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Canadian parliamentary committee urged to amend waste plans

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(November 23, 2001) Canadian environment groups appeared before a Federal Committee on November 8 to urge Members of Parliament to make crucial amendments to draft legislation (Bill C-27) on spent fuel management.

(558.5341) Sierra Club of Canada - The groups, including Sierra Club of Canada, Northwatch, based in north-eastern Ontario, and Concerned Citizens of Manitoba, want the legislation to rein in the nuclear industry's push for burial of spent nuclear fuel in the Canadian Shield, a massive expanse of Precambrian rock dotted with rivers and lakes. In reality the legislation aims to accelerate government approval of a "solution", giving total control of the final development of management options to the nuclear industry through a new "Waste Management Organization". The government has stated that it sees the need to define a solution to the spent fuel problem in order to show that nuclear power is a sustainable energy option.

So-called "high-level" nuclear waste in Canada consists of used "bundles" of natural uranium fuel weighing about 20 kg. each. There are now about 1.5 million used fuel bundles in Canada, (weighing in at over 30,000 metric tonnes of waste) stored at reactor sites, either in water-filled pools or in dry cement canisters. Facilities are located in the province of Ontario at the Bruce, Pickering and Darlington nuclear generating stations, and at the Chalk River Nuclear Laboratory. The electric utilities in New Brunswick and Quebec each have facilities at their Pt. Lepreau and Gentilly reactor sites. Other high level wastes are located at research reactors at various university campuses and at the Whiteshell Nuclear Research Laboratory in the province of Manitoba.

Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL - the federal crown corporation which markets and promotes nuclear technology, and is also a fuel waste owner), was given the mandate to research the nuclear waste burial option in the late 1970's. An environmental assessment was conducted from 1988 to 1997 on AECL's generic (non-site-specific) deep rock burial "concept" under Chairman Blair Seaborn. The Seaborn Panel report, released in March 1998 concluded that the AECL concept was not acceptable, and identified many technical problems with the nuclear waste burial plan.

The Seaborn Panel recommended that, in order to gain public trust, an independent agency be formed at arms length from AECL and the nuclear utilities, to manage the programs related to long-term nuclear waste management, including detailed comparison of waste management options. Other Seaborn Panel recommendations included: initiating an Aboriginal participation process; conducting an effective public consultation and review of the regulations governing nuclear waste management; developing a comprehensive public participation program; and developing an ethical and social assessment framework.

The federal government responded to the Seaborn Panel report in December 1998 with a report that said there was broad agreement with the Panel in many areas, but in effect, rejecting most recommendations (see WISE News Communique 505.4974, "Canadian waste: Groups oppose government plans"). One area where general agreement does exist is in funding for waste management: the fuel waste owners will be required to fund the Waste Management Organization and the implementation of whatever management plan is approved in the end.

If the legislation is passed into law, the nuclear industry-controlled Waste Management Organization (WMO) will be given a mandate to review spent fuel management options including Canadian Shield burial, leaving the waste at reactor sites for the long-term, or consolidating it at one site for long-term above ground or near-surface storage. The WMO will have a three-year schedule to select its preferred option for long-term management of spent fuel, and the federal Cabinet will then decide whether to approve the WMO's recommendation. Meanwhile, the industry has been promoting Canadian Shield burial as its chosen option for more than a decade.

Suggested amendments to the legislation provided by environment groups include removal of the three year time limit for deciding on a spent fuel management option, and investigation of increased security measures and improved storage systems for the reactor wastes where they are currently stored. Other suggested amendments include setting a timetable for stopping the production of spent fuel, and prohibiting the import of nuclear waste into Canada. Government members of the federal committee reviewing the legislation were observed voting against all amendments. Once passed by Parliament, the legislation will be reviewed by the Canadian Senate, where additional hearings will be held.

Source and contact:

Nuclear Campaign - Sierra Club of Canada c/o P.O. Box 104 Uxbridge, Ontario L9P 1M6, Canada (tel/fax) 905-852-0571
E-mail [email protected]