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Panel Report

4.0 Criteria for Safety and Acceptability

In conducting its review, the Panel will include the examination of the criteria by which the safety and acceptability of a concept for long-term waste management and disposal should be evaluated.

Terms of Reference

In the Terms of Reference, the Panel was asked to examine criteria for long-term waste management. We assumed that meant examining not only those criteria applying to AECL's concept, but also criteria applying to any concept for the long-term management of nuclear fuel wastes.

4.1 Overview of Safety and Acceptability

The Panel wrestled with two major issues: how to define safety and acceptability; and how to formulate criteria applicable to a concept, as opposed to a real project.

While some aspects of safety can be accurately calculated, in the broadest sense neither safety nor acceptability is an absolute or measurable construct. Both are relative, value-laden, and subject to differing interpretations by different people in any given situation or under different conditions. These considerations affect the members of this Panel as well as the public at large. In particular, conceptions of safety and acceptability are greatly influenced by an individual's or a group's perception of risk. Since there is often little correlation between the expert's and the public's perceptions of risk, it is not surprising that there are disparate views of what is safe or acceptable.

AECL defines safe as "meeting criteria, guidelines, and standards for protecting the health of humans and non-human biota." [Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, Environmental Impact Statement, p. 63.] As the Panel heard, safety standards are not only a technical matter, because they explicitly or implicitly designate "acceptable" levels of risk or safety. Regulators often set risk levels in a particular standard by making them comparable to those calculated for everyday activities that the public generally-although often subconsciously-tolerates. However, considering that risk perception and acceptance are specific to each context and vary widely with the circumstances, safety standards set without broad consultation may not reflect general public acceptance.

. . . the public indeed makes judgments on acceptable risk, but they do it almost entirely implicitly. . . . There's no pattern in society as to what we find acceptable. It depends entirely on the type of risk. That's a tragic conclusion for a lot of the old risk experts from the engineering profession who thought we could sort of rationalize everything and get a common and uniform risk standard across society. It will never happen.

Dr. William Leiss, Queen's University [William Leiss, in Nuclear Fuel Waste Environmental Assessment Panel Public Hearing Transcripts, March 15, 1996, pp. 101-103.]

In recent years there has arisen the concept of the "perception of risk". This concept carries with it the implication that ordinary citizens perceive risk differently from experts, and are therefore prone to misguided illusions and vague psychological responses. More recently it has been understood that people's "perceptions of risk" derive from more fundamental "conceptions of risk" which are rooted in personal experience, social and economic status, and cultural practices. What becomes labelled as a "risk" seldom suddenly appears for analysis or assessment: it comes out of previous experience with risks.

Canadian Coalition for Ecology, Ethics and Religion [Canadian Coalition for Ecology, Ethics and Religion, A Report to the FEARO Panel on the Proposed Nuclear Fuel Waste Disposal Concept, Volume I: Key Questions (The Project Team for the Canadian Coalition for Ecology, Ethics and Religion (CCEER), PHPub.043), p. 26.]

It is clear that conceptions of safety, risk and acceptability are coloured by each individual's or community's perspectives. Hence, one person's definition of safety may correspond to another's definition of acceptability. Yet it seems to be universally agreed that safety is an essential component of the broader notion of acceptability.

Panel Conclusion

Safety is a key part, but only one part, of acceptability.

The Panel also faced difficulties formulating criteria to apply to a concept, as distinct from a site-specific proposal. Those who were familiar with the step-wise refinement and review of engineering designs from conceptual through final stages were relatively comfortable with devising criteria to judge a general concept in the absence of final details. Others concentrated on the way communities would evaluate what they would perceive as a risky undertaking. These people examined such a project's potential effects on communities, the equity of the distribution of its risks and benefits, its net benefit to society and the extent to which it incorporated participatory decision-making. Therefore, they found it impractical to establish criteria that did not also reflect the way a concept would be implemented, whom it would affect and how it would affect them. In this respect, the panel members' differing views reflect the broad cross-section of views of participants at our hearings.

