A key takeaway from this briefer is that because they use unenriched uranium as fuel, Canadian nuclear reactors produce roughly ten times more radioactive waste per unit electricity generated, than US nuclear reactors.
Background: In 2017, civil society groups were trying to understand how three irresponsible radioactive waste projects (the giant Chalk River mound and two legacy reactor entombments), could be undergoing environmental assessment in Canada. The lack of a substantive federal radioactive waste policy was noted as a serious problem that had allowed the projects to proceed. The policy vacuum was brought to the attention of the IAEA, the Prime Minister, the Auditor General and many other Canadian officials. In September 2019, an international peer review team from IAEA flagged Canada’s lack of a radioactive waste policy as a serious problem. In response, Natural Resources Canada began a review process which took place from 2020 to 2023. The review included extensive involvement from civil society groups and concerned individuals across Canada. The new policy, released in March 2023, is a huge disappointment to many people who, in good faith, worked hard to provide many valuable suggestions only to find their input virtually ignored by the captured bodies (CNSC and NRCan) that developed the policy. In the words of our Quebec colleagues at Ralliement contre la pollution radioactive, the policy is “a fiasco and a slap in the face to democracy.” What follows is a detailed analysis of the many serious failings of Canada’s new “modernized” radioactive waste policy.
Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) uses “ensure” in its various forms 28 times in the final version of its new radioactive waste policy, up from 14 times in the draft.
Use of “ensure” in a policy context represents an empty promise – a promise that is not associated with any specific action and that lacks a verifiable, measurable, time-bound target. Reliance on such language indicates an intent to avoid further discussion.
For example, NRCan’s claim that Canada could “ensure nuclear non-proliferation” if plutonium reprocessing were to be allowed (and plutonium-fueled reactors were to be exported to other countries) demonstrates the policy’s superficial and specious nature.
The closest thing to a target in the policy is found in one of the “vision” statements:
By 2050, key elements of Canada’s radioactive waste disposal infrastructure are in place, and planning is well under way for the remaining facilities necessary to accommodate all of Canada’s current and future radioactive wastes.
This begs the questions, “What are those “key elements?” and “What are the remaining facilities?” To achieve this rather weak and vague vision:
The federal government accordingly ensures… that responsibility for maintaining institutional controls over the long term, including the preservation of records and knowledge management of radioactive wastes, is assigned, in an open and transparent manner, to an appropriate entity.
It appears that the federal government is unprepared to accept responsibility at this time for managing radioactive waste, even the waste that it has generated. The federal government created the nuclear industry and generated a massive (~ $16 billion) waste liability through R&D work carried out by the crown corporation Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) over the past 75 years. AECL continues to receive annual appropriations exceeding a billion dollars.
The policy only promises that at some indefinite time in the future the government will “ensure” that an “appropriate entity” is created to maintain institutional controls over the long term. This side-steps the key issue of governance. A public entity to oversee radioactive waste management is urgently needed. Hundreds of submissions on the draft policy called for the government to establish an independent oversight body now.
Although the policy gives the nuclear industry free rein in managing its waste, with no oversight, it assigns no real responsibility to the industry, either. It calls upon the industry to develop “conceptual approaches” and to submit an “Integrated Strategy for Canada’s radioactive waste to the federal government for review and consideration.”
An International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report prompted the government to undertake a radioactive waste policy review. The IAEA specifically recommended that the government “enhance” the principles contained in its previous Radioactive Waste Policy Framework. The most important principle was “polluter pays”:
The waste producers and owners are responsible, in accordance with the principle of “polluter pays”, for the funding, organization, management and operation of disposal and other facilities required for their wastes.
Rather than being enhanced, this principle was deleted from the new policy. This opens the door to subsidies from the federal government for management of radioactive wastes produced by non-federal entities.
The policy lacks acceptable language regarding assessment of radioactive waste management facilities. NRCan rejected the following civil society proposal:
Amend the Physical Activities Regulations under the Impact Assessment Act to include construction and operation of new nuclear reactors, decommissioning of nuclear reactors, and all phases in the development, operation and closure of long-term waste management facilities.
Instead, NRCan said:
The Policy recognizes and is aligned with federal legislation, particularly the Nuclear Safety and Control Act, the Impact Assessment Act and the Nuclear Fuel Waste Act, as well as other legislation, associated regulations, and other policy tools that further support radioactive waste management,
These policy tools are regularly reviewed and updated by the federal government, as required, to ensure they remain relevant and effective.
This is a dubious claim, given that the government had not reviewed or updated the previous waste policy “framework” for 27 years, and has not reviewed or updated the Nuclear Safety and Control Act for 26 years.
Stating that the new policy “is aligned with” the Impact Assessment Act fails to mention that the Physical Activities Regulations under this Act exempt decommissioning of reactors and other nuclear facilities, new radioactive waste storage facilities, fuel waste reprocessing facilities with an annual production capacity of less than 100 tonnes of plutonium per year, and construction and operation of small modular reactors (and management of their wastes).
Hence, nearly all major nuclear activities are exempted from assessment.
Most current nuclear decommissioning activities are occurring on federal lands owned by AECL. In theory, impact assessment is required for all projects occurring on federal lands under section 82 of the Impact Assessment Act.
AECL, despite being a federal authority under the Act, ignores decommissioning projects, and delegates the determination of the significance of other waste-related activities (such as a new intermediate-level waste storage facility) to its private contractor, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories. This is not allowed under the Act.
With regard to health, safety and environmental aspects of radioactive waste management, NRCan rejected the following civil society suggestions on the policy draft:
Radioactive waste will be contained and monitored to ensure it remains isolated from the accessible biosphere for the time frame relevant to the category of waste;” and “Prioritize the health, safety and security of people and the environment by requiring that radioactive wastes are kept contained and isolated from the biosphere.”
