A Response to Choosing a Way Forward: The Future Management of Canada's Used Nuclear Fuel
The Nuclear Waste Management Organization's Proposed Process for Selecting a Site
By James Risdon
June 18, 2009
Bathurst, New Brunswick
Good afternoon, Members of the Nuclear Waste Management Organization. My name is James Risdon and I am a resident of Bathurst, New Brunswick where I operate a small business, called ACI Media Group. I am pleased to welcome you here. Since you have taken the time to come here to the Atlantic Host Hotel and Conference Centre in Bathurst to meet us, I trust this will be a true consultative process and that you will, in fact, listen to the people who come before you to express their views of nuclear waste storage in Canada.
Although I find the science behind nuclear energy fascinating, I am not myself a proponent of nuclear energy. This form of energy is often described as "clean" but it is certainly neither clean nor environmentally friendly. Nuclear energy leaves us with a serious problem of nuclear waste which can cause deformities, illness and death. The magnitude of the problem is reflected in the current exercise before us that of finding a place to store all of this radioactive garbage produced by nuclear reactors in Canada. I personally would much prefer our energy to come from renewable and clean energy sources. So, if you were to ask me for my ideal method of disposing of nuclear waste, my answer to you would be: "Don't produce any. Shut down all nuclear reactors and stop spewing nuclear waste."
Even though I prefer to use renewable and clean energy sources, I am however enough of a realist to recognize Canada already has a serious problem. There is already a vast quantity of nuclear waste in existence in Canada and it must be stored to avoid serious public safety, public health and economic repercussions. We do have to find a place to store this junk.
With this in mind, I would like to offer the following comments on Choosing a Way Forward: The Future Management of Canada's Used Nuclear Fuel, which I understand to be the Nuclear Waste Management Organization's proposed process for selecting a site to store all of Canada's nuclear waste. The Greater Bathurst Region as a Potential Site for a Centralized Nuclear Waste Facility
The summary of Choosing a Way Forward proposes that this nuclear waste be located underground in a rock formation in either the Canadian Shield or in Ordovician sedimentary rock. Now, the Canadian Shield encompasses much of Ontario and Quebec and a band of Ordovician sedimentary rock runs from just west of Bathurst to roughly Belledune and southwest to the New Brunswick-U.S. border through some of the most beautiful land in this province.
Since the greater Bathurst region is within the area being discussed as a possible location for this nuclear waste, I feel the voice of Bathurst residents should be heard on this issue. In a nutshell, I do not want a centralized nuclear waste facility to be located anywhere within 500 kilometres of Bathurst. With the possibility of future contamination, anything less than a 500-km. buffer is unacceptable.
The third point in your summary on Page 8 of Choosing a Way Forward is to seek an informed and "willing community to host the central facilities." Please, then, take note that I am not willing to host these central nuclear waste facilities. I hope my unwillingness to have this nuclear waste dump here will be considered in your decision-making.
There is a troubling sentence on Page 3 of the summary to Choosing a Way Forward. On that page, the summary states: "the communities hosting the nuclear reactors have an expectation that used nuclear fuel will eventually be moved." Maybe so. But I would like to point out that anyone who moves to a community with a nuclear reactor already knows they are putting themselves at risk should there be a serious accident. People choose to live there knowing there is a nuclear reactor and radioactive material present. People who have chosen to live in Bathurst and the Chaleur region, on the other hand, are expecting this area will be free of nuclear waste and nuclear contamination. We are far away from nuclear reactors and many of us like it that way. I personally take some comfort in knowing my children will not die an agonizing death should Point Lepreau melt down. We could get to safety in time. I have no desire to see my home here in the Chaleur region suddenly be placed at risk by the nuclear industry.
The Long-term Dangers of Deep Geological Disposal
The Nuclear Waste Management Organization's own report recognizes that once a community commits to taking this nuclear garbage in deep geological disposal, the die is cast and nothing much can be done should things go horribly wrong.
The summary to Choosing a Way Forward admits that: Over the short term, the approach was judged to be less flexible in responding to changing knowledge or circumstances. There is some uncertainty about how the system will perform over the very long term because we cannot obtain advance proof of actual performance over thousands of years. Once this stuff is deep in the ground, we cannot know for sure exactly what will happen. And that means we cannot absolutely guarantee the safety of the residents of the region or their protection from harmful radiation.
The Nuclear Waste Management Organization's proposed solution to this is to keep this nuclear garbage in an optional shallow storage area at the central site and to continuously monitor the stuff. This sounds to me like a fairly clear admission that something could go horribly wrong and this nuclear waste might have to be quickly removed and an intensive clean-up operation undertaken. This hardly inspires confidence in me that this centralized nuclear garbage dump will be safe. On the contrary, it confirms my suspicions that even the organization planning this centralized nuclear garbage dump is worried about things going wrong.
On Page 3 of its report, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization states its approach to this problem must be both safe and secure. Safe and secure. It must also be fair to both current and future generations. It is neither safe nor secure to attempt something knowing there will be a need for eternal monitoring just so things don't go horribly wrong. A process of monitoring is only as safe as the people who oversee it day in and day out. And, if history has taught us anything, it is that people and systems ultimately fail, sometimes spectacularly.