4.2 Ethical and Social Considerations

Virtually all environmental decisions and policies are based on competing ethical and social values. Therefore, it is desirable to make explicit the ethical considerations and assumptions underlying the criteria for evaluating a concept for managing nuclear fuel wastes. If this is not done, there is a greater risk of developing policies that will perpetuate inequitable relationships between present and future generations, or that may damage the relationships between human beings and the ecosystem. [After Fen Osler Hampson and Judith Reppy, "Environmental Change and Social Justice," Environment, 39, 3 (April 1997), pp. 13-15.] Ethical and social assumptions may affect key policy decisions, such as those concerning the extent of public participation, or those concerning the involvement of potential host and affected communities in the siting process. As much as possible, the Panel has made ethical and social considerations and assumptions explicit in the safety and acceptability criteria listed in this chapter.

Panel Conclusion

An ethical and social framework is fundamental to framing the problem of nuclear waste management and to finding acceptable solutions to that problem.

4.3 Acceptability Criteria

Since acceptability is a subjective notion, devising criteria to evaluate it raises the question: acceptable to whom? Our Terms of Reference require this report to state whether AECL's disposal concept is safe and acceptable. Thus, they imply that panel members will judge acceptability, presumably using both personal and review participants' views. However, the Terms of Reference also state that our recommendations will help governments determine acceptability. This implies that ministers will make the final decision, based in part upon this report. We believe that, regardless of what the Panel or ministers conclude, the Canadian public will ultimately determine the acceptability of a concept for managing nuclear fuel wastes, because such a concept can only be implemented with the public's consent and co-operation. On risk-related issues, the public is demanding more openness, public scrutiny and debate, and shared decision-making. Without public acceptance, there will be vigorous opposition to any imposed solution. It is worth noting that no country has yet achieved the social consensus necessary to build a disposal facility for high-level nuclear wastes.

. . . I would submit that, before a concept is proved acceptable, it must do two things. It must reflect the values of the Canadian public, in that sense be acceptable; and it must be very likely to produce a result that will be widely judged to be acceptable.

Norm Rubin, Energy Probe [Norm Rubin, in Nuclear Fuel Waste Environmental Assessment Panel Public Hearing Transcripts, November 21, 1996, p. 172.]

The practical reality is that the wastes are going to have to be transported to a site, and they are therefore going to have to move through a particular province that is the host province, in effect, and if you don't have the support of the people in the host province and the provincial government itself, you simply don't have a workable situation. In the same way, if you don't have the support of the First Nations people, if it's on aboriginal lands, you don't have a workable situation, an acceptable situation, even if the province wants to host it.

Peter Prebble,

Saskatchewan Environmental Society [Peter Prebble, in Nuclear Fuel Waste Environmental Assessment Panel Public Hearing Transcripts, March 27, 1996, p. 43.]

Panel Conclusion

Broad public support is necessary in Canada to ensure the acceptability of a concept for managing nuclear fuel wastes.

With this conclusion in mind, the Panel defined the criteria for evaluating acceptability to reflect what we heard was most important to assessing broad public acceptance of a concept. Meeting these criteria does not guarantee such acceptance but will increase its likelihood. We note that, although public acceptance might be demonstrated at the conceptual stage, it would have to be demonstrated again at the site- and design-specific stages before the concept could be implemented. At those stages, acceptability would be determined from the point of view of the general public, governments and the regulator, in addition to the potential host and other directly affected communities. The panel's six criteria for evaluating concept acceptability are listed in this section, followed by explanatory text.

To be considered acceptable, a concept for managing nuclear fuel wastes must

  1. have broad public support;
  2. be safe from both a technical and a social perspective;
  3. have been developed within a sound ethical and social assessment framework;
  4. have the support of Aboriginal people;
  5. be selected after comparison with the risks, costs and benefits of other options; and
  6. be advanced by a stable and trustworthy proponent and overseen by a trustworthy regulator.
a) Broad public support

Founded on the preceding discussion, this all-encompassing or "umbrella" criterion represents the highest order of acceptability. The remaining criteria reflect more detailed components of acceptability.

To meet this criterion, a concept must demonstrate some or all of the following elements:

  • broad support from an informed Canadian public, particularly from public review participants representing technical, social, environmental and other groups, as well as from residents of the proposed siting territory and individual members of the public;
  • a comprehensive strategy for public participation, information and communication, from initial formulation of the concept through implementation;
  • a clear decision-making strategy that defines key decision points, decision-makers and their jurisdic-tions, the level of public and community participation in each decision, and a mechanism for resolving disputes; and
  • public involvement in defining public participation and establishing decision-making strategies.