These suggestions were based on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safety standard for radioactive waste disposal. The IAEA says:
The specific aims of disposal are:
(a) To contain the waste;
(b) To isolate the waste from the accessible biosphere and to reduce substantially the likelihood of, and all possible consequences of, inadvertent human intrusion into the waste;
(c) To inhibit, reduce and delay the migration of radionuclides at any time from the waste to the accessible biosphere;
(d) To ensure that the amounts of radionuclides reaching the accessible biosphere due to any migration from the disposal facility are such that possible radiological consequences are acceptably low at all times.
The new policy does not contain the words “biosphere”, “isolation”, “migration” or “intrusion”, instead substituting vague phrases such as “ensure protection of the environment”. The policy’s failure to commit to isolating waste from the biosphere allows the nuclear industry to use the environment – particularly water bodies – as a way of diluting and disposing of its radioactive waste.
The policy’s failure to commit to isolating waste from the biosphere allows the nuclear industry to use the environment – particularly water bodies – as a way of diluting and disposing of its radioactive waste.
Dilution is the strategy employed by the “NSDF project”, announced by a consortium of multinational companies immediately after the Harper government contracted them to deal with the 75-year accumulation of radioactive waste at AECL’s nuclear sites across Canada. The NSDF would be Canada’s first permanent disposal facility for radioactive waste from nuclear reactors – a million-cubic-meter mound of waste next to the Ottawa River, including a pipeline that would discharge partially-treated leachate from the mound into a lake that drains into the river. It would set a terrible precedent for future facilities.
First Nations have expressed serious concerns about the NSDF project and two other permanent disposal projects that involve entombing AECL prototype reactors in concrete and grout and abandoning them next to the Ottawa and Winnipeg Rivers.
After the public comment period on the draft policy, a new section was added entitled “Canada’s commitment towards building partnerships and advancing reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.” It calls for “early, continuous and meaningful engagement” in future radioactive waste projects. However, the policy is silent on the question of whether the current disposal projects – announced without that early engagement – could be approved without the free, prior and informed consent of First Nations. Nor does the new policy commit to First Nations “consent” for future projects.
Another new section, entitled “Scope of the Policy,” adds confusion about reprocessing and fails to address Canada’s experimental work with plutonium fuels. The language on reprocessing says:
Reprocessing, the purpose of which would be to extract fissile material from nuclear fuel waste for further use, is not presently employed in Canada, and so is outside the scope of this Policy.
However, the federally-owned Recycle Fuel Fabrication Laboratories have been conducting plutonium fuel research for many years. Furthermore the government has given a private company $50.5 million to develop a commercial reprocessing facility under the guise of waste “recycling”.
Despite thousands of letters requesting a ban on plutonium reprocessing in the policy and noting the dangers of this technology for nuclear weapons proliferation, the word “plutonium” appears nowhere. Claiming that reprocessing is “outside the scope” of a radioactive waste policy is irresponsible. Furthermore, a new phrase in section 1.7 of the final policy encourages “recycling and reuse of materials.” This could be read as promoting “recycling” of used fuel to extract plutonium.
Also highly problematic is the following phrase in the new policy:
The government of Canada remains deeply committed to the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which remains the only legally binding global treaty promoting nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.
While Canada may refuse to acknowledge the existence of the TPNW, this does not alter the fact that the international community has acted to ban nuclear weapons.
The section on “Scope of the Policy” also contains contradictory and confusing wording on naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM). The IAEA says NORM is “Radioactive material containing no significant amounts of radionuclides other than naturally occurring radionuclides.” The IAEA definition explicitly includes “Material in which the activity concentrations of the naturally occurring radionuclides have been changed by a process.”
In contrast, the new policy defines NORM as “material found in the environment that contains radioactive elements of natural origin.” This would appear to exclude from the policy the waste that is created when NORM is extracted from the environment and then processed.
The CNSC regulates many facilities that process NORM (using the internationally agreed definition): uranium mines, Cameco’s processing facilities in Blind River and Port Hope, fuel fabrication facilities, etc. The new policy also says:
“this Policy does not address NORM other than those associated with the development, production or use of nuclear energy or technologies and those associated with the transport and import/export of nuclear substances.”
This statement is both grammatically incorrect (NORM refers to “material”, not “materials”) and does not adequately address the contradiction inherent in defining NORM in a manner that excludes the many processing activities occurring in Canada, and the wastes they generate.
The terms “process” and “processing” appear nowhere in the policy. Even the word “uranium” is absent from the policy, further illustrating the superficial nature of the new policy.
Also problematic is the reference to “an independent nuclear regulator that makes decisions using inclusive, open, and transparent public hearings.” Self-serving promotion of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission does not belong in a radioactive waste policy. Claims of transparency and openness do not match reality. The real issue is that the CNSC invariably dismisses public input in making its decisions.
Public input has also been dismissed in this new policy. It reads as if it was written by the CNSC, which may be true. The CNSC is widely considered to be completely “captured” by the nuclear industry, with a revolving door between CNSC, the nuclear industry, and Natural Resources Canada.
The policy rejects the demand by civil society organizations for a ban on imports of radioactive waste from other countries. It says that the federal government:
is committed to the principle that radioactive waste generated in other countries are [sic] not to be disposed of in Canada and radioactive waste generated in Canada will be disposed of in Canada, with the exception of certain radioactive wastes subject to return arrangements.
The policy lists as exceptions the “repatriation of disused sources to Canada.” It adds that “radioactive sources that were not from Canada may be brought to Canada.”
