SNC-Lavalin and two Texas-based corporations fail to convince the public that radioactive dumps will be safe
For immediate release (December 17, 2019, Ottawa, Ontario). Civil society groups remain staunchly opposed to two radioactive waste dumps beside the Ottawa River, despite new studies released December 12 by the embattled multinational consortium behind the proposals. Citizens groups and NGOs say no amount of tweaking by Canadian Nuclear Laboratories can make the proposed projects meet international safety standards.
Announced in 2016, the consortium’s plans to build a giant mound for more than one million tonnes of radioactive waste and to entomb a defunct reactor in concrete along side the Ottawa River have raised the ire of citizens and retired nuclear scientists alike. First Nations, NGOs, federal government departments, the Quebec government, and over 140 municipalities have also weighed in with serious concerns about the proposed projects.
“These proposals violate the principle that radioactive waste must be kept out of contact with the biosphere for as long as it remains radioactive,” according to Ole Hendrickson, a scientist and researcher for the group Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area. “The mound and the tomb are the wrong strategies; they simply can’t do the job of keeping radioactive toxins out of our air and drinking water,” Hendrickson said. “In addition to radioactive materials, both facilities would release heavy metals and toxic organic compounds during and after construction.”
Critics are calling on the federal government to cancel these quick-and-dirty radioactive dumps and step up with funding to support world class radioactive waste storage facilities for Canada’s $8 to $10 billion nuclear waste legacy. Ottawa has admitted it has not even formulated a detailed policy on the long-term management of radioactive wastes.
“Radioactive wastes should never be abandoned right beside major water bodies”, says Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, “They should be maintained in a monitored and retrievable fashion so that future generations can cope with them. These wastes will be hazardous and radioactive for more than one hundred thousand years, essentially for eternity. They must be carefully packaged and labelled and stored securely, well away from drinking water sources.”
Hendrickson adds that the lack of a careful siting process concerns many citizens groups and NGOs. “It is obvious that the consortium chose the proposed sites based on convenience and low cost, not public safety.”
The proposed facilities do not comply with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) guidelines. The IAEA requires that long-lived radioactive waste be placed in a moderately deep or very deep underground facility. The IAEA also says that flooding a defunct reactor with concrete can only be used in cases of extreme emergency such as a meltdown.
Canadian Nuclear Laboratories misrepresents the amount of long-lived radioactive material that would go in its gigantic five-to-seven story surface mound. The revised environmental impact statement includes a partial inventory of 30 radioactive materials destined for the dump, and 25 of them are very long-lived indeed, each with a half-life of more than four centuries. Of the 30 materials listed, 22 have half-lives over a thousand years, 17 have half-lives over 100,000 years, and 7 have half-lives over a million years. None of these materials would meet the IAEA definition of short-lived waste. Nevertheless, the revised environmental impact statement, released last week by the consortium, asserts only low level waste that “primarily contains short-lived radionuclides” would go into the mound.
“This is a clear example of the ways that CNL misleads the public and decision-makers by playing fast and loose with terms such as “near surface” “low level” and “short-lived”, says Johanna Echlin, of the Old Fort William (Quebec) Cottagers’ Association.
According to Echlin, a federal commitment to create world class facilities for its radioactive waste is urgently needed and would have many benefits. “We have the expertise in Canada to be a world leader in looking after these radioactive wastes,” Echlin said. “Many well-paying jobs and careers will be created when the government of Canada takes this issue seriously and does the right thing. We can do this. We can keep radioactive waste out of our rivers. We’ll all sleep easier knowing that our health, our property values, the beautiful Ottawa River, and future generations are all protected.”
The proponent of the two nuclear waste dumps, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories is owned by the “Canadian National Energy Alliance”, a consortium of SNC-Lavalin and two Texas-based engineering firms. Canadian Nuclear Laboratories is under contract by the federal government to reduce Canada’s $8 billion federal nuclear waste “legacy” liabilities quickly and cheaply.
Environmental assessments of the giant mound and the reactor tomb are in progress. Licensing hearings for the projects are expected in late 2020. -30-
In 2012, the Conservative government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper amended the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act to give the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) total authority and decision-making power over all nuclear-related projects.