The application of the principles advocated in the EIS of safety, environmental protection, shared decision making, openness and fairness, will require an educated, well informed public. It would seem imperative that a major investment must be made to achieve a meaningful dialogue with the public and ensure adequate preparation for the political decisions that will be taken. These will be at various levels ranging from national (or even international) to local.

Joint Committee of the Canadian Academy of Engineering and The Royal Society of Canada [Joint Committee of the Canadian Academy of Engineering and The Royal Society of Canada, Presentation to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency Panel Reviewing the Environmental Impact Statement Prepared by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited on the Management and Disposal of Canada's Nuclear Fuel Waste, Phase I: The Social and Ethical Issues of Waste Disposal (PHPub.031, March 1996), p. 4.]

b) Safety from both a technical and a social perspective

Despite the diversity of views on safety outlined in section 4.1, it seems to be universally agreed that safety is an essential component of acceptability. Criteria for evaluating the safety of a concept for managing nuclear fuel wastes are set out in section 4.4. In light of the diversity of views, a concept must satisfy both technical and social interpretations of the criteria to be considered broadly acceptable.

The need to dispose of the waste nuclear fuel from Canadian reactors in a fashion that removes it as a threat to present and future generations is governed first and foremost by considerations of public safety. The Joint Committee therefore places safety paramount among both social and technical considerations. . . . The Committee, representing as it does viewpoints from the social, natural and applied sciences and engineering, places particular emphasis on a satisfactory interweaving of these complementary approaches to the waste disposal problem.

Joint Committee of the Canadian Academy of Engineering and The Royal Society of Canada [Joint Committee of the Canadian Academy of Engineering and The Royal Society of Canada, Presentation, Phase I, p. 1.]

c) Development within a sound ethical and social assessment framework

People judging acceptability base their decisions on criteria they deem important, or on their own ethical and social values. No matter how it is defined, safety appears to be a universal societal value. However, there are many others, as discussed in section 2.3.1. Hence, to assess the broad public acceptability of a concept for managing nuclear fuel wastes, one must first identify the predominant values held by Canadian society and then measure the concept against them. The Panel has attempted to incorporate its reading of ethical and social values into the criteria in this chapter. As values change over time, the framework of values must be updated, and the concept remeasured against it and readjusted if necessary, to maintain ongoing public acceptance. Any concept for managing nuclear fuel wastes in Canada should be developed within such a framework.

To meet this criterion, a concept would reflect the following elements of an ethical and social assessment framework, among others:

  • justification of the need for and timing of action;
  • equitable distribution of costs, risks and benefits among groups, areas and generations;
  • a net benefit for society at large and for those directly affected, commensurate with protection of the environment;
  • acceptable costs, commensurate with risks and benefits;
  • consideration of issues of public concern directly related to the nuclear fuel cycle, such as the future of nuclear power and the importation of nuclear fuel wastes;
  • input from social and applied scientists; and
  • a voluntary siting approach in which a potential host community gives its consent freely and without undue economic pressure.

Social and ethical issues are directly related to the nature of the concept of deep underground storage and disposal. . . . the Joint Committee urges that they be given the same attention in the assessment stage as during implementation. Issues must be seen to be given a fair hearing and the public needs assurance that they will have a significant role as issues are discussed and judgements made.

Joint Committee of the Canadian Academy of Engineering and The Royal Society of Canada [Joint Committee of the Canadian Academy of Engineering and The Royal Society of Canada, Presentation, Phase I, p. 4.]

d) Support of Aboriginal people

In section 2.4, we pointed out that any concept for managing nuclear fuel wastes that involves lands inhabited, claimed or used by Aboriginal people will clearly affect them. Thus, a concept should be developed with their co-operation. To respect Aboriginal rights and concerns, a concept must allow Aboriginal people to have ongoing input, from its initial formulation through to its implementation. The participation process used must be appropriate to Aboriginal cultural practices, values and languages. Thus, Aboriginal people should design it.