This is a clear admission that Canada is importing radioactive waste from other countries and intends to continue doing so. The ownership of this waste is eventually transferred to the Government of Canada, and the waste is stored at the federally owned Chalk River Laboratories of AECL.
The financial arrangements involved in these waste transfers are completely non-transparent. In this way, the waste imports could be adding to the liabilities recorded in the Public Accounts of Canada. Canadian taxpayers may be subsidizing not only Canada’s own nuclear industry, but the nuclear industry of foreign nations as well.
As noted in the recent Hill Times op-ed by Eva Schacherl, Political Opposition Growing to New Reactors, both small modular nuclear reactors AND the high-level fuel waste they produce are EXEMPT from environmental assessment in Canada
From the op-ed:
“The Impact Assessment Act was intended to create “greater public trust in impact assessment and decision-making.” But there will be no federal assessment of nuclear reactors up to 200 thermal MW in size, nor of new reactors built at existing nuclear plants (up to 900 MWth). Yet new tidal power projects, as well as offshore wind farms with 10 or more turbines, need an assessment under the regulations, as do many new fossil fuel projects.”
“Also exempted from federal assessment is the “on-site storage of irradiated nuclear fuel or nuclear waste” associated with small modular reactors. This will make it easier for SMRs’ radioactive waste to be potentially left in the northern, remote, and First Nations communities, where they are proposed to be built.”
This SMR fuel waste exemption was a last-minute insertion in the Impact Assessment Act regulations. It is found in section 28 of the Physical Activities Regulations (the so-called ‘project list’ for the new Impact Assessment Act and reads as follows:
28 The construction and operation of either of the following:(a) a new facility for the storage of irradiated nuclear fuel or nuclear waste, outside the licensed boundaries of an existing nuclear facility, as defined in section 2 of the Nuclear Safety and Control Act, other than a facility for the on-site storage of irradiated nuclear fuel or nuclear waste associated with one or more new fission or fusion reactors that have a combined thermal capacity of less than 200 MWth;
As far the fuel waste from the proposed SMR (the “MMR Project“) at Chalk River is concerned, there is another exemption in section 28 – the phrase “outside the licensed boundaries of an existing nuclear facility” allows it to be kept on site at Chalk River, a licensed nuclear facility.
Canada Re-enters the Nuclear Weapons Business with SMRs
Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan is expected to announce within weeks his government’s action plan for development of “small modular” nuclear reactors (SMRs).
SMR developers already control the federally-subsidized Chalk River Laboratories and other facilities owned by the crown corporation, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL). Canada is now poised to play a supporting role in the global nuclear weapons business, much as it did during World War II.
Canada’s Nuclear Schizophrenia describes a long tradition of nuclear cooperation with the United States: “For example, in the early 1950s, the U.S. Navy used Canadian technology to design a small reactor for powering its nuclear submarines.” C.D. Howe, after creating AECL in 1952 to develop nuclear reactors and sell weapons plutonium, remarked that “we in Canada are not engaged in military development, but the work that we are doing at Chalk River is of importance to military developments.”
In 2015 the Harper Government contracted a multi-national consortium called Canadian National Energy Alliance – now comprised of two U.S. companies, Fluor and Jacobs, along with Canada’s SNC-Lavalin – to operate AECL’s nuclear sites, the main one being at Chalk River. Fluor operates the Savannah River Site, a South Carolina nuclear weapons facility, under contract to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Jacobs also has contracts at DOE weapons facilities and is part of a consortium that operates the U.K. Atomic Weapons Establishment.
Joe McBrearty, the president of the consortium’s subsidiary that operates Chalk River and other federal nuclear sites, was a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine commander and then chief operating officer for the DOE’s nuclear laboratories between 2010 and 2019.
All three consortium partners have investments in SMRs and are ramping up research and development at AECL’s Chalk River facility. Some SMR designs would use uranium enriched to levels well beyond those in current reactors; others would use plutonium fuel; others would use fuel dissolved in molten salt. All of these pose new and problematic weapons proliferation risks.
The article quotes a 2017 Rolls Royce study as follows: “expansion of a nuclear-capable skilled workforce through a civil nuclear UK SMR programme would relieve the Ministry of Defence of the burden of developing and retaining skills and capability.”
The SMR connection to weapons and submarines could hardly be clearer – without SMRs, the U.S. and U.K. will experience a shortage of trained engineers to maintain their nuclear weapons programs.
With the takeover of AECL’s Chalk River Laboratories by SMR developers, and growing federal government support for SMRs, Canada has become part of a global regime linking nuclear power and nuclear weapons.
Posted By Alexandra Bly In Biodiversity & Habitat,Canada,Energy Politics,Finance & Investment,Health & Safety,Nuclear,Opinion & Analysis,United States |Full Story: The Energy Mix @theenergymix March 10, 2019Primary Author Paul McKay7 Comments
On the anniversary of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, investigative journalist Paul McKay reveals that the trade in radioactive waste is becoming a lucrative opportunity for SNC-Lavalin and its U.S. partner.
If it is true that one person’s garbage can be another’s gold, then Montreal-based multinational SNC-Lavalin and its new U.S. partner, Holtec International, plan to be big global players in what promises to be a very lucrative, long-term business: handling highly radioactive nuclear wastes until permanent disposal methods and sites might be found, approved, and built.
That problem is pressing because the volume of spent reactor fuel is cresting in the U.S., Canada, Europe, China, India, Russia, and Japan. There are also hundreds of intensively contaminated reactors which must sooner or later be entombed, dismantled, chopped up by robots, then sent in special, sealed containers to interim storage sites somewhere.
