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Panel Report

2.0 The Nature of the Problem

To give context to the remainder of the report, this chapter describes the setting in which the Panel strove to fulfil its mandate. We begin by outlining the current waste management situation. Next, we introduce other perspectives on managing nuclear fuel wastes, including criteria applied to managing other wastes, international approaches and views, and alternatives to geological disposal. Finally, the discussion turns to some of the key complexities raised during the review, including societal issues and the perspective of Aboriginal people, and ends by framing the problem the Panel addressed.

2.1 Defining the Waste Management Problem

This section reflects the facts known to the Panel about these subjects when this report was written, and does not necessarily represent the panel's views.

2.1.1 Nuclear Power in Canada

In March 1997, 21 CANDU nuclear power reactors were operating in Canada, one (Bruce Unit 2) was shut down and none were under construction. The provincial distribution of the reactors and their contribution to each province's electricity generation are shown in Table 1.

Table 1 - Reactor Distribution and Contribution to Electricity Generation
Province Number of Operating Nuclear Reactors Percentage of Province's Electricity Generated by Nuclear Reactors in 1994*
Ontario 19 61
Quebec 1 3
New Brunswick 1 33

* Canadian Electricity Association and Natural Resources Canada,Electric Power in Canada 1994, (Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1995), p. 60.

In 1994, conventional (mostly coal-fired) thermal stations generated 19 per cent of Canada's electricity, hydro-electric stations 61 per cent, nuclear stations 19 per cent and other sources 1 per cent. [Canadian Electricity Association and Natural Resources Canada, Electric Power in Canada 1994 (Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1995), p. 68.] By 1996, the share generated by nuclear stations had declined to about 16 per cent, and this decline has continued.

To put the Canadian situation in a global perspective, 442 nuclear power reactors were operating in 30 countries around the world in 1996, and another 36 were under construction. Of global electricity production in 1992, conventional (mostly coal-fired) thermal stations generated 64 per cent, hydroelectric stations 18 per cent, nuclear stations 17 per cent and other sources less than 1 per cent. [Canadian Electricity Association and Natural Resources Canada, Electric Power in Canada 1994, p. 18.]

2.1.2 Canada's Nuclear Fuel Cycle

The nuclear fuel cycle, illustrated in Figure 2, can be separated into three stages:

  • the first stage or front end incorporates uranium mining, milling, refining and conversion, and fuel fabrication;
  • the second stage consists of irradiating the fuel in nuclear reactors to generate electricity; and
  • the third stage or back end comprises managing spent fuel and reactor wastes.

The cycle is an open or once-through fuel cycle if the fuel is used once and then disposed of. Closed fuel cycles reprocess spent fuel to recycle its useful components and dispose of reprocessing wastes. In 1996, about 16 per cent of the uranium produced in Canada was converted into uranium oxide fuel for domestic use in CANDU reactors in an open fuel cycle.

2.1.3 Type of Wastes

While wastes are created at each step of the fuel cycle, the Panel reviewed "nuclear fuel wastes," which "consist of solid used fuel bundles discharged from CANDU reactors or derived high-level wastes, should the used fuel ever be reprocessed at some future date." [See Terms of Reference in Appendix A.] As shown in Figure 3, fuel bundles are about the size of a fireplace log and consist of tubular zirconium alloy sheaths containing ceramic uranium oxide pellets. A bundle for Ontario Hydro's Bruce Generating Station weighs about 24 kilograms, which includes about 19 kilograms of uranium. Since the Bruce Station has the largest inventory of spent fuel, its bundles were used as the standard waste form in the case studies in AECL's EIS. The case studies assumed that the fuel had been out of the reactor and in storage for 10 years.

If reprocessing and recycling were to be implemented in the future, high-level and other liquid radioactive wastes would be derived from used CANDU fuel bundles. The high-level wastes would be immobilized by dissolving and solidifying it in a host matrix, such as glass or a glass-ceramic composite, in the form of a large solid block or log. Reprocessing, recycling and their waste products are discussed further in Appendix L.

Figure 2: The Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Primary Waste Management Options in Canada

Figure 2: The Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Primary Waste Management Options in Canada

Figure 3: A CANDU Fuel Bundle (Source: AECL)

Figure 3: A CANDU Fuel Bundle (Source: AECL)

-- Each bundle produces about 1 million kilowatt-hours of electricity, equivalent to burning about 400 tonnes of coal, and enough to supply about 100 homes for a year.

CANDU reactors could operate with several advanced fuel cycles, including one based on mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel, a combination of plutonium oxide and uranium oxide. In April 1996, the Prime Minister announced that Canada had agreed in principle to using MOX fuel in its CANDU reactors to help the U.S. and Russia reduce their inventory of up to 100 tonnes of surplus plutonium from dismantled nuclear weapons. When this report was written, the feasibility of this proposal was still being studied. The Minister of the Environment and the Minister of Natural Resources had stated that "a full environmental review," including "a public study by an independent panel," would occur before any final decisions were made.

2.1.4 Amount of Wastes

At the end of 1996, a total of about 1.2 million used CANDU fuel bundles (weighing 29,400 metric tonnes) were stored at Canadian reactor sites. This quantity would roughly fill three regulation-size hockey rinks up to the top of the boards. About 87 per cent of these wastes were produced by Ontario Hydro, six per cent by New Brunswick Power, five per cent by Hydro-Québec and two per cent by AECL.