Please understand that our peoples are not opposed per se to developments in our traditional lands. But we are saying, as we have said many times before, that if the process fails to address our vital concerns and our fundamental rights in a full and fair way, then we will oppose it until our concerns and rights are justly and equitably addressed. And if First Nations peoples conclude that this concept is too uncertain, or unacceptable, or has no merit, or is being forced upon us through a distortion of the principles of informed and valid consent, First Nations will oppose it.

Grand Chief Phil Fontaine,

Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs [Phil Fontaine, Presentation by Grand Chief Phil Fontaine, Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, to the Nuclear Fuel Waste Management and Disposal Concept Environmental Assessment Panel (PH3Pub.217, March 27, 1997), pp. 6-7.]

e) Selection after comparison with the risks, costs and benefits of other options

After considering the various approaches to the long-term management of nuclear fuel wastes, the Panel concluded that a key element of acceptability is allowing the public and decision-makers to make informed comparisons and a considered choice among reasonable alternatives (see section 2.2.3 and Appendix L). At the very least, it is unethical to ask people to accept one approach without informing them of other options and the consequences of rejecting the current proposal. The question of " acceptable compared to what?" must be answered.

The risks, costs and benefits of practical alternatives must be compared for three principal reasons. First, since some people will reject any proposal put forward without alternatives, simply offering a choice will enhance the probability of public acceptance of one alternative. Second, showing that an option offers a greater net benefit in terms of risks, costs and benefits will also increase the likelihood of acceptance of that option. Third, a second choice will serve as a back-up in case the first choice cannot be implemented.

As much as possible, a comparative assessment should involve potentially affected residents of the proposed siting territory(ies) for each option. These people will identify and help to weigh the social and environmental issues at stake, and the acceptability of each option. To identify these people, one must first define the siting territory(ies) as clearly as possible.

. . . the only way for us to get a societally credible decision on the management of these wastes is to do it in a comparative risk setting, where all technically credible options are put side by side in a comparative risk framework. And then we look and see what's better or worse on the various criteria, a comparison. And that's the way we will get a result. So I do not think you can answer the question or any panel can answer the question about the acceptability of the disposal concept in itself.

Dr. William Leiss, Queen's University [William Leiss, in Nuclear Fuel Waste Environmental Assessment Panel Public Hearing Transcripts, March 15, 1996, p. 120.]

f) Advancement by a stable and trustworthy proponent and supervision by a trustworthy regulator

Before they can accept a concept for managing nuclear fuel wastes, people must trust the proponent and regulator, as well as the processes used to develop and implement the concept. A concept will be more acceptable if it is advanced by the same proponent that intends to implement it. In addition, both the proponent and the regulator must routinely ensure effective public participation. They must also be independent of conflicts of interest, transparent, accountable, sensitive to a wide range of stakeholders and guided by a clear government policy framework.

. . . what we have here is the classic low-probability, high-consequence risk management problem. With respect to such risks the issue of public trust in the risk producer/manager becomes one of the most critical components in public acceptance of risk. Studies of risk perception and attitudes within the so-called non-expert community are consistent in their findings that levels of trust or mistrust in the producers and managers of technological risks are major factors in people's willingness to accept risks.

Dr. Conrad Brunk, University of Waterloo [Conrad Brunk, in Nuclear Fuel Waste Environmental Assessment Panel Public Hearing Transcripts, March 13, 1996, pp. 99-100.]

4.4 Safety Criteria

Safety from both a technical and a social perspective, listed as the second acceptability criterion in section 4.3, is a key aspect of public acceptability of an approach to managing nuclear fuel wastes. Both perspectives are reflected not only within the Panel and among review participants, but also within Canadian society. They should not be viewed as competing, but as complementary, because they must both be satisfied if an approach is to be widely regarded as acceptable. While there are many similarities between the two perspectives, there are also subtle differences between them. The panel's seven criteria for evaluating safety are listed in this section, followed by explanatory text. The two perspectives are not evident in the criteria themselves, but in their application, as will be apparent in the next chapter.