The CNSC is currently conducting environmental assessments of three contentious radioactive waste “disposal” projects. Each is the brainchild of a consortium of private multinational corporations operating under the name “Canadian National Energy Alliance.” The consortium consists of the scandal-ridden SNC-Lavalin, currently facing criminal charges for fraud and corruption in a Canadian court, and two U.S.-based corporate partners (Fluor and Jacobs), both of whom have also faced criminal charges of a similar nature in the past.
This consortium was hired in 2015 by the Harper government to operate the Government of Canada’s nuclear sites and reduce Canada’s eight billion dollar radioactive waste liability. The consortium received all the shares in a new corporation called “Canadian Nuclear Laboratories” (CNL) that had been created the previous year as a subsidiary of the federal crown corporation Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL). In effect, this privatized AECL. Roughly 3000 former AECL employees now work for CNL, mostly at the Chalk River Laboratories. Billions of taxpayers’ dollars are funneled into the private consortium through the ghost of AECL.
The three proposals being assessed by CNSC are:
(1) an above-ground mound, five to seven stories high, covering 11 hectares of land, for permanent disposal of one million cubic meters of mixed radioactive wastes at Chalk River, less than a kilometer from the Ottawa River;
(2) the permanent entombment of Canada’s first electricity-producing nuclear reactor, the Nuclear Power Demonstration reactor, by encasing its radioactive remains in concrete and abandoning them only 100 meters from the Ottawa River;
(3) the permanent entombment of the radioactive remains of another prototype nuclear reactor, the Whiteshell Reactor No. 1, at the Whiteshell Laboratories, right beside the Winnipeg River in Manitoba.
All three projects run counter to guidance of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Even as the consortium and CNL promote their disposal projects, they are soliciting proposals to build new nuclear reactors at the Chalk River and Whiteshell federal nuclear sites. The CNSC secretly lobbied the government to have new nuclear reactors under a certain size exempted from Bill C-69, the new Impact Assessment Act. However, any reactor–regardless of size–will create accident risks and its own legacy of radioactive wastes.
CNSC has long been recognized as a “captured” regulator. It has never denied a license for any major nuclear project. Its lobbying to have small reactors exempted from impact assessments–if successful–would minimize effective public participation in planning and decision-making for nuclear projects.
Media release from the Ottawa Centre Green Party Campaign September 5, 2019
Green Party candidates blast Liberals’ and Conservatives’ cosy relationship with the nuclear industry
Plans to abandon toxic radioactive waste next to drinking water sources
OTTAWA, September 5, 2019 — Three Green Party candidates have given an “F” to recent Liberal and Conservative governments for handing control of Canada’s federal nuclear waste to SNC-Lavalin and two American corporations.
Candidates Angela Keller-Herzog, Claude Bertrand and Lorraine Rekmans say that the Harper and Trudeau governments deserve a “Fail” because decisions about nuclear waste that will last for millennia are being driven by corporate profits, not health protection. The candidates gathered today with a flotilla of canoes and kayaks on the Ottawa River to protest plans for a nuclear waste dump at Chalk River.
“Both the previous Conservative and Liberal governments have handed the dirty job of cleaning up nuclear waste to SNC-Lavalin and American corporations. We have to end this cosy relationship and stop funneling billions of taxpayer dollars to corporations for plans that may worsen, not improve, Canada’s nuclear waste problem,” said Keller-Herzog.
Releases of radioactive waste increase the risks of cancer, birth defects and genetic mutations in people who drink the contaminated water or breathe the contaminated air, she said.
The Harper government signed a 10-year, multibillion-dollar contract with a consortium of SNC-Lavalin and several foreign corporations in September 2015, very shortly before the last federal election. The consortium’s plan for an aboveground engineered mound that holds one million cubic metres of radioactive waste – less than a kilometre from the Ottawa River – does not meet International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) guidelines. Nor do its plans to bury two defunct reactors in cement next to the Winnipeg and Ottawa rivers.
In November 2018, the Liberal government released a roadmap to introduce “small modular” nuclear reactors across Canada, and in regulations enacted on August 28, 2019, the government has exempted new nuclear reactors under 200 thermal megawatts from environmental impact assessment under Bill C-69. “There are already large quantities of radioactive waste being transported from Manitoba, Québec and even the United States to Chalk River over public roads. First Nations are rightly concerned, as we all should be, about what’s happening to this nuclear waste, and we want to see transparency about the shipments and full consultation with Indigenous communities,” said Lorraine Rekmans, Green Party candidate for Leeds-Grenville-Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes. Rekmans is the Green Party of Canada critic for Indigenous Affairs and Shadow Cabinet Co-chair.