According to AECL, about 85,000 spent fuel bundles are produced per year; if no new reactors were constructed, a total of about 3.6 million bundles would exist by the end of 2033, with 3.3 million of these belonging to Ontario Hydro. Although currently there are no plans to construct new reactors, the situation could change according to the economics of power generation and the energy needs and policies of the provinces. As estimated in the EIS, if the nuclear generating capacity existing as of March 1993 was maintained by constructing new reactors as old ones were retired, 10 million bundles or 240,000 tonnes would be produced by 2073. If capacity was to increase by an average of three per cent per year after 1994, 10 million bundles would be produced by 2035. AECL's reference case study facility was designed to accommodate 10 million spent fuel bundles.

2.1.5 Composition, Longevity and Toxicity of Wastes

Fresh CANDU fuel contains three different nuclides of uranium. When neutrons bombard the fuel in a CANDU reactor, fission and activation products are created. Some of these products undergo radioactive decay by emitting radiation, forming new nuclides and generating heat.

Radioactive decay continues when the spent fuel is removed from the reactor, causing it to emit radiation and heat at decreasing rates and to change its composition over time. After 10 years of cooling, the used CANDU fuel designated for the EIS case studies contained about 98.7 per cent of the original uranium, 0.65 per cent stable fission products, 0.16 per cent radioactive fission products, and 0.49 per cent activation products (per cent of the total mass of uranium in the fresh fuel). In total, spent fuel contains roughly 350 different nuclides, about 200 of which are radioactive. Its level of activity per unit mass declines to that of natural uranium and its associated radioactive decay products after about one million years.

Radioactive decay entails the emission of alpha, beta or gamma radiation. The type of radiation determines whether the radionuclide emitting it presents an external or internal hazard to an organism, the latter through ingestion and/or inhalation, or both. Alpha radiation poses largely an internal hazard; beta radiation poses a slight external hazard but a greater internal hazard; gamma radiation poses both.

The potential biological effects of radiation exposure depend on the dose absorbed per unit of biomass, the duration of the exposure, the dose rate, the type of radiation, and the susceptibility of the tissues or organs exposed. Doses to humans are discussed in terms of the dose equivalent (measured in sievert), which accounts for the differing reactions to the different types of radiation within the body. For reference, the annual dose that most Canadians receive due to natural background radiation is approximately three thousandths of a sievert. As discussed in Appendix H, there is a small probability that radiation exposure may initiate either a malignancy, which may not become evident for 30 years or more, or a change in the individual's genetic code, which would affect his or her offspring. Such effects are known as probabilistic, and their probability increases proportionately with the tissue dose received. Even for very high doses of the order of one sievert, such as those received by the atomic bomb survivors, the risk of developing a radiation-induced cancer remains very small. For the most commonly occurring occupational exposures received by radiation workers (exposures which are comparable to natural background levels), the annual risk of fatal cancers and serious genetic effects will not greatly exceed one in a million.

For unusually high doses of several sievert or more, immediate tissue damage may also occur. Such damage is known as an acute or deterministic effect. For whole body doses above three to four sievert, the acute radiation damage may be so severe that it proves fatal, usually within a matter of days.

In addition to radionuclides, used fuel contains several chemically toxic elements, including heavy metals. These elements may also have biological effects, which similarly depend on a number of factors. Unlike radionuclides, which undergo radioactive decay that decreases their potential toxicity over time, the potential toxicity of these elements remains constant.

2.1.6 Current Storage Practice

Spent nuclear fuel is currently stored, on an interim basis, either indoors in water-filled pools or outdoors in concrete canisters at nuclear reactor sites. The objectives of this storage are "to manage the fuel in a safe, reliable, and economic manner; and to maintain used fuel integrity to ensure that the fuel is retrievable for future downstream post-storage operations, e.g., transportation and fuel disposal." According to an Ontario Hydro publication, with continuing institutional controls such as physical security, monitoring, maintenance and funding, there is reason to expect that these objectives will be met for as long as required in the future. This implies that the level of risk associated with storage facilities is currently acceptable to society.

There is enough storage capacity at the sites to accommodate all the spent fuel that will be produced up to the end of the life of the existing reactors. However, Ontario Hydro stated during the hearings that, although it felt extended surface storage was technically feasible, it needed to do more studies to decide whether using surface storage alone was an acceptable long-term strategy. Researchers in both Canada and other countries are exploring methods for improved on-site long-term storage.

2.1.7 AECL's Justification for Disposal and its Timing

Although AECL does not have the mandate to implement disposal, its justification for its proposed disposal concept is summarized below, as stated in its EIS. See Section 2.3.3 for the views of participants on this subject.

  • A significant quantity of nuclear fuel wastes currently exists, and more will arise from the continuing generation of nuclear power in Canada.
  • Toxic elements, human health and the natural environment must be protected from their potentially harmful effects far into the future.
  • Current storage practices, while safe, require ongoing institutional controls.
  • Because the methods of ensuring the continuity of institutional controls are not considered very reliable beyond a few hundred years, a permanent disposal method that does not rely on such controls for its long-term safety is preferable to storage. Disposal does not preclude institutional controls, but they must be such that, if they were to fail, human health and the natural environment would still be protected, as required by the AECB.
  • As the present generation benefits significantly from the activities that produce nuclear fuel wastes, it ought to assume disposal responsibilities and minimize any burden placed on future generations as much as possible.
  • Since Canada cannot expect to dispose of its nuclear fuel wastes elsewhere, it needs a practical disposal method.

