The Continuing Quest:
Managing nuclear waste goes far beyond the science

by E. Dowdeswell

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Environmental Protection in Canada

In the early years of this new millennium our world is changing dramatically. This is a time of blinding technological change, increasingly interconnected economies and growing alienation between citizens and their institutions. A sustainable world is not an unreachable goal, but any critical environmental, social or economic analysis would certainly raise questions about our current trajectory.

The issue of the long-term management of nuclear waste illustrates well the conundrum that society faces. It is an issue that embodies scientific complexity and uncertainty. It inspires fear and insecurity and polarizes citizens. It is very long-term in character, raising questions of inter-generational equity quite inconsistent with the time frames of elected governments. It raises discussion of trade-offs: energy sufficiency versus significant financial investment and long-term security. In sum, it is an issue that requires much better understanding of resilience, vulnerability and the dynamic interaction between nature, technology and society.

All nuclear nations have faced significant challenges in their quest for an acceptable approach for the long term management of the nuclear waste they generate. The story behind that fact illustrates the degree to which the nuclear industry is being shaped by factors much beyond the scientific and technical. Social, ethical and economic considerations are now being recognized as legitimate aspects of the public policy process.

Radioactive waste decisions, once considered the exclusive purview of governments and the nuclear community, are now clearly in the public domain.

Of 32 nations that harness nuclear energy to generate electricity some have declared, or even legislated, that deep geological disposal is their ultimate intent. However, few have progressed to the point of final repository site selection. Over the past decade a number of national management programs have had to be reigned in and re-thought, put on hold, or even abandoned, in the face of public opposition and activist electorates. Radioactive waste decisions, once considered the exclusive purview of governments and the nuclear community, are now clearly in the public domain. In Canada there may not have been marches in the streets, but the experience was not dissimilar to what happened elsewhere. Interveners made it clear that social acceptability is as important as technical safety.

The Process in Canada

By the late 1980s extensive scientific work had been done by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL) on a concept for geological disposal of used nuclear fuel deep in the plutonic rock of the Canadian Shield. The concept was put to an environmental assessment panel for public review. After a nine-year study the Seaborn Panel concluded that, on balance, from a technical perspective, the safety of the AECL concept had been demonstrated but, from a social perspective it had not. Just as had happened in many other countries, Canadian nuclear waste producers were sent back to the drawing board.

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) was established in late 2002 in response to federal legislation requiring Canada's nuclear energy corporations to create an organization to investigate and develop an approach for the long-term management of their used nuclear fuel. An independent Advisory Council acts as a guarantor of the public interest. The companies were also required to put in place trust funds to ensure that the money will be available to finance the nuclear waste management approach ultimately adopted by the government.

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