To be considered safe, a concept for managing nuclear fuel wastes must be judged, on balance, to

  1. demonstrate robustness in meeting appropriate regulatory requirements;
  2. be based on thorough and participatory scenario analyses;
  3. use realistic data, modelling and natural analogues;
  4. incorporate sound science and good practices;
  5. demonstrate flexibility;
  6. demonstrate that implementation is feasible; and
  7. integrate peer review and international expertise.

a) Robustness in meeting appropriate regulatory requirements

"Robustness" refers to the ability of a system to continue to perform within acceptable limits despite unanticipated and possibly extreme conditions. Thus, this criterion refers to the degree to which a concept has been demonstrated to meet or exceed regulatory requirements for protecting human health and the natural environment under a range of conditions. Robustness refers to the resilience of the system which, as in a biological system, results primarily from diversity. In other words, the overall system does not fail due to an unanticipated failure of a single element. To be diverse, a system for managing nuclear fuel wastes would make reasonable use of defence-in-depth measures such as multiple barriers, passive and active safety features, mitigation and sound industrial practices.

The AECB must be satisfied, within the constraints of a generic study, that deep geological disposal in a pluton can be a safe, adequate and feasible method for the long-term management of nuclear fuel wastes. If Concept Assessment does demon-strate the likelihood that deep disposal in a pluton can satisfy the technical requirements for health, safety, security and environmental protection, the AECB will consider this concept to be acceptable.

Atomic Energy Control Board [Atomic Energy Control Board, Regulatory Document R - 71, p. 6.]

This criterion also alludes to the appropriateness of regulatory requirements to assure safety, as interpreted from both a technical and a social perspective. From a social perspective, regulatory standards must: be developed through consultation processes involving varied groups and reflecting all relevant technical and social factors; protect generations living in the distant future; require quantitative analyses to include the periods of greatest risk; and present results and uncertainties clearly.

In our view the AECB should set the form of the standards to protect human and environmental health and safety. The level of the standards is a public policy concern, however, and should be the subject of a thorough public debate on acceptability. After such a debate, standards should be set at a level that can be shown to have wide public approval.

Canadian Coalition for Ecology, Ethics and Religion [Canadian Coalition for Ecology, Ethics and Religion, A Report to the FEARO Panel on the Proposed Nuclear Fuel Waste Disposal Concept, Volume I: Key Questions, p. 20.]

b) Based on thorough and participatory scenario analyses

This criterion relates to the range of conditions or scenarios for which a concept must be demonstrated to be robust, and how those scenarios are identified and evaluated. The Panel believes that both specialist and non-specialist groups must be assured that all conditions that could significantly affect the long-term safety of the system have been adequately assessed, and that all biases and uncertainties have been adequately taken into account. In particular, there should be diverse public input to negotiating an agreed set of worst-case scenarios to be assessed, and it must be shown that acceptable emergency response and mitigation measures for these scenarios can and will be implemented.

A scenario with a low probability of occurrence makes it a candidate for exclusion only if one is interested in probable, average risks. The interest of the public will likely be focused on extreme cases, or worst-case scenarios.

Scientific Review Group [Scientific Review Group, Report of the Scientific Review Group (1995), p. 78.]

We believe that if stakeholders were intimately involved at the initial stage, it would facilitate substantially a review process such as this one.

Dr. Ray Price, Scientific Review Group [Ray Price, in Nuclear Fuel Waste Environmental Assessment Panel Public Hearing Transcripts, November 19, 1996, pp. 120-121.]

c) Use of realistic data, modelling and natural analogues

Mathematical modelling is the primary means of predicting the long-term performance of a system for managing nuclear fuel wastes. Confidence in the predictions hinges on the degree to which the data and modelling represent the real system they are intended to simulate. Models must adequately capture all important aspects and interactions of the physical and biological systems under consideration; account for biases and uncertainties; and be independently verified and validated, where possible. Both generic and site-specific data must be scientifically adequate. Ultimately, site-specific data and designs must be used to validate the safety of the system.

At the concept assessment stage, when a generic concept is being assessed, if comprehensive actual field observations are not available, simple scoping calculations can be much more informative and reliable than complex, comprehensive probabilistic analysis that is not based on appropriate models, nor supported by actual data.

