The Sask Party government can’t make up its mind whether it wants Saskatchewan to become a nuclear waste dump. In March 2009, when the Uranium Development Partnership (UDP) recommended we take nuclear wastes from afar, several Ministers were quick to distance the government from this. But on December 17th, Energy and Resources Minister Bill Boyd reversed this, saying the government is open to considering a geological repository if a “willing community” steps forward. This off-again, on-again approach Is no way to make a decision with such ramifications. The public deserves to get solid background on the matter, and we might ask: why isn’t the mainstream media supplying this so that an informed decision can be made?
The European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) was formed in 1957 to establish safety standards for nuclear power plants. Since then accidents, near accidents, spills and the build-up of wastes have made the public increasingly wary about the safety of nuclear power. After the Chernobyl catastrophe, which is far worse than previously officially claimed, several countries decided to phase out nuclear power to prevent future accidents and stop the further build-up of radioactive wastes.
But the industry fought back with subtle new “public acceptance” campaigns. In June 2009 the EU became the first region to make the safety principles of the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA legally binding for all member states. These pertain to construction, operation, decommissioning, waste management and “preparedness for radiation incidents”. The decision was a double edged sword. While it may help the industry take another run at regaining public trust, the need for such measures implies that nuclear power is inherently risky.
Nuclear proponents support standardized regulations as a way to get nuclear power accepted as a UN “Clean Development Mechanism” for addressing the climate crisis. But it is also part of a financial and export strategy. Speaking at the March 2010 OECD conference on nuclear power, French President Sarkozy complained “I do not accept the shunning of nuclear projects by international financing.” With 58 nuclear plants providing 80% of its electricity, France has gone farther down the nuclear path than any country, and is less flexible to shift to cheaper renewables. Its state corporation Areva, the largest nuclear consortium on the planet, which operates uranium mines in Saskatchewan’s North, wants a nuclear export market for its European Pressurized Reactor (EPR). Facing huge cost overruns with its EPR mega-projects in Finland and France, and having a growing nuclear debt, French authorities want to spread the financial risk more widely. Meanwhile France prefers to remain mostly silent about its nuclear waste build-up.
Things differ in Germany, where a Social Democratic-Green alliance decided to stop nuclear waste build-up and reduce the chance of accidents by phasing out its 17 nuclear plants. The government announced a ten-year moratorium on its nuclear waste repository in old salt mines at Gorleben when collapsing walls had to be shored up with tones of concrete, costing taxpayers $1.5 billion. This year the Centre Right government of Angela Merkel announced it would restart the project while admitting it could take 25 years before a final decision is made on whether this plan was feasible. The German Minister announcing this said “we simply can’t use excuses for what’s the best alternative to avoid taking responsibility”, which might ring true if the government maintained its commitment to phasing out nuclear power. Government “moralism” is exposed however, as reopening the Gorleben repository is being used as an excuse to extend the time-line for Germany’s operating plants, creating even more nuclear wastes. This decision just pushes the burden and costs for nuclear wastes onto yet another generation.
Britain is even more hypocritical. The previous Labour government approved a new fleet of ten nuclear plants, the first one to come on stream at Hinkley Point in 2017. This expansion was done without any plan for dealing with wastes from existing plants, which will face decommissioning soon. The UK’s only “plan” is to let nuclear wastes accumulate for 160 years at new reactor sites. However, people in nearby communities were never consulted; the government was more concerned about fast-tracking its mega-energy projects than involving the public. This expansion of nuclear power without any plan for wastes undercuts the quest for sustainable energy and end-runs democracy. The Chair of the Parliamentary Energy and Climate Change Committee called the approach “bizarre.” Greenpeace added, “The National Policy Statements say nothing about nuclear waste because government and industry plans for dealing with highly radioactive spent fuel are non-existent.”
FROM YUCCA TO THE GNEP
The US is also engaging in nuclear double-think. Soon after being elected Obama pulled the plug on the Yucca Nevada nuclear waste repository on which $19 billion had already been spent. This put the US back to the starting line over what to do with its accumulating wastes. Meanwhile the US is considering licensing up to 30 new nuclear plants, none of which will be self-financing. Without tax credits, loan guarantees and other federal incentives these would all be non-starters. Why not fund cheaper renewable, which don’t create toxic, radioactive wastes?
Obama has also continued the Global Nuclear Energy Project or GNEP, started by his predecessor George Bush, to find a way to expand nuclear power while keeping nuclear weaponry out of the hands of non-allies. Uranium enrichment and nuclear waste reprocessing can be used to develop weaponry; that’s how existing nuclear powers got theirs. To Obama’s credit he cancelled Bush’s plan to restart nuclear waste reprocessing. However the GNEP’s proposal that uranium-producing regions take back nuclear wastes should be of uppermost concern for us. This would be great for the US, which has guaranteed access to Canada’s uranium under NAFTA, and no longer has a viable domestic nuclear waste project in the works. Saskatchewan becoming a nuclear dump would also be great for Ontario which has created over 90% of Canada’s nuclear wastes.
Was it pure coincidence that the UDP recommended that Saskatchewan “add value” to its uranium industry by becoming a nuclear waste dump? After UDP consultations showed 80% opposed nuclear power, the government rightfully rejected Bruce Power’s plans for nuclear plants along the North Saskatchewan River. But there was the same level of opposition to us becoming a nuclear dump. So why is the Sask Party government still supporting the industry-run, Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), locating a “willing community” to take radioactive wastes here?
When you look at all the smoke and mirrors going on about nuclear wastes in Europe and the US, why would we want to leave ourselves open to this? Does the industry think we are a push-over? Apparently, to settle this once and for all, Saskatchewan’s grass-roots will have to win a legislative ban on nuclear wastes, along the lines of what Manitoba and Quebec have already done. This work needs to begin very soon.