Furthermore, AECL recommends moving towards siting and disposal for the following reasons:

  • to minimize the burden on future generations;
  • to eliminate the dependence on long-term institutional controls before their possible failure makes safe storage or disposal impossible;
  • to maintain the technology that has been developed, including the knowledge and skills of scientists and engineers, and to protect the investments in it by the governments of Canada and Ontario;
  • to increase public confidence in Canada's ability to dispose of nuclear fuel wastes, rather than decreasing it through delay; and
  • to allow site-specific and design-specific issues to be addressed in the most effective and efficient way.

As additional justification, AECL raised the following points.

  • If disposal is delayed because storage is cheaper, future generations would not make a different decision, and thus disposal may never be implemented.
  • If disposal is delayed to await technological advances, even though a safe method is available now, future generations would not make a different decision, and thus disposal may never be implemented.
  • Delaying disposal so that the used fuel's activity and heat output will decrease with time is not warranted, because reductions beyond the first 10 years will be small.
  • If desired, used fuel could be reprocessed and recycled during siting and operation of a disposal facility, and the solidified high-level wastes could be disposed of in the repository.

Other arguments for proceeding now have been put forward. In 1995, the Auditor General of Canada urged immediate action on implementing long-term, cost-effective solutions for Canada's radioactive wastes. He highlighted the need to minimize not only the financial burden on future generations, but future federal government liabilities. Federal liabilities will arise when the government deals with its own wastes (AECL's portion), and could arise when the original producer or current owner of the wastes can no longer reasonably be held responsible, or is unable or unwilling to pay. The latter situation has already occurred with some radioactive wastes.

2.1.8 Regulatory and Policy Context

As the federal government has jurisdiction over and regulatory responsibility for nuclear energy, it develops the national policies, strategies and regulations for managing radioactive wastes. These roles are fulfilled by Natural Resources Canada, as well as by the AECB, which reports to Parliament through the Minister of Natural Resources but operates at arm's length from the Minister. Many other federal, provincial and municipal acts, regulations and requirements would also apply to certain elements of implementing a disposal facility. Regulations

The AECB is the primary regulator of the health, safety and physical security aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle in Canada. All phases of developing nuclear facilities and managing radioactive substances are subject to the Atomic Energy Control Actand the Atomic Energy Control Regulations. In addition, the Nuclear Liability Act, which is currently under review, applies to nuclear facilities but not, at this point, to disposal facilities.

At each licensing stage of a disposal facility (site preparation, construction, operation and decommissioning), an environmental assessment would be required under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. The Act provides for public input, including review by an independent panel under certain circumstances, such as when public concerns warrant it.

Along with its regulations, the AECB employs licence conditions, regulatory policy statements and regulatory guides to exercise varying degrees of control over the nuclear industry. Given the technical nature of its legislated mandate, the AECB does not have jurisdiction over the social, economic or lifestyle issues associated with nuclear development.

Of particular relevance to the concept under review are the AECB regulatory documents listed in Table 2.

Table 2: Pertinent Regulatory Documents of the Atomic Energy Control Board
No. Type Title Year
R-71 Regulatory Policy Statement Deep Geological Disposal of Nuclear Fuel Waste: Background Information and Regulatory Requirements Regarding the Concept Assessment Phase 1985
R-72 Regulatory Guide Geological Considerations in Siting a Repository for Underground Disposal of High-level Radioactive Waste 1987
R-90 Regulatory Policy Statement Policy on the Decommissioning of Nuclear Facilities 1988
R-104 Regulatory Policy Statement Regulatory Objectives, Requirements and Guidelines for the Disposal of Radioactive Wastes-Long-term Aspects 1987

By early 1998, the Atomic Energy Control Act and the AECB will likely be succeeded by the Nuclear Safety and Control Act and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC). Unlike the AECB, the CNSC will be empowered to order remedial actions and to require financial guarantees from waste producers as a condition of licensing. Unlike the present act, the Nuclear Safety and Control Act will make protecting the environment an explicit rather than an implicit requirement. The AECB is currently developing a regulatory policy on environmental protection, including radiological impacts on non-human species.

Further information on the regulatory requirements for nuclear fuel waste disposal can be found in Appendix B of both the EIS andR-Preclosure. International Standards

Several international organizations recommend standards and guidelines for managing nuclear fuel wastes. These include the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD/NEA). They are further described in the EIS (Chapter 3 and Appendix D). The objectives and requirements enunciated by these and other international agencies have formed the basis of the AECB regulatory regime and Canadian government policy. Together with those of the AECB and those developed by AECL, they have shaped the Canadian disposal concept. Policy

Federal government policy complements the regulations, regulatory documents and international standards on managing nuclear fuel wastes. In his 1995 report on federal radioactive waste management, the Auditor General noted that there was only one formal federal policy on radioactive wastes, and that that policy covered only low-level wastes. He concluded that "Natural Resources Canada needs to develop federal policies to cover all classes of radioactive waste."

