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Panel Report

7.0 Matters Outside the Mandate

The panel's terms of reference explicitly state that the following matters fall outside the panel's mandate: federal and provincial energy policies; 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 applications of nuclear technology. However, these issues were very important to some participants, who believed that several or all of them greatly affected public acceptance of any waste management approach. For these partici-pants, compartmentalizing the nuclear fuel cycle created significant difficulties for the review. In their opinion, the scope of the review was limited and future steps in waste management could not be determined until after a public discussion of these subjects. 

7.1 General Energy Policy

A number of participants wanted the federal government to initiate a public discussion on energy policy before the Panel made its recommendations on the AECL disposal concept. Others found it impossible to define the scope of the nuclear fuel waste problem in Canada in the absence of clear policies on the future of nuclear power. Still others proposed a moratorium on or phase-out of nuclear energy in Canada, along with a public review of federal and provincial energy policies and the role of nuclear power within them. This review would consider energy demand and supply management, and provide a full cost accounting for all energy options. These participants believed that such a review would give the public balanced and unbiased information on available energy options.

When it announced the Panel, ministers committed the government to conducting a parallel review in a different forum that would put the nuclear fuel waste question in a broader context. A task force on electricity and environment was to look at the environmental effects of nuclear and other methods of generating electricity. Despite repeated written reminders from the Chairman, the ministers have not held this parallel review. According to a Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) official at the hearings, some stakeholders had criticized the proposed review as a federal intrusion into an area of provincial jurisdiction, and as inopportune given that many of the provinces and utilities were already conducting their own reviews. Reportedly, the Minister of the Environment and the Minister of Natural Resources were still considering the usefulness of yet another review. [Peter Brown, in Nuclear Fuel Waste Environmental Assessment Panel Public Hearing Transcripts, March 11, 1996, pp. 38-39.]

Despite the absence of the promised review and a formal policy statement, the federal government is clearly on record as supporting nuclear power. In 1988, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Forestry recommended a moratorium on the construction of nuclear power plants until Canadians had agreed on an acceptable solution for disposing of high-level radioactive wastes. [Standing Committee on Environment and Forestry, B. Brisco, Chairman, High - level Radioactive Waste in Canada: The Eleventh Hour, p. 37.] In response, the government stated that it was not prepared to impose such a moratorium.

The provinces are responsible for the supply of electricity in Canada, and they decide on the most appropriate sources for electricity generation. The federal government sees nuclear power as a valuable part of Canada's energy mix and believes that this option should remain available for the provinces. If nuclear power were not available, new capacity would have to be supplied by other sources that might be less attractive economically, environmentally and in terms of the waste that they would produce. . . . A moratorium based on public acceptance of long-term waste-management practices or on the need for proven disposal methods with minimal long-term effects would shut down most of the waste-producing activities in the country.

Government of Canada [Government of Canada, Response of the Government of Canada to the Report of the Standing Committee on Environment and Forestry, "High-level Radioactive Waste in Canada: The Eleventh Hour" (Ottawa: Energy, Mines and Resources Canada, June 1988), p. 15.]

Early in the hearings, an NRCan official confirmed that the federal government continued to support nuclear energy and the CANDU reactor option. [Peter Brown, in Nuclear Fuel Waste Environmental Assessment Panel Public Hearing Transcripts, March 11, 1996, p. 39.]

7.2 Renewable Energy Sources

Throughout the review, two opposing viewpoints were presented on the costs and benefits of alternative renewable energy sources compared to nuclear power.

Several participants challenged the view that nuclear power provided an affordable and environmentally benign energy source for Canadians and, in particular, Ontarians. From their perspective, the rates charged for nuclear-generated electricity did not fully reflect the large subsidies that governments provide to the nuclear industry, the cost of repairing and decommissioning reactors, and the costs associated with disposing of nuclear fuel wastes. They believed that there were too many hidden costs associated with the industry, and that continuing with it would be a drain on limited societal resources. They advocated phasing out nuclear energy and phasing in various renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar and small-scale hydro power. In their opinion, increased research and development expenditures would enable these technologies to compete economically with nuclear energy. They argued that recent advances had increased their generating capacity and reduced their costs.

