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Panel Report

1.0 Outline of the Review Process

1.1 How the Review Began

In the late 1970s, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) began to develop the concept of deep geological disposal of nuclear fuel wastes. In September 1988, the federal Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources referred the concept, along with a broad range of nuclear fuel waste management issues, for public review. He made this referral under the federal Environmental Assessment and Review Process Guidelines Order.

Since the federal and Ontario governments had decided that a disposal facility site would not be selected until the public had reviewed the concept and the governments had accepted it, the Minister asked that no site be contemplated during the review. A copy of the Terms of Reference for the review is included in Appendix A.

1.1.1 The AECL Concept

AECL describes the concept as a method for geological disposal of nuclear fuel wastes in which:

  • the waste form is either used Canada Deuterium Uranium (CANDU) fuel or the solidified high-level wastes from reprocessing;
  • the waste form is sealed in a container designed to last at least 500 years and possibly much longer;
  • the containers of waste are emplaced in rooms in a disposal vault or in boreholes drilled from the rooms;
  • the disposal rooms are between 500 and 1000 metres below the surface;
  • the geological medium is plutonic rock of the Canadian Shield;
  • each container of waste is surrounded by a buffer;
  • each room is sealed with backfill and other vault seals; and
  • all tunnels, shafts and exploration boreholes are ultimately sealed in such a way that a disposal facility would be passively safe-that is, long-term safety would not depend on institutional controls. [Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, Environmental Impact Statement on the Concept for Disposal of Canada's Nuclear Fuel Waste (Atomic Energy of Canada Limited Report AECL - 10711, COG - 93 - 1, 1994), p. 5.]

Figure 1 illustrates the AECL disposal concept. Such a facility would cost an estimated $8.7 billion to $13.3 billion in 1991 dollars, depending on the amount of wastes to be disposed of.

1.1.2 Historical Context

Over the past 25 years, numerous groups and governments in Canada have studied alternative approaches to managing nuclear fuel wastes. These are described in sections 1.2 and 3.1.2 of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). A committee formed by AECL, Ontario Hydro and Hydro-Québec in 1972 concluded that geological media were most promising for disposal in Canada. As a result of consultations between the federal Department of Energy, Mines and Resources (EMR) and AECL in 1974, research was directed primarily to plutonic rock in the Ontario portion of the Canadian Shield.

To help Canada develop a long-term policy for managing nuclear fuel wastes, EMR in 1977 engaged a group of experts led by Dr. Kenneth Hare to study the problem. In their report, popularly referred to as the Hare Report, they considered various management options. These included reprocessing, immobilization, surface storage, and disposal in ice sheets, in space, on or beneath the sea floor, or in various types of underground rock. (These are discussed in Appendix L.) The authors concluded that burial in geologic formations had the best potential.

We feel that several different kinds of rock could profitably be studied but that resources ought not to be spread too thinly. We suggest that primary effort be given to the crystalline rocks of plutonic origin (i.e. deep in the earth), but that careful attention be paid to the work of other scientists in other countries on different rock types.

A.M. Aiken, J.M. Harrison and F.K. Hare [F.K. Hare, Chairman, A.M. Aiken and J.M. Harrison, The Management of Canada's Nuclear Wastes, (report of a study prepared under contract for the Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources Canada, Report EP 77-6, 1977), p. 44.]

The authors named rock salt and shale as the second and third choices respectively, and urged the Government of Canada to keep a close watch on other rock types and to start some research on deep ocean burial. They also recommended placing the first repository in Ontario because it would be the principal waste-producing province.

The Ontario Royal Commission on Electric Power Planning, also known as the Porter Commission, further endorsed disposal in plutonic rock. [Royal Commission on Electric Power Planning, Arthur Porter, Chairman, A Race Against Time: Interim Report on Nuclear Power in Ontario (Toronto: Queen's Printer for Ontario, 1978), cited in Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, Environmental Impact Statement, p. 3.] The governments of Canada and Ontario formally accepted the idea in 1978. A joint statement by the Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources and his provincial counterpart announced a research and development program aimed at verifying

". . . that permanent disposal in a deep underground repository in intrusive igneous rock is a safe, secure and desirable method of disposing of radioactive waste." [Canada/Ontario Radioactive Waste Management Program (joint statement by the Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources Canada and the Ontario Energy Minister, June 5, 1978), pp. 1-2.]

Figure 1: The AECL Disposal Concept (source: AECL)

Figure 1: The AECL Disposal Concept (source: AECL)

This initiative came to be known as the Nuclear Fuel Waste Management Program and resulted in the development of the AECL concept. Another joint statement in 1981 established that disposal site selection would not begin until after a full federal public hearing and approval of the concept by both governments.

The Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB) regulates the Canadian nuclear industry. In 1987, it issued Regulatory Policy Statement R-104, Regulatory Objectives, Requirements and Guidelines for the Disposal of Radioactive Wastes-Long-term Aspects. This statement confirmed that disposal was the AECB's preferred approach for the long-term management of radioactive wastes.