In response, the Minister of Natural Resources announced the Radioactive Waste Policy Framework (reproduced in Appendix I) in July 1996. It specifies that, in relation to radioactive waste disposal, the federal government develops policy, and regulates waste producers and owners. According to the "polluter pays" principle, producers and owners are to fund, organize, manage and operate waste disposal and other management facilities. In late 1996, Natural Resources Canada also carried out consultations on institutional and financial arrangements for the disposal of radioactive wastes. It reported that the federal government is awaiting this panel's report before deciding on future directions.

2.2 Other Perspectives on Managing Nuclear Fuel Wastes

2.2.1 Comparison with Management of Other Wastes

The Panel will also examine the general criteria for the management of nuclear fuel wastes as compared to those for wastes from other energy and industrial sources. In addition, the impact of recycling or other processes on the volume of wastes should be examined.

Terms of Reference

This section summarizes the examinations requested in the Terms of Reference. Appendix J contains a fuller comparison of the characteristics, volumes, management approaches and regulatory criteria pertinent to nuclear fuel and analogous wastes, as well as a brief discussion of the impact of recycling and other processes on waste volumes. More details on the latter subject are found in Appendix L.

Hazardous wastes and their management provide the nearest analogue to the nuclear fuel waste question. Although some common themes exist in the regulations and policy on radioactive wastes and those on other hazardous wastes, there is no comprehensive and uniform approach to dealing with the two types of wastes. Because of federal responsibility for nuclear matters, the regulation of all radioactive wastes is largely in the hands of the AECB. Wastes from other energy and industrial sources, however, are subject to regulation by federal, provincial and even municipal authorities. Bodies such as the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) co-ordinate the establishment of national guidelines for different waste problems.

According to the Joint AECB Advisory Committees/ Health Canada Working Group on assessing and managing cancer risks from chemical and radiological hazards, risk management practices for both nuclear fuel wastes and chemicals are designed to minimize risk, yet balance the benefits of reducing risk with the costs and feasibility of controls. [David Myers, Assessment and Management of Cancer Risks from Chemical and Radiological Hazards (abstract and overheads of a presentation at the 1996 Conference of the Canadian Radiation Protection Association, Trois-Rivières, June 10, 1996, Undertaking 7), p. 17.] This is known as the ALARA principle: exposures shall be kept as low as reasonably achievable, economic and social factors being taken into account.

However, the Panel was told that, in relation to radiation, the ALARA principle is applied to achieve exposures that are a small fraction of the regulatory limits, whereas the limits for chemicals already include a form of ALARA. [David Myers, Assessment and Management of Cancer Risks from Chemical and Radiological Hazards, p. 20, and J.A.L. Robertson, Some Additional Comments on Submissions to the Panel (PH3Pub.234(c), March 26, 1997), p. 2.] Thus, the ALARA principle is applied inconsistently in meeting or exceeding regulatory limits. For both types of substances, lower acceptable risk levels are specified for the general population than for workers in the industry.

For nuclear fuel wastes, which are not currently reprocessed in Canada, the AECB prefers disposal. A repository is to be deep underground; minimize the burden on future generations; not rely on long-term institutional controls as a necessary safety feature; and maintain radiological risk below a designated level for 10,000 years after closure.

For hazardous wastes, the increasingly preferred approach for managing wastes is to use the 4Rs hierarchy (reduce, re-use, recycle, recover), followed by disposal as a last resort. However, this preference stands in contrast to past and many current waste management practices. In Canada, 60 per cent of hazardous wastes is either landfilled or discharged to municipal sewers, while 40 per cent is treated. Surface landfills, engineered to control leaching processes and products, are the usual system of disposal. The CCME guidelines for hazardous waste landfilling place more emphasis on immediate postclosure controls and less on very long-term safety compared to those of the AECB for radioactive waste disposal, which rule out dependence on such controls in an attempt to ensure long-term passive safety.

In our hearings, the question was raised as to whether a common set of criteria should apply to both nuclear and other hazardous wastes, and particularly whether the 4Rs principle could and should apply to nuclear fuel wastes. These issues are discussed in Appendix J. Some consensus may emerge from the AECB's plans to work with Environment Canada and the provinces to establish a regulatory approach to protect the environment, including non-human species, from industrial radiation sources, consistent with the federalToxic Substances Management Policy. Additional consensus may result from the recent work of the Joint AECB Advisory Committees/Health Canada Working Group.

The Panel considers that it would be desirable to work towards common risk assessment and management methods and common and publicly accepted risk criteria, so that relative risks might be fairly judged, whether they arise from radioactivity or not. The differing characteristics of various waste types would still have to be taken into account, but such common measures might be a useful first step.

The panel's examination of the general criteria for managing wastes from other energy and industrial sources did not provide explicit analogues for use in developing criteria for managing nuclear fuel wastes. However, in the course of our hearings, we gleaned much useful information about the management of low-level radioactive wastes and hazardous wastes, as well as interim storage practices for nuclear fuel wastes. This has all proven valuable in framing the conclusions and recommendations elsewhere in this report.

2.2.2 International Experience

In reviewing AECL's concept, the Panel should become fully aware of the programs of other leading countries in this field, in particular those countries' consideration of different geological media and their development of appropriate plans and schedules for siting and construction of nuclear fuel waste management facilities.