Supporters of the nuclear industry acknowledged that renewable energy sources would play a role in meeting future energy needs. However, they maintained that, even if these sources were used to the greatest extent possible, they could only complement and not replace nuclear and fossil fuel sources. These participants pointed out the difficulties in calculating the costs and benefits of alternative energy sources: federal and provincial tax and subsidy structures are always changing, and generation rates and costs vary depending on the facilities' geographical locations. Nuclear advocates argued that nuclear power provides a significant net benefit to society in terms of revenue, employment, spin-off industries and the environment. The Canadian Nuclear Society estimated that the economic benefit to Ontario throughout the lifetime of a single reactor would be approximately $200 billion dollars. [Jerry Cuttler, in letter to Blair Seaborn (Toronto: Canadian Nuclear Society, March 10, 1997, Undertaking 108), p. 1.] According to the Society, the utilities will be able to pay the costs of decommissioning reactors and disposing of nuclear fuel wastes using the surcharge on electricity they are collecting for these purposes. For example, Ontario Hydro is charging 0.1 cent per kilowatt-hour for disposal of spent fuel [Ken Nash, in Nuclear Fuel Waste Environmental Assessment Panel Public Hearing Transcripts, March 11, 1996, p. 45.] and about 0.1 cent per kilowatt-hour for decommissioning reactors and disposing of low- and intermediate-level radioactive wastes. [Ian Wilson, in Nuclear Fuel Waste Environmental Assessment Panel Public Hearing Transcripts, March 27, 1997, p. 103.] These participants believed that nuclear power provides for sustainable development because it does not contribute to global warming, nor does it release large quantities of chemical and radioactive toxins.

7.3 Improtation of Foreign Wastes and Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel

A number of participants asserted that AECL's disposal concept and the strategy for long-term management of nuclear fuel wastes could not be properly assessed until the issues of importing wastes and MOX fuel for burning in CANDU reactors had been discussed in a public forum. They strongly believed that these activities would lead Canada to become the "nuclear waste dump of the world," and that Canada should choose a strategy for dealing with its own wastes before entertaining the idea of accepting wastes from other countries for disposal. 

7.3.1 Foreign Wastes

Many participants suspected that the federal government is planning to accept foreign spent fuel for disposal in Canada on a commercial basis. As evidence, they cited the fact that AECL's reference disposal facility was designed to accommodate 10 million spent fuel bundles, even though Canada's existing reactors are expected to produce only 3.6 million bundles during their lifetimes, and there are no plans to refurbish them or build new ones. They also noted statements made by AECL officials to the media concerning the possibility of integrating power plant sales with waste management services to give the Canadian industry a unique advantage in the export market, and the possibility of importing spent fuel from countries that purchase Canadian uranium. [Anne Lindsey, in Nuclear Fuel Waste Environmental Assessment Panel Public Hearing Transcripts, April 29, 1996, p. 41.] These participants felt that the federal government might make a great deal of money by importing foreign wastes, at the expense of the Canadian public and environment.

A representative of NRCan reported that "it is not the policy of Canada to import nuclear fuel waste for disposal in Canada," and that if there was a move to do so, ministers had said that the "policy would be subject to full environmental and regulatory requirements, including public review." [Peter Brown, in Nuclear Fuel Waste Environmental Assessment Panel Public Hearing Transcripts, March 12, 1996, p. 9.] Furthermore, "neither the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, nor the World Trade Organization would oblige Canada to import such material." Participants preoccupied with this issue were not reassured by these statements, noting that policies can easily change.

7.3.2 Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel

An agreement-in-principle between the Canadian and American governments envisages the importation and burning of MOX fuel in CANDU reactors and subsequent disposal of the spent fuel in Canada. Some participants worried that MOX fuel would significantly affect the AECL repository design and barrier performance. Because the spent MOX fuel bundles would contain more plutonium, several participants were particularly concerned about the potential for criticality (self-sustaining fission chain reaction) in the vault. In addition, the proposal requires spent MOX fuel to be irretrievable, so that its residual plutonium content cannot be diverted. As a result, some participants were concerned that future generations would be unable to retrieve the co-disposed conventional spent fuel for purposes such as recycling. Furthermore, the proposal compounded participants' fears regarding the importation of foreign wastes. At an extreme, the initiative was seen as a device for disposing of the global inventory of surplus weapons-grade plutonium in Canada.

If the MOX proposal were to proceed, rough calculations by the Panel indicate that between 190,000 and 290,000 MOX fuel bundles would be required to accommodate 100 tonnes of surplus weapons plutonium. The MOX fuel would thus represent about five to eight per cent of the 3.6 million spent fuel bundles that would require disposal if no new reactors were built.

