Atomic Wasteland series: Why Canada’s nuclear cleanup will cost billions and take decades – by Ian MacLeod (Ottawa Citizen – December 19, 2011)

It lights our Christmas trees, drives industry, makes medicine, heats our homes and is carbon-free. Nuclear power has a back end, too. Radwaste.

More than 240,000 tonnes of intensely radioactive civilian waste has piled up around the globe since the dawning of the atomic age.

Sixty years on, no one is sure yet how to safely and permanently dispose of the stuff, much of it harmful to living organisms for thousands of years.

Canada’s share of the high-level heap stands at 44,000 tonnes. Virtually all is spent uranium fuel bundles — 2.3 million of them — that powered the commercial and research reactors that made Canada a leading nuclear nation.

“If you don’t respect it, you can get hit pretty hard,” says Don Howard, director of the wastes and decommissioning division for the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC).

Spent fuel bundles are just one piece of fallout from the nuclear fuel cycle.

Radioactive rubbish comes from medical isotope production, nuclear fuel fabrication, research operations, uranium mining, milling, refining and conversion.

The latest figures show 644,000 cubic metres of shorter-lived, low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste was stored at reactor and nuclear research sites in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Manitoba at the end of last year.

Soil contaminated with radium and uranium accounts for an additional 1.7 million cubic metres.

Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL), meanwhile, is in the sixth year of an estimated $7-billion, 70-year federal cleanup of “legacy” wastes, environmental restoration and decommissioning of outdated and unused buildings.

It includes three partially decommissioned prototype nuclear reactors, two former heavy water plants and widespread wastes at AECL’s Chalk River Laboratories (CRL), as well as its former Whiteshell, Man. research laboratories.

Research and development on the application of nuclear energy to produce electricity began in the 1940s at Chalk River, as did plutonium production for U.S. nuclear weapons. The 37-hectare site now contains 70 per cent of all the radioactive legacy wastes ever produced by the research reactors and nuclear facilities operated by AECL and its predecessor, the National Research Council of Canada.

Much of it dates to the Cold War era, when it wasn’t uncommon for early researchers to toss radioactive wastes into open sand trenches not far from the Ottawa River.

More urgent are concerns about corroding spent uranium fuel rods stored in underground containers breached by water.

In all, the cleanup and disposal will cost the industry and federal government billions of dollars and last most of this century.

“It is quite a considerable challenge, but I don’t think that we’re alone in this, there are a lot of lessons learned from other countries,” says Dave McCauley, director of the uranium and radioactive waste division at Natural Resources Canada.

“The key challenge that we face moving forward is public outreach, public education, public confidence. You need that to move forward on these solutions.”

The majority of Canada’s spent fuel bundles are in interim storage in large pools of cooling water and massive cement casks at reactor sites in Ontario, where nuclear power generates 58 per cent of the electrical supply. For more than 40 years, Canada has never had a serious spent-fuel accident.

Nuclear supplies about 15 per cent of the electricity consumed nationally, which means about 85,000 more used fuel bundles are added to the glowing pile every year.

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