Terms of Reference

Appendix K of this report describes the nuclear fuel waste management programs of nine countries and includes a tabular synopsis. It provides an international context for managing high-level nuclear wastes in Canada and shows how the AECL concept for deep geological disposal fits into the "international consensus" for managing nuclear wastes. We have not summarized each country's programs in the body of the report. However, we do offer a few general observations as part of the background to later chapters.

Most countries with significant nuclear power programs are developing a management strategy involving deep geological disposal of nuclear fuel wastes. The programs and research generally focus on a single waste facility in the hope that it will be operational by the first quarter of the next century. Although various geological media are used, varying with the conditions in each country, the generic characteristics are consistent in most countries: geological disposal of canisters containing wastes within an excavated vault environment.

Demonstration disposal projects and centralized interim storage are two fundamental elements of some national programs. Of note is the Dutch program, which recently turned its attention to retrievable disposal, following a government decision to reject non-retrievable methods. [Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Nuclear Energy Agency, "Update on Waste Management Policies and Programs," Nuclear Waste Bulletin, Volume 11 (June 1996), pp. 38-39.] While we focused on leading countries, as directed in the Terms of Reference, we note that Eastern European countries with nuclear programs are also pursuing deep geological disposal, in salt formations.

The international scientific and technical community dealing with nuclear waste management exchanges a great deal of factual information and experience. It does so bilaterally, as well as through multilateral fora such as the OECD/NEA in Paris and the IAEA in Vienna. This helps to ensure that research results are widely shared. Without safeguards, however, this process could lead to uniform thinking that would not welcome new or radical ideas for long-term management.

There is a broad consensus among the scientific and technical experts in the leading nuclear nations that geological disposal could form part of a generic approach to long-term management. The Panel notes that to date no country has achieved the social consensus necessary to build a disposal facility for high-level nuclear wastes.

In several countries, there are vocal and vigorous opponents of the deep geological solution and of the transportation implications of a single centralized waste facility. This resistance is frequently linked to opposition to nuclear power, and is contributing to some re-appraisal of the political feasibility of this approach. It is becoming clear that societal acceptance will be more difficult to achieve than scientific and technical acceptance. As a result, governments are exploring the alternative of longer-term interim storage, either on site or centralized, since acceptance of disposal seems unlikely to come quickly or easily.

2.2.3 Various Approaches to Long-term Nuclear Fuel Waste Management

It will examine AECL's proposed concept along with other approaches for nuclear fuel waste disposal being developed elsewhere in the world. . . . In its review, the Panel will take into consideration the various approaches to the long-term management of nuclear fuel wastes which are presently being stored at reactor sites. These long-term manage-ment approaches include long-term storage with a capability for continuing intervention in the form of monitoring, retrieval and remedial action; and the transition from storage to permanent disposal.

Terms of Reference

Appendix L describes and summarizes the various approaches to managing nuclear fuel wastes that have been suggested over the years. It compares them from the point of view of technical feasibility, risks, cost, other advantages and other disadvantages.

One key element of acceptability is that the public and decision-makers be in a position to make informed comparisons and a considered choice among reasonable alternatives. A considered choice requires adequate knowledge of those alternatives, especially the risks, costs and benefits associated with each. The principal alternatives to which attention was drawn at our hearings were deep geological disposal, storage at nuclear reactor sites, long-term storage at a central facility either at or below surface, and transmutation.

2.3 Key Issues and Complixities

At first reading, the task assigned to this Panel might appear straightforward. As the panel members and participants delved more deeply into it, however, a number of subtleties and complexities became apparent. Several of these are highlighted in this section, and we explore some of them in later chapters.

2.3.1 Societal Context

Assessment of the safety and environmental implications of any major proposal is likely to involve related social and ethical questions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the nuclear field, for reasons that we shall refer to frequently in this report. Technical, social and ethical aspects of nuclear fuel waste management are inextricably related and must be viewed within the full context of contemporary societal thinking, as the Panel was frequently reminded during its hearings.

Many ethical questions related to long-term management are far from resolved: collective versus individual rights and obligations; intergenerational and intragenerational equity and responsibilities; acceptability of regulatory standards; conflicts between human and environmental values; appropriate consultation of Aboriginal people; the actual urgency of actions required; and the lack of information about, and a forum for discussion of, alternative approaches to managing nuclear fuel wastes, let alone energy options. Open discussion of these questions and continual updating of a changing ethical framework will be required to reach decisions that are acceptable within the broad context of our society.

Societal priorities are also important, including the appropriate allocation of scarce human, financial and physical resources to nuclear fuel wastes in relation to the other problems besetting society. The cost of a disposal facility, for example, would be substantial, estimated at between $10 billion for 3.6 million bundles (1995 dollars) [John Van Den Hengel and Fred Long, in Nuclear Fuel Waste Environmental Assessment Panel Public Hearings Transcripts, March 29, 1996, p. 19.] and $13.3 billion for 10 million bundles (1991 dollars). [Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, Environmental Impact Statement, p. 232.] Ontario Hydro and others contended that the charge to ratepayers for disposal, at less than a tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour or roughly two per cent of the price of electricity, is small and reasonable. [Ken Nash and Ken Smith, in Nuclear Fuel Waste Environmental Assessment Panel Public Hearings Transcripts, March 11, 1996, p. 45 and p. 300.] Others feared that future ratepayers or even taxpayers in general might end up paying for the facility. A cost-benefit analysis could help to demonstrate whether a reasonable percentage of resources was allocated to managing nuclear fuel wastes; whether the cost was reasonable compared to the revenue and benefits generated by nuclear energy and was equitably assigned; and whether resources were either being denied from efforts to seek sound solutions, or were being wasted on reducing risks for marginal benefit.