But no country in the world has yet found a proven, permanent solution for the 250 million kilograms of spent fuel now in limbo in storage pools and canisters, let alone the atomic furnaces which created them. There are now about 413 operable civilian reactors in 31 countries, and another 50 under construction.
Physics tells us precisely how “hot” atomic garbage is. Every commercial power reactor—regardless of model, type, country, or owner/operator—contains the radioactive equivalent of many atomic bombs locked within its spent fuel, reactor core, pumps, valves, and extensive cooling circuits.
To illustrate this, consider that only a small fraction of the “fission inventory” at the Fukushima nuclear site escaped during the terrifying March, 2011 accident. All operating civilian reactors eventually create and contain more than 200 such “hot” elements and isotopes. Known as transuranic elements, actinides, and activation products, they comply with the laws of physics but defy ordinary definitions of danger, technological assurance, and even human-calibrated time itself.
Some fission products transmute or decay within days, while others (like plutonium-239) can take 24,000 years or more to lose half their deadly mass. As this happens alpha, beta, or gamma radiation is constantly emitted, which in turn can directly damage living cells and organs. Many of these particles can accumulate like silent assassins in the food chain, then strike later.
Worse, they have the ability to invade human bodies by mimicking needed minerals like the calcium, potassium, magnesium, or iron we find in milk, meat, or vegetables. Worse still, they can impair human reproductive organs, causing health damage and intergenerational genetic defects. If exposed, adult women are more vulnerable to radiation than men, because they have one lifetime store of ova while male sperm is replenished over time. Children are most vulnerable of all, because they produce especially defenseless cells at a torrid rate as they grow.
And finally, the “hot” inventory of every reactor contains some irradiated elements which will remain latently lethal for hundreds of centuries or more. Each has its own emission signature and decay rate. The fissile isotope Uranium 235, for example, will lose half its mass after 700 million years.
This is not speculative; it is a matter of fundamental physics and biology. Fukushima illustrated why achieving even a 98% containment success rate means catastrophic consequences. The risk of any such failure for millennia to come is an embedded liability for every power reactor operating today, and for its spent fuel legacy.
So it bears examining just who is taking charge of the most dangerous garbage on Earth. Enter SNC-Lavalin and Holtec International.
Canadians might recognize century-old SNC-Lavalin as a venerable engineering giant, but with past decades of technical success and corporate gravitas ruined by 21st century bribery, fraud, and corruption scandals, and by recent convictions of employees and executives for corporate malfeasance.
In 2013, following sordid proof of bribery and kickback schemes from Libya to Bangladesh, the World Bank banned SNC-Lavalin and its 100 global affiliates from bidding on contracts for 10 years. The company is also facing criminal charges for its tactics to win a new hospital construction contract in Montreal, and another criminal probe related to a Montreal bridge contract. A reputation that was once impeccable now may be irredeemable.
SNC-Lavalin also has a well-documented history of manipulating compliant federal and Quebec politicians, and securing endless subsidies, concessions, sweetheart loans, and preferential tax and legal treatments sanctioned by both Liberal and Conservative prime ministers. In 2018, the federal election watchdog reported the company had made more than $117,000 in illegal political donations (the lion’s share of which went to the Liberals) by secretly conscripting employee donations and routing them through obscure pathways. In January 2019, a disgraced company executive pleaded guilty to orchestrating the illegal election finance scheme.
Most recently, the federal minister of justice and attorney general, the top law enforcement official in the country, is alleged to have lost her cabinet post after she rebuffed efforts by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his top advisors to have her waive potential criminal penalties (which would preclude SNC-Lavalin bidding on federal contracts for 10 years) in favour of fines and anti-corruption measures. That followed a recent, under-the-radar revision of the federal Criminal Code to allow for such corporate leniency, for which SNC-Lavalin lobbied repeatedly.
In 2011, under the former Stephen Harper government, SNC-Lavalin managed to acquire key commercial nuclear contracts, intellectual property, and personnel of the federal Crown corporation Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL). The purchase price was C$15 million (plus possible future royalty payments to Ottawa) for an entity into which Canadian taxpayers had sunk more than $17 billion during six previous decades.
Why would the Canadian engineering company pay even that much, when global nuclear growth was barely 1% last year, and capital investment in renewable power generation (nearly US$300 billion in 2016) is more than double that for new nuclear and fossil-based generation (coal, oil, gas) combined? Wasn’t that fatal trend already obvious?
Perhaps it was. But perhaps someone in Montreal also cunningly calculated that there might be much more money to be made during the demise of the global nuclear industry, like a company specializing in dangerous demolitions, or removing asbestos). Because the cumulative volume of atomic garbage is still climbing—and especially since Fukushima, governments and utilities are willing to pay extortionate sums to remove nuclear wastes from densely-populated areas and keep them out of sight for decades or more.
If there are few rivals in that “hot garbage” business, all the better, because that will fetch more contracts at higher prices. Then fortune will favour the brazen.
Such a business model also apparently appeals to U.S.-based Holtec International. It has not designed, financed, or built typical nuclear power plants. Instead, it has created a global contracting business supplying nuclear replacement parts, equipment, and services. For two decades, a core business has been providing concrete casks for spent fuel storage.
During that time, Holtec paid a US$2-million fine related to bribery payments to a convicted federal utility manager, and was the subject of scathing safety reviews by a U.S. quality assurance engineer who was later terminated for suspected whistleblowing. A federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission specialist in nuclear cask safety, Dr. Ross Landsman, contemporaneously concluded: “As far as I am concerned, Holtec has no quality assurance. This is the same kind of thinking that led to the NASA Space Shuttle disaster.”