The following year, two House of Commons standing committees reported on issues related to managing nuclear wastes. The Committee on Environment and Forestry recommended that the disposal concept be reviewed independently with public participation; that recommendation led to the review that is the subject of this report. The Committee on Energy, Mines and Resources concluded that deep geological disposal was appropriate for Canada.

1.1.3 Mandates Conferred on AECL and Ontario Hydro

In their 1978 joint statement, the federal and provincial governments conferred co-operative research and development mandates on Ontario Hydro and AECL. Ontario Hydro was made responsible for work on interim storage and transportation of radioactive wastes. AECL became responsible for work on the immobilization and disposal of radioactive wastes from nuclear power reactors, including geological field and laboratory studies. In addition, AECL was designated the lead in maintaining close co-operation and consultation with the communities involved at all stages of the program, with the support of the Government of Ontario and Ontario Hydro in public information activities. At that time, a tentative planning schedule envisioned that a disposal site would be selected in 1983, a demonstration disposal program would take place between 1985 and 2000, and a full-scale facility would be operational by 2000.

In total, AECL spent $575 million on the research program between 1978 and February 1996. After publishing the EIS, AECL was subjected to the federal government's Program Review. This review reduced AECL's funding, as announced in February 1996, and recommended that the agency no longer fund nuclear fuel waste management. Consequently, downsizing decreased AECL's ability to sustain substantial research and development on nuclear fuel waste management beyond the concept review. On December 31, 1995, AECL and Ontario Hydro reached an agreement, under which Ontario Hydro provided funding for fiscal years 1995-96 and 1996-97 to help AECL address shortcomings identified by the environmental assessment panel and participate in public hearings.

1.2 The Environmental Assessment Review Panel

After the Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources referred AECL's proposed concept for public review in 1988, the federal government spent a year consulting provincial governments and non-governmental organiza-tions in the three provinces that produce nuclear fuel wastes. They discussed the terms of reference and potential panel candidates.

On October 4, 1989, the federal Minister of the Environment appointed seven people to the Nuclear Fuel Waste Management and Disposal Concept Environmental Assessment Panel (the Panel) to conduct the public review of AECL's proposed concept. Recognizing the importance of the concerns of Aboriginal people in this review, the Minister appointed an eighth member of the Panel, drawn from the Aboriginal community, on April 24, 1991.

The composition of the Panel changed over the course of the review. Biographies of the current members are included in Appendix B, along with the names of previous panel members and the terms they served. The Panel was supported by a four-person secretariat provided by the Federal Environmental Assessment Review Office, now known as the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.

1.3 The Scientific Review Group

In its terms of reference, the Panel was directed to establish a scientific review group (SRG) of distinguished independent experts from various disciplines to examine closely the safety and scientific acceptability of the proposal. The Panel established this group in August 1990. The SRG's examination culminated in a report released in October 1995, followed by an addendum submitted at the panel's request in September 1996. The SRG was a major participant in the June and November 1996 public hearings on technical issues. The SRG's terms of reference and biographies of the 15 members can be found in appendices C and D, respectively.

1.4 The Review Process

1.4.1 The Public Information and Participation Program

The Panel was asked to conduct its review in the three provinces producing nuclear fuel wastes: New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario. It was also asked to include Manitoba, where an AECL research facility is located, and Saskatchewan, as requested by the provincial government. The Panel designed a public information and participation program to include these five provinces. As part of this program, the panel's secretariat hosted open houses before the scoping meetings and again shortly after the release of the EIS. The open houses were designed to increase public awareness of the review process, the proposal under review and the opportunities to participate. Operational procedures to help participants understand the panel's work were issued in November 1990. A World Wide Web site for the review, linked to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency's Web site, was created in December 1995.

In spring 1996, a consultant was retained to approach community groups and individuals in communities that the Panel would visit during Phase III of the public hearings, to ensure that every segment of society was informed of the opportunity to participate. The consultant identified community groups and provided them and the media with the information they desired. Communication was established through federal, provincial and local elected representatives; school boards; universities; and community organizations. In addition, the Panel arranged to visit three First Nations communities on the Canadian Shield.

A detailed chronology of the panel's activities can be found in Appendix E.

1.4.2 Preparation of the EIS Guidelines

To develop guidelines to help AECL prepare an EIS, the Panel held scoping meetings in the autumn of 1990 in 14 communities. We also held a workshop on Aboriginal issues and met with members of Canadian Student Pugwash in 1991.

The Panel then prepared draft EIS guidelines and released them to the public in June 1991 for written comments by September 16, 1991. After reviewing comments received from 38 participants, the Panel finalized the guidelines and issued them to AECL and the public on March 18, 1992.

In the following months, the Panel requested additional information on issues outside AECL's mandate from a number of government departments and all three nuclear power utilities. [The following are examples of requests made by the Panel at that time: information on emergency response plans and contingency plans for accidental spills of toxic wastes that may apply to the disposal concept for nuclear fuel wastes (Health Canada); information on the general criteria for managing nuclear wastes as compared to those for managing wastes from other energy and industrial sources (Natural Resources Canada and Environment Canada); information on the impact of recycling or other processes on the volume of wastes (Natural Resources Canada); information on the historical development of the criteria for safety and acceptability of geologic disposal and the degree of public involvement in their development (Atomic Energy Control Board); and information on practices used by the utilities for long-term storage of nuclear wastes (Ontario Hydro, Hydro-Québec and New Brunswick Power).] We received responses to these requests between September 1992 and October 1994.