As signalled by the United Nations' Brundtland Commission report and by growing acceptance of the concept of sustainable development, changing societal values were reflected in many of the presentations made to the Panel. These presentations stressed the obligations of current generations not only to themselves but also to future generations and to the well-being of planet Earth itself; the need to reduce consumption and waste generation; the importance of re-using and recycling resources; and a trend away from disposal as a waste management approach.

Finally, the Panel was aware of differing value systems based in differing cultural or ethical approaches, sometimes referred to as "world views," which tended to accentuate the differences among review participants. There were those who emphasized the importance of economic growth to improving the lot of humankind; valued the natural environment primarily for its usefulness to humans; and had faith in rationality, science and technology to solve difficult technical problems. On the other hand, there were those who questioned both the desirability and the possibility of continued economic growth unless it could be demonstrated to be sustainable; were uneasy with the anthropocentric view of the other group; and had less faith in rationality, science and technology, government or institutions. Although few participants would subscribe unequivocally to either "world view," the two tendencies were evident, reflecting deep societal divisions over what constitutes acceptable management of nuclear fuel wastes.

The emphasis that many participants placed on the ethical framework, on social priorities and on changing societal values-the centrality of which the Panel fully accepts-argues in favour of a prudent, step-by-step approach to developing a long-term strategy for managing nuclear wastes, so that irreversible decisions are not made in haste.

The process of developing an appropriate plan for managing nuclear wastes must reflect our societal context. That context includes widespread public concern over the handling of all toxic and persistent industrial wastes, fear of losing control in the planning and decision-making process, lack of trust in political and institutional leaders, scepticism of scientific predictions that are based on uncertainty, and a healthy suspicion that, in the final analysis, no one will be accountable. Factors such as these are legitimate and important concerns which strongly influenced the way the Panel addressed its mandate.

2.3.2 Dread Factor

A deeply entrenched fear and mistrust of nuclear technology exists within some segments of our society. This "dread factor" is real and palpable. It is an important element in decision-making processes concerning nuclear matters, as it will undoubtedly affect the public confidence resulting from such processes. The dread factor stems not only from the imperceptibility, mobility and longevity of the radiation hazard and its disturbing potential health effects, but also from association with nuclear weapons and with past disasters, nuclear and other, involving human error or engineering failures. A combination of these elements led many participants to express great anxiety over worst-case scenarios with terrible and long-lasting consequences, regardless of their low likelihood. Although experts may challenge or debate the perception that nuclear fuel wastes pose unprecedented hazards due to their extreme toxicity and longevity, these challenges are not, by themselves, likely to materially reduce the dread factor.

2.3.3 Need for and Timing of Disposal

As outlined in section 2.1.7, AECL reasons that disposal is needed now to permanently protect human health and the natural environment from the potentially harmful effects of nuclear fuel wastes, and to minimize the burden on future generations. In the view of both AECL and the AECB, achieving both of these goals means not relying on institutional controls.

Many participants held somewhat different views.

. . . we should not require that man's endeavours be managed to account for societal breakdown, since this calls into question the viability of any industry which relies on institutional control to manage its risks. Such an approach would have slowed the progress of society as we know it and would deny society many of the benefits of science and technology.

New Brunswick Power [New Brunswick Power, The Ethics of the Management of High-level Radioactive Waste (PH3Pub.225, March 26, 1997), p. 2.]

The Canadian Nuclear Association supported disposal to minimize the burden on future generations and to remove a major barrier to their continued use of nuclear energy. But it suggested that wastes should be retrievable as long as society might consider recycling them, and that successful siting of a repository should not preclude long-term parallel storage. [Murray Stewart, in Nuclear Fuel Waste Environmental Assessment Panel Public Hearing Transcripts, November 19, 1996, pp. 226-227 and pp. 231-232, and Murray Stewart, The Canadian Nuclear Association (presentation to the CEAA Panel Reviewing the Nuclear Fuel Waste Disposal Concept, Phase II Public Hearings, PH2Pub.027(a), November 19, 1996), p. 8.]

Other participants argued against the AECL disposal concept and its timing on the following grounds:

  • that relying on undemonstrated technology to achieve passive safety for many thousands of years was less acceptable than the assumption of societal break-down and the loss of institutional control;
  • that leaving wastes on the surface near heavily populated areas or seats of government would constantly remind people of its presence, thereby ensuring that institutional controls did not lapse;
  • that, as long as nuclear power continues, the most hazardous waste inventory will always be stored at the surface, and ongoing care will be required not only for the wastes in storage but also for the power plants;
  • that disposal would burden future generations because they would have limited options for managing the wastes, they would not want to leave the facility unmonitored, and they would find it expensive and difficult to retrieve the wastes if desired; and
  • that science was likely in the relatively near future to develop a better solution than passive geological disposal.

