Recently there has been much buzz in the media about the ‘revelation’ that Canada is sending its nuclear waste to the USA and NOT informing the public about the when-&-where of it all. Now, as most know by now I am no fan of the current Harper government. One of my biggest issues with government (any government) is its secrecy and inability to enforce basic regulations on industry. You would think then I would have a problem with this news; well surprisingly I don’t really. Why? Let me explain.
Currently we do nothing (but store) the ‘waste’. Our storage, like most of the plants in the world is ‘temporary’; temporary storage…a cooling off period of about a decade (i.e. the point where when exposed to air it would not spontaneously combust), then placed in various forms of concrete like boxes where it awaits a final home. Currently there is no real long term storage plans for our waste. In fact one of the larger expenses of a power plant is to maintain these storage facilities indefinitely with their costs to protect the environment, maintaining infrastructure and providing anti-terrorist security.
We could develop reactors that use this material in breeder reactors which would effectively reduce the waste to nothing (yes, I mean nothing relatively still there will be waste). This is done in France, Japan, Russia and the US. It is also done in India and Pakistan but largely to produce nuclear weapons not to reduce nuclear waste; so this is not a perfect solution globally but would work here. However, thanks to Fukushima, it is unlikely a nuclear power plant, breeder or otherwise, will be built in Canada this century.
As implied above, our waste could be used to make nuclear weapons via reprocessing. Thus, some could argue we are helping the US make nuclear bombs…of course this is a straw man of sorts because the USA has more nuclear waste of its own creation that it needs not more from us. They want our waste for fears that “terrorist” will attack Chalk River and carry off a kilo or so for a dirty bomb or worse.
Now, it does make sense from a Canadian perspective to let the Americans worry about what to do with all that waste. They DID (although currently don’t) have a plan to store all their waste at Yucca Mountain. In a cynical sense, it is better they spend their money trying to store it than we spend ours.
Of course things are never simple. As I mentioned the US does not currently have a plan for long term storage…well at least a place. We in Canada do have a plan; the Nuclear Waste Management Organization has a plan called Adaptive Phased Management to deal with our waste long term. However (from my research) our plan lacks a home as well.
Lastly, the secrecy around the transportation of the waste does warrant some comment. We live in a democracy where citizens are expected to be informed…especially about hazards that can have a life-threating impact on their life – I think this qualifies. That said, this is no ordinary risk like hazardous chemicals. There is the added risk of an ‘on purpose’ accident. I don’t think “terrorism” is a credible threat at storage facilities; they seem to have adequate security features (arguable I agree, but so far so good). I don’t think we needed to move it for fears of “al Qaeda” attacks regardless of how much the Americans lie awake at night worrying about that.
However, an attack en-route (more likely from environmentalist than ‘terrorist’) is very likely. It has happened in France and Germany (nothing worse than delays but could have been worse). So keeping the shipments a secret does not seem unreasonable in spite of the fact it does seem ‘undemocratic’ and more of ‘government keeping secrets from the public’. I do think that the details should be kept under wraps. We already knew (and should have known) beforehand the shipments would be made because they were part of a publicly available ‘trade’ agreement between the US and Canada. Our government should also inform us afterword about the shipment with a complete report about potential risks and the actual ‘outcome’ (i.e. were there any radioactive leaks) of the transportation.