1.4.3 EIS Review

On October 26, 1994, AECL submitted an EIS, supported by nine primary reference documents that had been made available earlier.

The period for review of the EIS by the public, government agencies and technical specialists began on November 8, 1994, and ended on August 8, 1995. The Panel received 65 submissions, and the SRG submitted its report on October 6, 1995. After analyzing the EIS, the supporting documents, the SRG report and the written comments, the Panel concluded that sufficient information would be available to allow public hearings to begin in March 1996, even though reviewers had identified significant shortcomings.

In a letter dated December 8, 1995, the Panel asked AECL to provide further clarification and additional information to help evaluate the safety of the concept. [Some of the subjects for which additional information was requested include alternative disposal container material; container designs and container emplacement layouts; the role of backfill as a barrier; existing drill core data for estimating the availability of potentially acceptable sites; ranked selection and rejection criteria for suitable site characterization; and alternative disposal vault layouts.] It also asked AECL to provide any relevant information at its disposal that had not been included in the EIS, and to respond in writing by May 10, 1996 to issues that the SRG and review participants had raised. AECL provided its response on May 9, 1996.

1.4.4 Public Hearings

Public hearings were held in three phases beginning in March 1996. Phase I focused on broad societal issues related to long-term management of nuclear fuel wastes in general; hence, there was no proponent during this phase. Phase II focused on the safety of the AECL concept of geological disposal of nuclear fuel wastes from a scientific and engineering viewpoint. Community hearings during Phase III were the final opportunity in this process for members of the public to voice their opinions on the safety and acceptability of the proposed concept.

The phase I hearings were held over three weeks. The final week consisted of general sessions held in three communities. Each day during the other two weeks focused on a specific topic. The secretariat prepared short issue papers on the topic and distributed them in advance to participants. There were presentations each morning and round table discussions animated by a facilitator each afternoon. To help with the round table discussions, the Panel invited a number of speakers to make short presentations, giving an overview of the daily topic and raising points for discussion. They did not present positions on nuclear waste management.

The initial phase II hearings were held over 12 days in June 1996. The first 10 days consisted of technical sessions on long-term safety after the closure of a disposal facility. The remaining days consisted of sessions on issues specific to the period before the closure of a facility. The documentation for these hearings included the EIS, the reference documents and the additional information provided by AECL on May 9, 1996.

During the phase II hearings, some participants and panel members questioned AECL for referring, in its May 9 response or in presentations at the hearings, to studies that they had not seen. The Panel decided to postpone the closure of Phase II to give participants time to review these studies. In September, at the panel's request, the SRG submitted an addendum to its original report that took the new information into account. Four extra days of hearings were held in Toronto in November to allow for a technical discussion of the additional information.

During the phase III community hearings, the Panel visited a number of communities on the Canadian Shield and near nuclear facilities. The hearings were held every second week, starting in Saskatoon on January 13, 1997 and ending in Ottawa on March 27. They were conducted in the traditional manner, with some modification when Aboriginal communities hosted the Panel.

During all three phases the Panel heard from a total of 531 registered speakers and received 536 written submissions, as listed in Appendix F. In addition, the Panel received 108 responses to the various undertakings given by participants during the hearings. Transcripts for all three phases were made available to the public.

A bibliography of key review documents can be found in Appendix G.

1.4.5 Closing Statements

Since the review was not site specific, the Panel did not hear closing statements in one location, as is customary in other hearings. Therefore, the Panel modified its hearings procedures to allow participants to submit brief written statements by April 18, 1997. We received 38 such closing statements.

Following the public hearings, the Panel prepared this report for transmittal to the federal Minister of the Environment and Minister of Natural Resources.

1.4.6 Participant Funding

To assist the public to participate effectively, participant funding was made available. AECL initially agreed to provide $750,000 for this purpose and an independent funding administration committee distributed funds in two phases, according to a set of eligibility criteria. Up to $200,000 was available for scoping and review of the draft guidelines, while $550,000 was available for review of the EIS and public hearings.

In the end, the committee distributed a total of $842,515 in four separate allocations, all provided by AECL.

  • In September 1990, it distributed $152,500 to 17 of 33 applicants to help them participate in the scoping meetings and review of the draft guidelines.
  • A second allocation, totalling $387,235, was provided to 31 of 54 applicants in October 1994, to help them review the EIS and participate in public hearings. The committee withheld the remaining money to respond to needs to be identified during the open houses held between November 1994 and March 1995.
  • On March 31, 1995, the committee provided $210,265 to 25 of 60 applicants for the same purposes as the previous allocation.
  • In October 1996, an additional $92,515 was given to 16 participants, to help them review the supplementary information submitted in May 1996 and during the June hearings.