Faced with these contradictions, many participants believed that Canada should not rush to implement disposal, but should keep the wastes in storage and look for a better solution.

2.3.4 Reviewing a Concept

The panel's mandate was unusual compared to that of most other federal environmental assessment panels in that we were asked to review a concept rather than a specific project at a specific site. Because its proposal did not focus on a specific site, design or community, AECL found it difficult to respond precisely to detailed questions in our guidelines related to the biophysical or, especially, the socio-economic impacts of the proposal. In addition, AECL found it difficult to explain how the concept could be applied equally effectively to a sufficiently wide range of potential sites. The public also found it troublesome to review a concept, as the discussion was necessarily abstract, allowing everyone to bypass complex and controversial social issues that they would have addressed otherwise. Also, the fact that the potential implementing organization for the concept remained to be identified meant that nobody could give the guarantees that participants sought on how impacts would be assessed and managed in the future.

Many participants were confused because the EIS did not distinguish sufficiently between the generic concept and the detailed case studies used to demonstrate its safety. Quite late in the hearings, a number of participants did not know whether they were being asked to judge the concept itself, the EIS case study or the second case study presented during the technical hearings. For others, the distinction was clear enough.

The approach of approving a concept made some participants suspicious. They feared that if the Panel endorsed the concept as safe and acceptable, that endorsement would constitute a "green light" for continuing nuclear power, and that it would be difficult for any community to resist accepting a facility, to negotiate modifications to the concept or to strike a hard bargain for acceptance. Some participants expressed the latter fear despite assurances that another environmental assessment process would apply during siting and that the principle of voluntarism would effectively give the potential host community veto power.

2.3.5 Long-term Predictions

Compounding the complexity of assessing a concept was the longevity of the wastes, the intended permanence of disposal and, thus, the need to consider safety and acceptability over thousands of years. Some participants could not imagine a facility that could last for a period extending well beyond that of recorded history, let alone predict its performance over that time, given human fallibility and uncertainties in the data, mathematical modelling techniques, and future environmental and social conditions. Others believed that these problems were not insurmountable, given long-lived natural analogues, the stability of the Canadian Shield on the geological time scale, and the margins of safety in AECB's risk criterion and in AECL's results. Safety aside, some argued that we can never predict the long-term acceptability of any concept to future generations. Nonetheless, long-term predictions are not unique to nuclear fuel waste management.

2.3.6 How Safe is Safe Enough?

It became clear that there are widely differing views on the definition of safety, and on the question of how safe is safe enough, based on different technical and social perspectives. Balancing these views was one of the panel's major challenges. It will continue to be an issue during further stages of developing strategies for managing nuclear fuel wastes.

The questions of what degree of safety and what degree of proof are required when assessing safety at a conceptual design stage, compared to the licensing stage of a site-specific design, were contentious. At the extremes, one view was that virtually "absolute safety" must be guaranteed, while another countered that safety can never be guaranteed and that there is some remnant risk in everything we do, including doing nothing. The Panel has considered these and many positions in between. From a technical viewpoint, there is another question: if the predicted radiological or chemical dose rates are well below natural fluctuations, does it make sense to try to reduce them further through expenditure on additional safeguards? From a social viewpoint, an understanding of safety is based not only on technical data, but on previous experience with similar under-takings, and within a cultural context. Therefore, current social values must be incorporated into the safety assessment of disposal at the conceptual level.

2.3.7 Transportation of Nuclear Fuel Wastes

A multitude of concerns was voiced on waste transportation: the state and safety of Canadian highways, particularly northern ones; the potential for accidents and terrorism; the testing and integrity of shipping casks; emergency preparedness; and the notification and rights of communities along the routes. Speakers often recounted the events in Gorleben, Germany, where a great deal of policing, time and money were needed to clear opponents from the route used to ship reprocessing wastes. Strong worries about transportation led some participants to reject any option other than on-site waste management.

2.3.8 Issues Outside the Mandate

The panel's terms of reference stated clearly that the following were outside our mandate: the energy policies of Canada and the provinces; the role of nuclear energy within these policies, including the construction, operation and safety of new or existing nuclear power plants; fuel reprocessing as an energy policy; and military applica-tions of nuclear technology. However, a number of participants found it difficult to consider nuclear fuel waste management in isolation from one or more of these subjects. Others found it unacceptable, while a third group had no problem with it.

When the panel's review was announced, ministers had committed the government to conducting a parallel review in a different forum, which would put the nuclear fuel waste question in a broader context. Despite repeated letters from the Chairman reminding ministers of the importance of the parallel review, this commitment has not been fulfilled.

Among the issues that frequently arose in this review were the following: the need for policies on either the continuing use or the phase-out of nuclear energy; the importation of radioactive wastes for commercial disposal; and the importation of mixed oxide (MOX) fuel containing weapons plutonium. Further comment on these topics is found in Chapter 7.

2.3.9 The Legacy of Previous Reviews and Decisions

When the Hare Report was submitted in 1977, it may have been true that the public felt comfortable with a permanent disposal solution, preferably in a "remote" location. However, Dr. Hare and his colleagues advised that, before their recommendations were adopted as policy, they should be subject to wide public discussion and have broad public support. [F.K. Hare et al, The Management of Canada's Nuclear Wastes, p. 51.] This wide public discussion did not take place.