According to a 1994 feasibility study prepared by AECL Technologies Incorporated (a U.S. division of AECL) for the U.S. Department of Energy, to which Ontario Hydro contributed, "no new technology will be required for interim storage, transportation or ultimate disposal of spent MOX CANDU fuel over and above that required for spent natural uranium CANDU fuel," and "there are no new or significant environment, safety and health issues." [AECL Technologies Incorporated, Plutonium Consumption Program, CANDU Reactor Project (Rockville, Maryland: final report prepared for U.S. Department of Energy, July 31, 1994, Undertaking 67), pp. 6-8.] However, AECL representatives involved in the panel's review said that the disposal of MOX fuel and its effects on the disposal concept have not been examined in detail, and would require further study. Since the burn-up (amount of energy produced per unit mass of fuel) and heat output of the MOX fuel would be greater than those of conventional fuel, MOX fuel would require longer cooling periods in storage or additional space in the repository. Any need for increased space could be offset by the reduced amount of waste per unit of electricity generated. [Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, Environmental Impact Statement, p. 32.] However, the potentially higher temperature of the container surface could affect buffer and backfill performance. While recognizing that it would have to investigate the potential for criticality in the vault, AECL considers it highly unlikely. [Ken Dormuth, in Nuclear Fuel Waste Environmental Assessment Panel Public Hearing Transcripts, January 13, 1997, p. 245.]

An official from NRCan at the hearings noted that the CANDU MOX proposal is at the feasibility study stage and would have to be approved by the federal government. According to her, it would be subject to the assessment and licensing approvals of federal and provincial regulatory authorities, including "full public review as required by the Atomic Energy Control Act and theCanadian Environmental Assessment Act." [Géraldine Underdown, in Nuclear Fuel Waste Environmental Assessment Panel Public Hearing Transcripts, June 12, 1996, pp. 160-169.] More recently, the Minister of the Environment and the Minister of Natural Resources promised that "a full environmental review," including "a public study by an independent panel," would occur before any final decisions were made. [Anne Dawson, "'Hot' Idea from Marchi," p. 26, and Glen Schaefer, "Public Study Promised on Taking U.S. Plutonium," p. A6.]

7.4 Reprocessing and Recycling of Nuclear Fuel Wastes

Portions of this subject are covered in greater detail in Appendix L.

The fact that the AECL disposal concept can accommodate either solidified high-level wastes from reprocessing or spent CANDU fuel bundles led some participants to question whether a reprocessing facility was included in the concept, and whether the concept was intended to accept imported reprocessing wastes. A number of participants advocated reprocessing and recycling nuclear fuel wastes because these processes could extract unused energy, reduce waste volumes and hazards, or destroy plutonium. For others, reprocessing had a number of serious disadvantages from economic, environmental and security viewpoints. Reprocessing used fuel would produce low- and intermediate-level wastes, as well as high-level wastes requiring separate disposal. It would also introduce several unknowns, such as where the reprocessing, fuel fabrication and associated waste facilities would be located, and what their effects would be.

AECL explained that, when it began developing its concept, reprocessing was considered a stronger possibility in Canada than it is today. Although the concept could accept solidified reprocessing wastes, AECL did not consider an overall reprocessing system within the concept. NRCan officials have stated that there are currently no plans to reprocess nuclear fuel wastes in Canada. [P.A. Brown and R.W. Morrison, "Radioactive waste management policy in Canada," Waste Management '92, Working Towards a Cleaner Environment, Proceedings of the Symposium on Waste Management, Volume 1 (Tucson, Arizona: 1992), pp. 145-148, cited in Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, Environmental Impact Statement, p. 29.] According to nuclear industry representatives, the once-through fuel cycle is currently more economical than one based on reprocessing and recycling. 

7.5 Other Observations

The Panel believes that, without public trust and confidence, any initiative to manage nuclear fuel wastes in the long term will face difficulties. Unless the issues of public concern presented in this chapter are addressed, they will continue to haunt a nuclear fuel waste management agency no matter which option for managing nuclear fuel wastes it pursues.

Nuclear Fuel Waste Management and Disposal Concept Environmental Assessment Panel

  • Mr. Blair Seaborn Panel Chairman
  • Dr. Denis Brown
  • Ms. Mary Jamieson
  • Dr. Louis LaPierre
  • Dr. Dougal McCreath
  • Ms. Louise Roy
  • Mr. Pieter Van Vliet
  • Dr. Lois Wilson