboratory would be for research purposes only, and that no nuclear wastes would be placed there. The provincial and federal governments dutifully echoed these statements. However, none of these assurances have any legal basis, and in fact  AECL  spokesmen have frequently asserted that Manitoba "cannot be excluded" as a possible site for an eventual high level radioactive waste repository.

Manitoba and the Research Laboratory

In the Spring of 1984, when the Underground Research Laboratory was officially opened, representatives from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) were present and plainly interested in doing joint research with the Canadians. Since then, an agreement has been signed between  AECL  and  DOE , in order that the latter might conduct its own research in  AECL's  facility.

This move has stirred the wrath of citizens in Minnesota and Wisconsin, two of the seventeen states where  DOE  was recently trying to locate a repository for  70,000  tons of high-level wastes from nuclear power plants in the North-East United States and from the American nuclear weapons program, like the citizens of Vermont -- another of the seventeen states targeted by  DOE  -- these mid-western Americans have a profound distrust for the DOE. After all, DOE's  mandate is not, first and foremost, to protect the health and welfare of Americans, but to build the bombs, mine the uranium, and help the nuclear industry in any way it can.

Although Premier Pawley of Manitoba has stated that the province will never accept Ontario's nuclear wastes, neither he nor the province may be in a position to prevent such a development from occurring at some future time. Indeed,  AECL  has already told folks in the Northwest and Yukon Territories that if they decide to build small nuclear reactors (producing heat, but little or no electricity) to keep themselves warm in the winter, Whiteshell (Manitoba) will take back all the nuclear waste.  AECL  has also made overtures to other countries to send their nuclear wastes to Canada for eventual reprocessing. If not Manitoba, then where?

The Plutonium Agenda: Gone, But Not Forgotten

For, make no mistake about it,  AECL  has not forgotten its Master Plan of 1977, even though circumstances have forced it onto the back burner. Reprocessing is still the Canadian nuclear industry's ultimate dream. Much of the federal money allotted for research into nuclear waste disposal has actually been used by  AECL  to further research in plutonium reprocessing; this had been justified by the fact that the Canadian government has made a point of keeping the reprocessing option open. Late in 1984, CBC radio's  Sunday Morning revealed that  AECL  tried to sell some of its plutonium reprocessing technology to South Korea, but was prevented from doing so by United States officials who are worried about South Korea using such technology to develop its own nuclear weapons capability.

The fact is that neither  AECL  nor  DOE  actually wants to dispose of its high-level waste in the sense of getting rid of it once and for all; they just want to clear the decks so they can keep on producing more and more of it. There is no intention to limit the total amount of high level radioactive waste that the nuclear industry may produce. And before they bury the waste, they want to be sure to extract the valuable plutonium -- for without that vital step, they won't be able to keep the nuclear industry alive for more than a few decades.

- Gordon Edwards, CCNR President, June 1986

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