Scientific Review Group [Scientific Review Group, An Evaluation of the Environmental Impact Statement on Atomic Energy of Canada Limited's Concept for the Disposal of Canada's Nuclear Fuel Waste: An Addendum to the Report of the Scientific Review Group. (Hull: Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, September 16, 1996), p. 12.]

d) Sound science and good practices

A system for managing nuclear fuel wastes must be based on: established scientific principles, including those of established social science disciplines; known or readily achievable technology; and sound engineering and industrial practices pertaining to safety and environmental protection. Suitable evidence would include, but not be limited to, documentation showing that:

  • overall health and environmental impacts would be no worse than those achievable for conventional projects of comparable scale, using the best available technologies;
  • proposed technologies had performed safely and in compliance with regulations when employed in projects of a similar nature or magnitude;
  • nuclear fuel waste handling, repackaging and transfer, as well as transportation distances, would be optimized to reduce risk; and
  • management practices could ensure compliance with safety standards.

The SRG conclusion concerning criteria for the evaluation of the AECL nuclear fuel waste disposal concept is that the concept must . . . follow good engineering practice. Attributes of good engineering practice include flexibility, responsiveness to new information and technologies, transparency, robust-ness and cost effectiveness.

Scientific Review Group [Scientific Review Group, Report of the Scientific Review Group (1995), p. 3.]

e) Flexibility

To be flexible, a concept must be capable of adapting to and incorporating new information. In conventional underground construction, when it is impossible to know all the details of the ground that lies ahead before it is exposed, this concept is known as "the observational approach," an "adaptive management strategy" or, more informally, "design-as-you-go." Such an approach is not an abdication of responsibility, but a wise expression of humility. It is also considered a prudent and practical approach to large, complex above-ground construction projects.

In the case of a long-term concept for managing nuclear fuel wastes, new information could pertain not only to site characteristics, but to developments in science and technology, or in societal and community values, especially those of the future generations that will eventually implement the concept. Thus, one aspect of flexibility would be the ability of a concept to adapt to the wishes of those generations regarding the appropriate balance between passive safety and active institutional control. For example, the system could be designed to achieve a high degree of passive safety after full implementation, while also providing for effective monitoring and retrieval.

Another aspect of flexibility would be the degree to which a concept could be implemented in stages. Thus, feedback loops must allow new information to be incorporated during each stage of development, starting with the formulation of a concept. This does not mean that changes will be massive, random or completely unforeseen. It simply means that as much room as possible must be left in which to manoeuvre.

. . . the Disposal Concept should not simply be founded on the premise of protecting future generations from having to take any responsibility for the treatment of radioactive waste-though this is clearly an important option. It should also be sufficiently flexible, or robust, to allow for ongoing monitoring should future generations choose to do so, or for active intervention in the case of future advances in technology and economics.

Chemical Institute of Canada [The Chemical Institute of Canada, Assessment of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited's Environmental Impact Statement on the Concept for Disposal of Canada's Nuclear Fuel Waste (Ottawa: The Chemical Institute of Canada, August 1995, Tec.005), p. i.]

f) Feasibility of implementation

To meet this criterion, a concept must be based on known or readily achievable technology and must be able to meet the specific constraints of siting criteria as well as of an actual site. Adequate human, technological, financial, material and infrastructure resources to implement the concept must also be available. With regard to siting, feasibility could be demonstrated in part by showing that technically suitable sites are likely to exist. It could be demonstrated even more clearly by showing that the combination of features and processes contributing to safety actually exists at a range of potential sites in Canada.

The chosen concept must be shown to be technically feasible with available technology or with reasonably achievable developments. The concept will be judged on the basis of whether or not there is a reasonable expectation that the performance requirements established by the regulatory agencies could be met. Because it is possible at the Concept Assessment stage to advance a solution which can be shown to be safe but which is difficult to achieve, the technical feasibility of the proposed concept must be established.

Atomic Energy Control Board [Atomic Energy Control Board, Regulatory Document R-71, p. 12.]

The SRG criterion for the applicability of the disposal concept is that it will be readily achievable, with convincing or reasonable evidence that at the time of implementation the technology and manage-ment practices will be such that the work can be carried out satisfactorily at a cost that can be borne by the society at the time.

Scientific Review Group [Scientific Review Group, Report of the Scientific Review Group (1995), p. 3.]

g) Peer review and international expertise

To meet this criterion, a concept must reflect input from ongoing independent peer review processes, both technical and social, and all relevant international experience.

4.5 Fundamental Questions

Based on these criteria for safety and acceptability, we now move on to answer the two fundamental questions of this 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?