The nuclear industry supports deep geological “disposal” so that the wastes it creates will be “out of sight, out of mind”, and it can pursue its expansion plans without the waste issue dragging public support down. Internal documents indicate that convincing the public a nuclear waste “solution” is in the works is a central part of its “public acceptance”, PR strategy.
After a 7-year review the Canadian public was forthright that it didn’t support deep geological burial. Instead of honouring this, the industry-based Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) now approaches impoverished Indigenous communities with monetary inducements to become a “willing” host for a deep geological burial site. The phrase used to summarize their “plan” - “Adaptive Phased Management”, shows they will be winging this venture, as they have for decades. Research on other sites in Ontario and Manitoba has already failed to establish environmental safety; and recently, after $10 billion already expended, Obama abandoned the US nuclear waste disposal project at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.
Deep geological burial is not fundamentally about credible nuclear waste disposal. By centralizing nuclear wastes in one place, with inevitable cost-overruns covered by the taxpayer, the industry would be better able to pursue its desired new generation of nuclear reactors, using plutonium retrieved from spent fuel. Since uranium is a nonrenewable and the profitable high-grade ore continues to diminish, the industry is already planning for a shift in fuel. It’s no accident that the reactors proposed for both Alberta and Saskatchewan could use slightly enriched uranium, as well as, potentially, spent fuel. And the Uranium Development Partnership (UDP) was quite transparent that it supported the NWMO locating a Saskatchewan community to host a nuclear dump, as well as a publicly-funded research reactor that could do research on new fuel technologies - which could involve reprocessing of nuclear wastes. The two are interconnected.
A lot of misconceptions are being used to obscure this. I’ve heard that if we took nuclear wastes from elsewhere and buried them in abandoned uranium mines, we’d “put everything back the way it was”, and “make things rights.” This is fundamentally erroneous since once natural uranium, originally locked in hard rock, is mined and milled it becomes more bio-available to contaminating waterways, airways, food-chains and our bodies. Further, once uranium goes through the fission process in a nuclear reactor it creates new long-lived toxic elements, such as plutonium, that cannot be allowed to get into ecological or evolutionary pathways. I’ve also been told that we, in Saskatchewan, have a moral responsibility to take back the nuclear wastes, from nuclear plants from afar, because we sold the uranium fuel in the first place. Well, first of all, we’ve already been left with very toxic, long-lived radioactive wastes at the mine sites; and furthermore, those selecting nuclear power must be held accountable for the wastes they generates. Ontario, which gets any benefits from nuclear power, needs to also address the burdens in their cost-benefit analyses. They shouldn’t be allowed to “shovel these off” to Indigenous lands already carrying the burden of uranium tailings.
Since the 1970s, the US has banned reprocessing spent fuel due to this increasing proliferation risks and creating an even less manageable radioactive waste stream. Obama recently reaffirmed this. So, why is the Harper government, apparently with the Sask Party government’s tacit support, moving in the other direction? Citizen groups close to US nuclear plants have already rejected the myth that you can permanently dispose of wastes that remain poisonous for hundreds of thousands of years. Rather than the risky “out of sight, out of mind” approach, they support a quick phase-out of nuclear power, which is responsible for over 95% of the accumulating nuclear wastes that will burden future generations. In turn they propose “Nuclear Guardianship” of the wastes where they have been created, which involves the community “keeping close watch over radioactive structures and materials” in their area. They argue that such wastes “would not be moved to other locations unless it was considered less dangerous.” The objective would be containing “radioactive liquid and solid wastes, contaminated buildings, and equipment out of direct contact with air, water, earth, all living creatures, and fire.” Rather than risk the industry walking away from their toxic legacy, as often occurs, there would be training “for short-term involvement in the long-term work of caring for these nuclear wastes.” In other words, there’d be democratic management, not industrial, bottom-line management. The guardianship vision believes this includes “the need for faithful commitment” and adds “the wisdom traditions of our planet would be very important” to ensure continuity over many generations.
If we buy into the nuclear industry’s agenda of centralizing nuclear wastes, these become available for future reprocessing and retrieving of plutonium fuel. This displaces our responsibilities and creates an even greater magnitude of risk, including from proliferation, for future generations. If we face up to the toxic, radioactive legacy, and the existing responsibilities to future generations already created by the “blind faith” of the nuclear industry, we will be more likely to monitor and minimize these dangers, while quickly shifting towards a sustainable energy path. Out of sight, out of mind deception will not nurture the ethical, ecological or technological awareness required to face the realities of nuclear waste build-up. The first step in creating this awareness will be to say “no!” to a nuclear waste dump in Saskatchewan