Dr. Stella Swanson: My question therefore is, in your opinion, has the wider public discussion you called for in 1977 taken place?

Dr. F. Kenneth Hare: I don't think it has. I'm not sure that it can. . . . But not to carry it out, or not to attempt it is-and I will use an old-fashioned word -immoral in my judgment.

Public Hearing Transcripts [Nuclear Fuel Waste Environmental Assessment Panel Public Hearing Transcripts, June 20, 1996, pp. 68-69.]

Twenty years later, many participants in the current review were calling for a comparative risk, cost and benefit analysis of all the available waste management options or, even more broadly, of all electricity generation options. The limitations of our mandate and of the information made available to us made it impossible to satisfy these concerns. Repeatedly raised was the possibility that long-term storage-with the ability to monitor and retrieve wastes and to integrate new technologies-might be a better solution than geological disposal, even if it meant keeping the wastes at or near their present locations indefinitely.

2.4 Involvement and Perspectives of Aboriginal People

The Panel was particularly concerned about the involvement and perspectives of Aboriginal people. This was a key element of the setting in which the Panel strove to fulfil its mandate.

In a special workshop held as part of our scoping meetings, at regular public hearings and at hearings held on three reserves on the Canadian Shield, the Panel heard strong and often moving statements from Aboriginal participants. Those who spoke to us ranged from schoolchildren and ordinary men and women to elders, chiefs and the Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. Much of what they said to the Panel about the AECL concept and the broader problem of the long-term management of nuclear fuel wastes had a great deal in common with the statements of non-Aboriginal participants. However, some messages were particular to Aboriginal participants.

Virtually all of the Canadian Shield is inhabited, claimed or used for traditional purposes (hunting, fishing, trapping and food gathering) by Aboriginal people. If a storage or disposal facility were located on the Shield, the facility itself, or the transport of nuclear fuel wastes and building materials, would clearly affect Aboriginal people. Many other economic and industrial developments in northern Canada have affected traditional lifestyles in a similar way.

Aboriginal people are not a homogenous segment of the Canadian population. With 580 Indian bands (127 First Nations in Ontario alone), numerous Inuit and Metis communities and 53 Aboriginal languages spoken in Canada, there is extreme cultural diversity among Aboriginal people. This diversity includes differing views on the management of nuclear fuel wastes. However, the principal messages presented by Aboriginal participants throughout the review process can, we think, be summarized as follows.

  • Neither the proponent nor the Panel had consulted Aboriginal people in an appropriate manner that respected their culture, languages and consultative processes. This must be done if there is to be any chance of meaningful Aboriginal participation in solving the nuclear waste problem.
  • Aboriginal people have not been given the time or opportunity, in their own languages and in their own way, to study and understand the proposals for deep geological disposal. From their present understanding, it appeared to many participants that the concept strongly conflicted with their deeply held beliefs about humankind's relationship with and responsibility to Mother Earth, as well as with their sense of responsibility for the welfare of the traditional next seven generations.
  • Most Aboriginal participants did not have great confidence in the current proposals of science and technology to manage nuclear fuel wastes safely, in part because these proposals do not incorporate traditional knowledge.
  • There was little confidence that the principle of voluntarism and a community's right to refuse a facility would apply to Aboriginal people. The decision-making process proposed did not fit with their traditions and culture and did not correspond with the Aboriginal view of community. Their suspicion in this regard was heightened by the past history of broken promises and broken agreements in dealings with non-native people and governments.
  • Aboriginal people have not shared proportionately in the economic prosperity of other Canadians and they feel they should not be forced to accept the waste products from the industrialized economy. They doubted that they would derive any significant benefit from agreeing to accept a facility.

The unhappiness and the frustration of the Aboriginal participants was epitomized by the request, put most strongly on the last day of our hearings, that the entire review process be stopped and that they be given the time and resources to conduct their own consultation with their people before the Panel made its recommendations to governments.

. . . we would like to participate in these hearings and develop a parallel process before the final recommendations are out. We would also like to be given the time and resources to be able to develop with our leadership . . . a process that would look directly at the recommendations that have come from these hearings as well as to develop our own recommendations in a parallel sense. Lyle Morrisseau, Sagkeeng First Nation [Lyle Morrisseau, in Nuclear Fuel Waste Environmental Assessment Panel Public Hearing Transcripts, March 27, 1997, pp. 72-73.]

The Panel believes that it would carry more weight for it to endorse strongly a fully participatory self-designed Aboriginal consultation process as an integral part of the next steps recommended in this report, rather than delaying the report to accommodate the required consultation process at this time.

2.5 Framing the Problem

We have described the complexities of the review that the participants and the Panel faced, both those related to its mandate and those related to the societal context in which nuclear fuel waste management must be placed. We hope this will contribute to a better understanding of the remainder of our report and of its recommendations. With this backdrop in mind, the Panel set forth to answer two fundamental questions during the review:

  • Is AECL's concept a safe and acceptable response to the need for long-term management of Canada's nuclear fuel wastes?
  • What future steps should be taken?

By safe, the Panel means meeting, on balance, criteria for safety as interpreted from both a technical and a social perspective. By acceptable, the Panel means broad societal consensus that the proposed course of action is the best available, taking into account ethical, social, technical and economic views.