Remember the Kobe earthquake of 1995? The light rapid transit system there was engineered to be able to withstand that earthquake and supposedly built to those specs. Everything seemed fine until the earthquake hit and a contractor's lack of adherence to the specifications became startlingly apparent. Pylons holding up tracks to a light rail transit system snapped in two, leaving the track on the remaining portion basically going nowhere. This is the kind of thing that can happen with something as simple as building concrete pylons.
I shudder to think of what might happen with something as complex as a deep nuclear waste management facility filled with nuclear waste after a few hundred years of decay, the occasional earthquake, the possible bombs from future wars on the soil above, lightening strikes, and changes to weather patterns and groundwater and subsidence of soil due to global warming. A former Montrealer, I remember all too well the famous retractable roof which was to be built on the Olympic Stadium for the games. What a fiasco that was. Later, I learnt the very stadium is apparently sinking into the ground on one end. Bridges collapse, tunnels fill with water, buildings are shaken from their foundations by earthquakes.
Contractors can skimp on materials. Engineers can make mistakes in their designs. Unknown factors come into play. Everything people build can be destroyed and usually is within a few hundred years. With this nuclear waste facility, we are talking of thousands of years. The likelihood of a disaster over such a long period of time is a virtual certainty.
The Transportation of Nuclear Waste
Anyone who has spent any time on New Brunswick roads in winter knows just how treacherous they can be. Four-wheel-drive vehicles routinely wind up in the ditch due to snow and icy conditions. Moose startle drivers who suddenly find themselves with an animal weighing 1,100 lbs. flying through their windshield. It is common knowledge that trains carrying material from mines derail fairly regularly in the middle of the night when the winter cold chills the tracks and makes this mode of transportation unreliable. Flights get grounded, ice fills up much of our waterways in winter and thunderstorms and downpours in the Miramichi area are among the most spectacular in all of Canada. I know. I've lived or worked in most Canadian provinces and I have never seen anything like the storms that hit Miramichi during the summer.
With all of this, I find it staggering that the Nuclear Waste Management Organization can claim on Page 6 of the summary to Choosing a Way Forward to be "confident that used fuel can be transported safely." The report states that the Nuclear Waste Management Organization will "need to demonstrate the safety of any transportation system to the satisfaction of citizens." Good luck.
Transportation accidents do occur. The Titanic, despite the claims of promoters, did sink and lead to the loss of life of more than 1,500 people. The Exxon Valdez did spew millions of gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound, killing half a million sea birds, 5,000 sea otters, 300 harp seals and billions of young salmon, fish eggs and young juvenile fish. Closer to home, seven young basketball players and one teacher from Bathurst High School died last year when their school van fishtailed on the highway and hit an on-coming tractor trailer. As a Bathurst resident and a parent, I do not want to see any more of our young people die as the result of a transportation accident - and yet I know it will happen. It's a sad and tragic reality that as long as we choose to drive, there will be accidents. Radioactive materials don't belong on our roads. They don't belong anywhere where there may be accidents which will leave our citizens and our children exposed to deadly radioactive materials.
Education: The Need for a Northern University
Given the billions of dollars which will be spent on the Nuclear Waste Management Organization's centralized nuclear waste facility, I am under no illusions about the almost hypnotic effect the almighty dollar will have on some of our community leaders. I fully expect at least some of our elected officials and business people and maybe even just ordinary folks eager for jobs to line up and say, "Yes, please!"
I wish to be absolutely clear: It is my view that it would be a mistake of unprecedented proportions for the people of the Chaleur region to a host a nuclear waste management facility here in the Bathurst area. However, I realize that I may lose this fight and that such a radioactive garbage dump may yet come to northern New Brunswick. If it does, I ask only two things.
First, I ask that every conceivable precaution known or yet to be discovered be applied to the development and management of such a facility for the safety of the health of the people of this region.
Secondly, I ask that a significant portion of these billions of dollars being spent for the nuclear waste management facility be invested in a full-service university with a specialization in nuclear physics and nuclear health to be built here in Bathurst.
If a nuclear waste management facility is to be located in this region, it will need people educated and trained in operating it safely. It will need people capable of planning for the future. It will need people who can look ahead and develop new methods of disposing of nuclear waste and doing so safely. The logical place to have a training facility for such people would be in the region where the facility is built. In that way, people in the industry can teach courses, write papers, do research and stay abreast of the latest developments. They can become or remain the leaders in their field. Since there is no such university in northern New Brunswick and the region desperately needs a university to train and retain its young workers, it would only make sense to place a full-service university here where there are the most service industries already in place. Without such a university, I cannot see how a nuclear waste facility would be able to attract and retain top-quality professionals to operate its facility. As it is, hospitals in northern New Brunswick have difficulty attracting doctors and nurses and these are already less specialized in many ways than what is being proposed with this nuclear waste management facility. I certainly would not want such an operation to be staffed by anything but the best people in the field. That means we would need to train top-notch nuclear physicists, technicians and engineers. I propose this be done in a full-service university, complete with research and development facilities and post-graduate programs, as a small token of goodwill to the community which would host this nuclear waste facility.
Members of the Nuclear Waste Management Organization, I thank you for your time and consideration of this brief presentation.
I hope you enjoy your stay in Bathurst and make a decision which will preserve the beauty and environmental integrity of this wonderful region.