More recently, Holtec has pursued its plan to buy now-defunct U.S. reactors, cut and gut their radioactive innards, then send the scrap along with the spent fuel to a 1,000-acre property it has acquired in remote New Mexico. But the proposed site is facing stiff public and political opposition, because Holtec also plans to store wastes from many retired reactors there.
In 2014, Holtec received promises of US$260 million in New Jersey state subsidies to move its headquarters 12 miles to South Camden, and modernize a vast shipyard building at an estimated cost of US$320 million. The subsidies are contingent on creating 320 permanent jobs, and are to be dispensed over 10 years.
Last September, police formed a protective barricade at the plant entrance after Holtec founder Krishna P. Singh complained to a business journal: “There is no tradition of work in [Camden] families. They don’t show up to work. They can’t stand getting up in the morning and coming to work every single day. They haven’t done it, and they didn’t see their parents do it. Of course, some of them get into drugs and things. So, it’s difficult.”
Back in Canada, SNC-Lavalin is leading a consortium Ottawa belatedly convened to clean up Canada’s first nuclear research and reactor site at Chalk River, Ontario. The “hot garbage” there includes contaminated buildings, instruments, pipes and clothing. Reactors at Chalk River and nearby Rolphton await entombment. An estimated one million cubic meters of atomic wastes are slated to be buried near the upper Ottawa River. Even some former AECL scientists have condemned the planned mega-dump.
The site is 200 kilometres upstream of Parliament Hill, where the $15-million deal to sell key AECL assets was approved. But SNC-Lavalin was indemnified from liabilities in that deal, and the federal government retains ownership of the Chalk River property, buildings, and contaminated materials. So the private consortium is now being paid nearly $1 billion each year by federal taxpayers to manage and bury radioactive wastes at Chalk River, and to operate labs to conduct nuclear research there.
The controversial company has also embedded itself in the Ontario nuclear power sector by way of its Trojan horse purchase of AECL assets. That federal Crown company held key CANDU reactor design patents, decades of crucial calculations and technical drawings, and employed remnants of the irreplaceable cadre of nuclear physicists, chemists, and engineers needed to repair, rebuild, and run Ontario’s nuclear fleet.
Once these assets were bestowed upon SNC-Lavalin by Ottawa, it had the leverage to negotiate lucrative contracts with Bruce Power and Ontario Power Generation (OPG), guaranteeing a major share of work related to $26 billion in combined nuclear power plant reconstruction costs during the next decade. Under the $13-billion Darlington refurbishment contract, up to 93% of any project cost overruns will be borne by the province of Ontario (sole owner of OPG), not SNC-Lavalin or allied private contractors—which gives a big, influential engineering firm with no discernable competition very little incentive to bring the project in on budget.
Those two $13-billion contracts involve removing and replacing major CANDU reactor components. That experience, in turn, will leave the company uniquely positioned to eventually decommission Canada’s fleet of reactors, and handle a projected 5.4 million spent fuel bundles. That work will cost another estimated $23 billion (in 2015 dollars), which reactor operators will be compelled to collect from power consumers and preserve for that use.
In America, Holtec has homed in on similarly alluring pots of “hot” honey, only there they are much, much bigger. That’s because nearly 100 commercial reactors in the U.S. are facing eventual retirement, and federal laws force the utilities that own the reactors to collect a constant stream of payments from consumers to cover plant decommissioning and spent fuel disposal costs. Those multi-billion-dollar pools of money have grown over time, but American utilities cannot draw from them without regulatory approval.
But there is no licenced federal facility in all of America to permanently immobilize and bury the “hot” spent fuel currently being stored at some 80 sites, and only one federal disposal site in South Carolina which will accept both nuclear weapons waste (including military reactors) and a rare few dismantled civilian reactor cores.
Think plugged toilet. Think Fukushima, because Japan has no permanent nuclear waste disposal site. So spent fuel bundles there were stacked in improvised swimming pools—outside the crucial containment shell. Think Pickering, Ontario, where decades of spent fuel is accumulating in swimming pools and concrete canisters because Canada has no approved final disposal site for “hot garbage”.
Everyone in the civilian nuclear business—from reactor operators to their regulators—understands that they might be one extended pump system failure, blackout, earthquake, extreme storm, or cyber-attack away from a public health catastrophe. They are desperate for some saviour to make it all go away.
Re-enter SNC-Lavalin and Holtec. Last summer, instead of competing as rivals, they created a joint venture to collaborate on “hot garbage” contracts across the continent. To the great relief of reactor operators and regulators, their subsidiary CDI is promising to buy defunct nuclear plants, dismantle contaminated components, then ship those and spent fuel bundles in concrete canisters to its isolated New Mexico property. All, CDI claims, at a price and speed individual utilities could not hope to achieve on their own.
For the U.S. utilities, such a deal would get rid of their worst liability nightmare in a hurry and clean up their bottom line, because CDI would get paid from the dedicated funds utilities are forbidden to use for any other purpose. For state utility regulators and the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, it would banish the problem to one remote patch of scrubland, far away in the U.S. southwest.
Emphasis on “one”. If the Holtec site in New Mexico does receive final approval, the CDI joint venture will have sole access to the first and only such private facility in North America. Naturally, owning the only toilet in town would confer an effective monopoly, giving the two joint venture partners enough leverage to win most future nuclear disposal contracts, while cashing in as platinum-priced plumbers.
But even if Holtec’s proposed US$2.4-billion project in New Mexico gets licenced and built, and the CDI joint venture does a booming business sending “hot garbage” there from some 80 sites in 35 states, Ernest Hemingway’s curt counsel to “never confuse movement with action” applies here.
