Can We Trust The Nuclear Regulators ?

The nuclear industry has long tried to justify its expansion by promising that a solution to nuclear wastes is in the works. The panacea, we are now told, will be geological disposal. But the public has become more skeptical of a “permanent” solution on a planet that recycles elements in perpetuity. And now that Nevada’s Yucca waste repository has been cancelled, after being mired in bad science and mismanagement, geological storage has again become “wishful thinking”. Nuclear blind faith is hard to alter, however, for the Bush administration promised financial backing for 21 new reactors even though the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) hadn’t committed to any date for a nuclear repository. The U.S. public will pay dearly for the continuing lack of foresight.

DEMOCRATIZING WASTE STORAGE

The contradictions are too much for communities living near nuclear plants. One U.S. group that bought into the false nuclear promise about geological disposal is suing the Federal government for not taking high-level wastes to Yucca. Others, more knowledgeable about the inherent limits of nuclear technology, are calling for safer storage of wastes at nuclear power plants. The Citizens Awareness Project is highlighting “the threats posed by the current vulnerable storage of commercial spent fuel”, and in March, 170 groups in 50 states released their “Principles for Safeguarding Nuclear Wastes at Reactors.” It calls for lower-density storage of the extremely hot and highly radioactive spent fuel rods. It also wants hardened on-site storage (HOSS) to be able to withstand attacks, and prohibition of any reprocessing of wastes.

Originally the cooling pools were only to be used temporarily. But they have now accumulated wastes well beyond their design capacity with their concentration sometimes approaching that within the reactor core. Any loss of coolant water from an accident or attack would risk a radiological fire with huge releases of radioactivity to the region.

The Network wants funds for state and community monitoring of these wastes. The nuclear industry began under the cloak of military secrecy and now operates commercially under the cloak of the not-so-transparent regulatory system. At a time when the public is seeing what de-regulation has done in the financial and oil-drilling sectors, the nuclear industry wants reduced environmental oversight so it can fast-track and cost-cut new plants. Meanwhile community networks are forming because the industry hasn’t dealt with the “trash” it has already created.

Kevin Kemps from Beyond Nuclear Radioactive Waste says it all: “…28 years after passage of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, 35 years after the repository search began, 53 years into commercial nuclear power, and 68 years after Fermi first split the atom during the Manhattan Project, the U.S. still has no safe, sound, permanent storage plan for high-level nuclear wastes.”

Can we have more confidence in how the nuclear industry is regulated here? It is 28 years since the U.S. began its search for a geological repository. Our federal government only approved such a course of action 8 years ago in 2002, when it passed the Nuclear Fuel Waste Act which created the industry-run Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO). The NWMO now travels across Canada, especially concentrating on Saskatchewan, using economic incentives to find a community willing to take nuclear wastes. It is promoting the concept of geological disposal that the U.S. had pursued for nearly three decades and has now had to abandon at Yucca. Are we really smarter than our American neighbours? Or are we just slower to catch on?

CANADA’S NUCLEAR REGULATOR

In 2000 the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) replaced the Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB), which was very cozy with the AECL, which produces the Candu reactor. With both reporting to the same federal Minister collusion was systemic. But the CNSC is quickly earning a similar reputation. The Harper government’s firing of Linda Keen in January 2008 as the head of the CNSC because she wanted to shut down the 50-year old Chalk River plant for safety repairs, a plant that ended up being shut down anyway, was the turning point.

The CNSC continues to assert its legitimacy. In an email to a Saskatchewan citizen concerned about NWMO’s plan, CNSC’s new president Michael Binder wrote, “I can assure you that we are fully aware of the issues involved with such a project and that we will take all relevant scientific data into account during the licensing process. Once the NWMO identifies a site and technology, the proposal will be thoroughly reviewed by CNSC staff.” He adds, “The regulatory process for such an activity will be conducted in a transparent manner allowing for public input”. Since he is a public official and should be accountable to the public, this correspondence with a member of the public should be publicly scrutinized.

Binder’s reassurances assume the NWMO plan for geological disposal will go ahead. So it’s not “if” but “how” the plan should proceed. In that sense the CNSC is joined at the hip with the NWMO in a similar way as AECB was to the AECL. The CNSC seems disinterested that the “scientific” personnel attached to the NWMO are primarily from within the industry. If the CNSC was committed to our health and safety and protection of the environment, all “relevant scientific data”, including from the Yucca debacle, should be looked at to determine whether this plan is valid at all. The CNSC wants us to forget that the NWMO is recycling the proposal of the AECL, which the 8-year federal Seaborn panel concluded the Canadian public did not support. The NWMO is a fox in sheep’s clothing.

In response to Binder, the concerned citizen said “I am surprised that you are so confident that the CNSC ‘will ensure health and safety of Canadians and the protection of the environment’ for 70,000 years,” to which CNSC head, Binder responded, “As long as humanity exist (sic) there shall be a Canada and an obligation by the Government of Canada to ensure the health and safety of Canadians.” This is silly talk, which fails to grasp the time-span that nuclear wastes will remain dangerously radioactive. Canada isn’t even 150 years old, and for nearly half of its existence industry and regulators have been inept about addressing the build-up of nuclear wastes. So talking like the CNSC will go on protecting the public for a geological time-span that dwarfs human history is simply absurd. That this statement came from the head of the nuclear regulatory body is not at all reassuring.

Similar bureaucratic and rhetorical assurances were made in the U.S. when the industry was pandering to “Yucca” as the final solution. But that era of pseudo-science and public deception is being challenged by a grass-roots movement wanting to democratize the handling of nuclear wastes. Here, too, we need public involvement in the monitoring and vigilant regulation of waste management at all nuclear plants, most of which are in Ontario. It’s time the CNSC stopped advocating for the industry-run NWMO and took a more serious look at what is actually happening with the wastes that exist.

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