I recently spent a Saturday at my South Bruce home, pruning apple trees, while listening in to a symposium on Rocky Flats, a former nuclear weapons manufacturing site that has suffered severe radioactive contamination. Rocky Flats is a long and sordid tale of pollution, sickness, legal wrangling and government cover-ups. It’s a difficult thing to listen to, but spending the day helped me get a better appreciation of the terrible legacy of nuclear weapons. It also helped clarify the stark difference between the legacy of nuclear weapons in the US, and the reality of the nuclear power industry here in Canada. Besides sharing the term “nuclear”, these two things are polar opposites in every meaningful way, and by the end of the session, I was very encouraged that our nuclear power industry is doing the right things and making the right plans to ensure nothing like Rocky Flats ever happens in Canada’s future.
The nuclear weapons industry was conceived in war-time, and rushed into production to end the second world war. As a dread military capability, it has always been shrouded in secrecy. For years, weapons were tested, intentionally blasting massive amounts of radioactive waste into the environment, poisoning people, animals and land. Weapons-grade plutonium (the key ingredient) is flammable, and at Rocky Flats, fires tended to break out, spewing radioactive substances into the local environment. Some of the radioactive by-products are in liquid form, and were stored in barrels that corroded and leaked, putting more toxins into the environment. What a mess!
Canada’s current nuclear power industry stands in stark contrast to the world’s dark history of nuclear weapons production. Our nuclear power plants produce massive amounts of electricity, without emitting greenhouse gasses. Along with hydroelectric, wind and solar, nuclear is a critical component of the fight against climate change, and the drive toward net zero. Nuclear power is a peace-time endeavour, designed to serve the public. As one of our most heavily-regulated industries, it is constantly under scrutiny by government regulators and the public. Unlike every other industry, Nuclear power plants are required to capture and maintain all of their waste. Canada’s spent nuclear fuel is a stable, ceramic solid, that doesn’t burn, dissolve or react with other substances. Here in Ontario, it’s stored in robust containers under the watchful eye of OPG’s waste management division.
Meanwhile, the industry has a plan and a design for the safe, long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel, that will keep it permanently isolated from people and the environment. This plan aligns to industry best practice, and follows the lead of countries like Sweden, Finland, France and Switzerland, all of whom are ahead of Canada in their pursuit of Deep Geological Repositories (DGRs).
In my opinion, this is the right solution, and this is the time to build it. We currently enjoy stable government, a thriving economy, and strong, vibrant power companies (OPG and Bruce Power), who have spent two decades paying into a large war chest of funds allocated for the long-term isolation of nuclear waste. This is consistent with the “polluter pays” concept, except that there is no “pollution”, just a safe, well-organized and well-maintained inventory of nuclear waste products in storage. The government of Canada has done the responsible thing, setting up the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), designed to open the war chest and spend the money on a permanent solution, storing the waste hundreds of meters underground, inside impermeable rock.
The last piece of the puzzle is where to build it, and that’s the decision facing South Bruce residents. Are we willing to have this important Canadian facility built right here? Opponents argue that the waste is fine where it is. It is fine for now, but can we guarantee it will be OK 100 or 1000 years from now? A DGR is the permanent solution, and building it appears to be the next responsible step forward. Are we willing to be part of the solution? It’s an important question.