The New Mexico facility will not be designed or licenced as a permanent disposal site. Holtec’s sealed canisters will not be designed or licenced to hold nuclear wastes for more than a few decades. And if recent troubles are any indication, some might not last a year—let alone decades.
Holtec and the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission have now locked horns over the integrity of its newest sealed containers at the San Onofre nuclear complex, 60 miles north of San Diego. It was shut down in 2013, after breakdowns and repair costs made it uneconomic to operate.
Now, the utility owner is prepping the reactors for dismantling at a cost of US$4.4 billion, and some 3.6 million pounds of hot spent fuel waste remains on the site. This year, most of the San Onofre fuel bundles were expected to be transferred from an indoor swimming pool to an outdoor morgue, where new Holtec caskets waited on a ridge overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
However, Holtec made design changes to its casks without notifying the utility or the federal regulator. Only a few had been filled before workers noticed a loose bolt which could jam hot fuel bundles, or puncture the metal cask lining, or prevent future inspections or removal of spent fuel. Work was stopped for 10 days and the NRC was notified. It in turn ordered Holtec to stop supplying casks with the modified design, but many had already been delivered to other nuclear plant sites.
Then fuel transfers were halted again because inexperienced Holtec employees allowed a 50-ton Holtec canister—filled with hot spent fuel bundles—to be dangerously misaligned as it was being lifted by a crane and inserted into a vault at the San Onofre site. The NRC reprimanded Holtec sharply for lax training and oversight related to the incident.
The episodes illustrate the vanishingly small margins of error when dealing with nuclear wastes. Luckily, no leak or accident occurred at San Onofre. But the errant four-inch stainless steel bolt (and the unauthorized cask design change by Holtec) was discovered only by chance, just as 43 identical Holtec casks were waiting to be filled at San Onofre. Others had already been filled at nuclear sites from New England to Alabama.
The shape-shifting lethality of “hot” fission products, and their immutable longevity, tests the limits of not just human technology, but most measures of human conduct.
Once it’s created, such “hot garbage” demands all companies involved be immune to greed, bribery, cutting corners, masking quality control failures, or deceiving safety auditors.
It requires regulators that are relentlessly vigilant, trained to detect flaws and complacency, impervious to bribes or coercion, and who place a far higher priority on public safety than on reactor performance, career promotions, pleasing the boss, or pay raises.
It requires politicians who refuse to dispense favours, subsidies, or serial excuses to preferred players, and who always keep the lethality and longevity of nuclear wastes foremost in their minds when making related policy.
This matrix of perfection, of course, does not exist anywhere on this planet.
So there have been horrific accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima. Nuclear plants like San Onofre have been built atop known earthquake faults, a stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean. In France, massive reactor core containment vessels were belatedly found to be defective—years after startup. In 2016, the French national nuclear safety authority found that a state-owned forging company had falsified quality control reports for four decades while as many as 400 defective parts were supplied.
At the eight-reactor Pickering nuclear complex, located in Canada’s densest population corridor, the plutonium locked inside spent fuel bundles is equal to that embedded in 11,000 nuclear weapons. Even more atomic waste is lurking at the eight-reactor Bruce complex and four-reactor Darlington plant in Ontario, and at the Point Lepreau reactor in New Brunswick.
The Fukushima tragedy, physics, and biology tell us the only tolerable nuclear containment breach rate is zero per cent. For forever. Yet the “hot garbage” keeps piling up, even though it can imperil our biosphere for centuries. This is not just tempting fate. It is giving it the middle finger.
Paul McKay has won Canada’s top awards for investigative, business and feature reporting multiple times, and is the author of two books about nuclear technology and policy. This report was researched and written pro bono. No funding from any source was sought or received.7 Comments (Open | Close)
7 COMMENTS TO “HOT GARBAGE GRIFTERS: SNC-LAVALIN’S PLAN TO TURN NUCLEAR WASTE INTO LONG-TERM GOLD”
#1 Pingback By Hot Garbage Grifters: SNC-Lavalin’s Plan to Turn Nuclear Waste into Long-Term Gold – Enjeux énergies et environnement On March 10, 2019 @ 9:09 PM
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#2 Comment By Paul Gervan On March 11, 2019 @ 10:12 AM
Brilliant investigative work. Here’s to independent media. Bravo Paul McKay!
#3 Comment By Mireille LaPointe On March 12, 2019 @ 11:27 AM
Absolutely brilliant! Miigwech, Paul.
#4 Comment By Donna Gilmore On March 15, 2019 @ 8:56 AM
Excellent article! The story is even worse at San Onofre and with Holtec and the NRC. The Holtec system the NRC approved damages the walls of every canister downloaded into the storage holes. The utility, Southern California Edison, and these other players are trying to hide or downplay this issue. The NRC refuses to formally document this issue or hold anyone accountable for a system that immediately shortens the life of these uninspectable and unrepairable thin-wall canisters (only 5/8″ thick). They have no fix other than to recall and replace this system. The root cause is Holtec’s poorly engineered imprecise downloading system that gouges the walls of every canister downloaded. Edison admitted to the NRC that the entire length of the canister wall scrapes against a steel metal guide ring as it is lowered past the ring over 18 feet. More information at SanOnofreSafety.org
#5 Comment By Brennain Lloyd On April 3, 2019 @ 9:06 AM
Excellent. A detailed analysis for the SNC-Lavelin’s sordid past and aspired to future and the connecting point (radioactive wastes) from a reliable investigative journalist. Thank you, Paul McKay.
#6 Comment By Ole Hendrickson On August 2, 2019 @ 11:05 AM
Anyone who has children or who cares about the future should read this article.
#7 Comment By Nira Dookeran On August 2, 2019 @ 1:22 PM
Omg. It’s even worse than I thought. And I thought it was very bad.:-(
Canada’s nuclear regulator has urged the federal government to allow smaller nuclear reactors to avoid lengthy impact assessments, a move that would create an easier and faster path for commercialization of the technology.
So-called “small module reactors,” or SMRs, have been touted as a low-carbon energy option for remote communities. But briefing notes from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) show it is worried that protracted impact assessment hearings could be detrimental to the commercialization of the reactors in Canada. The commission told the government it should retain responsibility to conduct environmental reviews when construction projects are proposed, according to documents obtained under access to information laws.
The SMRs represent the nuclear industry’s latest effort to reduce its high capital costs and would have a capacity ranging from 1.5 megawatts to a utility-scale 300 megawatts.
In one briefing document for internal discussions, the regulator notes the nuclear industry’s concerns about “longer regulatory timelines” that would result from passage of the government’s Impact Assessment Act – Bill C-69, which is now before the Senate. The CNSC encourages the government to exempt small modular reactors from the list of designated projects that would receive a full panel review, and warns that lengthy regulatory delays could kill a promising industry. The documents were obtained by Greenpeace Canada.
Proponents argue the small modular reactors could supply a wide range of electricity needs, from replacing dirty, unreliable diesel generation in remote communities, to providing low-carbon electricity for oil sands operations. They paint a vision of impoverished Indigenous communities getting reliable and affordable power from 1.5-megawatt reactors that would replace diesel, or off-grid mines and oil sands plants using larger reactors to provide low-carbon energy to their operations, and of units that would anchor “energy parks” and complement solar and wind generation.
“The future of the nuclear industry, especially for Canadian participants, is dependent on the success of SMRs,” says the April, 2018, note to CNSC’s then-president Michael Binder, who has since retired. “It is very important to get the project list right so that there is a reasonable threshold on what kind of projects require an IA [impact assessment].” Another briefing note also says CNSC is recommending the government adopt thresholds to ensure proposals to build small reactors do not face a full impact review.
Panel members of a full impact assessment would come from a broad cross-section of the public representing various disciplines, appointed by the government.
Greenpeace researcher Shawn-Patrick Stensil argues the CNSC’s preferred approach would prevent a broad-based review of the safety and environmental risks from untested reactor technology that will produce highly radioactive waste.
CNSC spokesman Aurele Gervais said the commission believes there should be a threshold for full impact assessments “based on risk.”
“Regardless, all projects would still be subject to environmental assessments under the Nuclear Safety Control Act,” which is administered by the CNSC, he said.
On Wednesday, Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi is scheduled to release a “road map” – prepared by industry with support from the federal government – on how Canada can participate in the development of next generations of reactors. “We will make sure that we are looking at every aspect of this industry from safety, from regulation, to the potential for northern communities, the potential of co-generation for large industrial complexes,” he told reporters on Tuesday.
In an interview, Mr. Sohi said the government will consider the industry proposals, but has not committed to providing any support for the commercialization of SMRs. In an Oct. 30 letter to Mr. Sohi and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, critics representing 25 advocacy groups argue SMRs would be more expensive per kilowatt of power than traditional reactors and would continue to produce radioactive waste with no permanent disposal methods available.
Government-owned Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) is in talks with several companies that are developing SMRs and is aiming to have several demonstration plants at its site on Chalk River, 200 kilometres northwest of Ottawa, assuming the developers receive a safety licence from the CNSC. Currently, 10 companies have submitted plans to the commission for a “pre-licensing design review” in which the regulator provides high-level feedback on whether their technology would meet with Canadian standards.
CNL is hosting an international gathering of SMR developers in Ottawa this week. That list includes Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse Electric Co., which is now owned by Brookfield Asset Management Inc., and Terrestrial Energy Inc., which has cleared the first stage of the pre-licensing review with the CNSC.
At a presentation on Monday evening, CNL president Mark Lesinski said it is critical for the industry to be able to build demonstration plants at an existing nuclear site like Chalk River, in order to prove and fine-tune its technology before pursuing commercial deals. Industry officials suggest it would likely take five years before an SMR design is licensed in Canada, and another five years before they are sold commercially. However, in their letter to the ministers, the advocacy groups urged the government to refuse any support for new nuclear reactor technology.
“The nuclear lobby’s promises of affordable new reactors able to fight climate change are always conditional on government subsidies, watering down safety and limiting the public’s right to information,” Greenpeace’s Mr. Stensil said on Tuesday. He argued it is inappropriate for the CNSC to lobby on behalf of the industry that it regulates. The commission provided a submission to the government on the Impact Assessment Act, but has refused to release it, he said.
The Town of Deep River, Ont. – home to Canada’s nuclear pioneers for 60 years – has slammed a proposal to build a near-surface nuclear-waste facility at the nearby Chalk River laboratories, saying the company appears to put its scheduling issues ahead of safety.
Government-owned, private-sector-managed Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) proposes to build a $325-million facility to dispose of a large quantity of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste generated at the historic research centre, and to bring some waste material from other sites that it manages.
CNL is responding to widespread criticism of the project among local, pro-nuclear residents by revisiting its plan to include a small amount of intermediate-level waste at the site, Kurt Kehler, vice-president for decommissioning and waste management, said in an interview on Wednesday.
In a submission to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the Town of Deep River argued the company’s plan is flawed and that the draft environmental-impact statement that was submitted to the regulator is missing key information.
However, in an accompanying letter, Mayor Joan Lougheed said the town supports CNL’s effort to provide for the safe storage and disposal of nuclear waste. Deep River is home for many of the lab’s current and retired employees; it has a population of roughly 4,000 people, situated on the Ottawa River some 200 kilometres northwest of the national capital.
“We’re doing our due diligence and responsibility as representatives of the Town of Deep River,” Ms. Lougheed said in an interview on Wednesday. “We all have a responsibility to deal with waste and waste management.”
She said town supports the storage of low-level radioactive waste at such a near-surface site, but has concerns about the intermediate-level radioactive material that requires isolation and containment for more than several hundred years.
In 2015, the Canadian National Energy Alliance consortium won a contract from the former Conservative government to manage the former Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. research facilities, now known as Canadian Nuclear Laboratories. The group – which includes SNC-Lavalin Group Inc., and American engineering giant CH2M Hill Inc. and Fluor Corp. – was tasked with bringing private-sector efficiency to AECL operations.
In its submission, Deep River says CNL failed to engage the municipality and its residents, offering a presentation rather than meaningful consultation. It suggests the consortium appears to be more focused on timely and profitable execution of the project than on safety and long-term management of the waste.
Particularly in the consideration of alternative options, “at times it appears the project schedule and costs were the driving forces influencing the assessment rather than public health, safety and the environment,” it said.STORY CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
The town and CNL are in negotiations over what compensation will be paid to the municipality as the host community, and Mr. Kehler described Deep River’s demands as “pretty lofty.”
As well, several First Nations groups either oppose the proposal outright, or say that they have not been properly consulted even though the research facilities are located on unceded traditional territory that is subject to land-claim negotiations.
CNL’s proposal – which aims to have the waste facility operational in 2021 – is running into fierce opposition from some AECL retirees. Several scientists who worked at facility say the CNL plan fails to meet international standards for safely dealing with intermediate-level waste (ILW).
“We’ve heard those comments and we’re taking that under serious advisement,” Mr. Kehler said. “And so we’ll be coming out with a recommendations shortly to the commission. … We are taking ILW issue seriously and I think we’ll come up with an appropriate resolution that will make just about everybody happy.”
The plan currently calls for 1 per cent of the total volume to be intermediate-level waste, and the company says that material would be on the lower end of the intermediate range. CNL is separately developing plans for the more dangerous intermediate-level waste that exists on the site.
Mr. Kehler also rejected the suggestion that CNL is compromising safety for financial reasons, saying the company is proceeding according to a schedule laid out by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the nuclear-safety commission.
Former AECL scientists are condemning a plan to build a nuclear waste facility at the Chalk River site on the Ottawa River, saying it would be ill-equipped to handle the level of radioactive material planned for it.
The government-owned, private sector-operated Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) is proposing to build a $325-million facility to dispose of a large quantity of low- and intermediate-level waste generated from the demolition of aging buildings and other contaminated material generated over the past 65 years.
But several former senior scientists who worked there say the CNL proposal is seriously flawed and represents a threat to human health and the environment.
In 2015, the Canadian National Energy Alliance consortium won a contract to manage the Chalk River laboratories. The group includes SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. and U.S. engineering giants, CH2M Hill Inc. and Fluor Corp.
The former Conservative government split up the country’s nuclear flagship, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., selling its commercial business to SNC-Lavalin and retaining its research operations, including Chalk River, in CNL.
Ottawa is financing a $1.2-billion, 10-year effort to transform the aging Chalk River site, where the Candu reactor was developed. CNL is constructing some new facilities and demolishing older buildings. The company is also managing the site’s longer-term decommissioning.
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) is currently reviewing CNL’s plan for the nuclear waste disposal facility that would be a five-storey-high, dome-like structure and would hold one million cubic metres of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste. The material is generated and stored on site, and the new facility is meant to provide permanent disposal.
David Winfield, a former senior scientist in safety management at AECL, said international standards suggest permanent disposal of intermediate-level radioactive waste should be done in vaults built deep underground in impermeable rock.
“The proposed design seems not to be appropriate to handle that level of waste,” Mr. Winfield said in an interview Tuesday. In addition to his role at AECL, Mr. Winfield has done consulting work on safety issues for the International Atomic Energy Agency.
He also worries CNL is locating the disposal facility in a swampy area of the sprawling Chalk River site, which could cause material to leach from it.
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Another former AECL senior scientist, William Turner, said the new management appears to be rushing the plan in order to have it operational by 2020, and worries they are driven by financial considerations, including performance bonuses. “If this isn’t done right, they will walk away with pockets full of money and Canadians will be left with an enormous bill,” Mr. Turner said in an interview.
In a submission to the regulator last month, a former AECL director of safety engineering and licensing said CNL’s proposal “employs inadequate technology and is problematically located.”
“The proposal does not meet regulatory requirements with respect to the health and safety of persons and the protection of the environment,” Dr. J.R. Walker said in a lengthy critique of the plan.
CNL president Mark Lesinski defended the company’s proposal, saying the near-surface facility will provide “safe and permanent disposal” of radioactive materials.
In a statement provided to The Globe and Mail, Mr. Lesinski said the company carried out extensive geotechnical and hydro-geological tests to ensure the location was the best place to put it.
The site will primarily contain low-level radioactive waste – which requires no shielding for exposure – while more dangerous intermediate-level waste will represent no more than 1 per cent of the total material, he said.
“As proponent/licensee, CNL must demonstrate to the regulator (CNSC) that inclusion of these limited quantities of [intermediate level waste] is safe,” Mr. Lesinski said.Editor’s note: An early version of this article incorrectly identified Dr. J.R. Walker as Dr. Robert Walker.