Claude Bertrand, running in the Pontiac riding that stretches over 200 km along the Ottawa River, noted the strong opposition in Québec to abandonment of nuclear waste near the river. “Over 140 communities in Quebec and Ontario are strongly opposed to the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories’ plans, including the Metropolitan Community of Montréal,” Bertrand said. “It’s our drinking water, and we don’t want to take risks with it in the name of short-term corporate profits.”
Chalk River Laboratories are located in Green Party candidate Ian Pineau’s riding, Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke. “We need the right plan in the right location,” Pineau (not present at the event) said. “That would protect, not risk, our river and our drinking water, stimulate the local economy, and provide long-term, well-paying careers in responsible waste management.”
The candidates called on Ottawa to abandon the current nuclear waste plans and aim to meet or exceed international standards. They also called for full public consultation to create a federal policy for the long-term management of non-fuel radioactive waste.
“The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission should not be approving nuclear waste plans with no oversight by Parliament, and no federal policies spelling out how low-level and intermediate-level waste must be managed,” said Keller-Herzog.-30-
Leveraging one of the year’s top political controversies, federal Green party candidates staged an event Thursday to highlight their concerns about potential contamination of the Ottawa River and a government they describe as too cosy with SNC-Lavalin to care.
Standing in the sand on Westboro Beach, Ottawa Centre Green party candidate Angela Keller-Herzog gave the assembled crowd a quick refresher on the nuclear situation at Chalk River, 200 kilometres northwest of Ottawa.
On the eve of the 2015 federal election, former prime minister Stephen Harper’s government selected a consortium of companies, including engineering firm SNC-Lavalin, as its preferred proponent to manage and operate Canadian Nuclear Laboratories — the organization proposing a “near surface disposal facility” for radioactive waste at Chalk River.
It’s a plan, now under review, that’s been in the works for several years, and CNL is adamant about its safety. “It will actually take waste out of areas with very little containment, and put it into an area that is engineered and contained away from the environment,” said Sandra Faught, manager of regulatory approvals for the facility at CNL.
Despite such assurances, the proposed facility has generated fierce criticism from community, Indigenous and environmental advocates for as long as it’s been in the public eye.
At Thursday’s press conference, the Greens breathed fresh life into these concerns by emphasizing the involvement of one of the most controversial names in politics right now: SNC-Lavalin.
“Poor nuclear waste decisions have fallout for millennia — this is too important a job to be handed to SNC and corner-cutting, profit-seeking foreign corporations with dubious ethical background,” said Keller-Herzog.
As an MP, she said, she would champion the creation of a federal policy guiding the management of non-fuel radioactive waste (the kind the Chalk River disposal facility would deal with.)
She also raised a new concern — that the Liberal government, including Environment Minister and Ottawa Centre MP Catherine McKenna, have created an exemption that would allow small modular nuclear reactors to skip the new environmental review process they introduced in Bill C-69.
Both CNL and the federal government are focused on the opportunities presented by these portable, less powerful reactors.
“Canada is well positioned to become a global leader in the development and deployment of SMR technology,” reads a Natural Resources Canada webpage, while CNL envisions itself as a “global hub” for small modular reactor innovation.
In the spring of 2018, CNL invited SMR proposals to develop a “demonstration project” at one of its sites. This would be the first small modular reactor in Canada.
“I ask you: If experimental, unproven nuclear reactors don’t have to undergo impact assessment, then what’s the point?” said Keller-Herzog. “In other words, the Liberal government, Minister McKenna and senior public servants are lining up their ducks to pave the way for the plans of SNC-Lavalin and its American partners. Does that sound familiar?”
This newspaper contacted McKenna’s ministerial office about the decision to exempt small nuclear reactors — under 200 thermal megawatts — from the list of projects that would require environmental assessment under Bill C-69.
“Previously all nuclear reactors would have been designated projects, regardless of size and location,” according to the Canada Gazette entry regarding the exemption.
In response, spokesperson Caroline Thériault sent a statement:
“A robust project list ensures good projects can move forward in a timely and transparent way that protects the environment, rebuilds public trust and strengthens our economy. This list covers all major projects within federal jurisdiction those pose significant environmental risk.”
Even without a spot on the Bill C-69 project list, small modular reactor would still be subject to scrutiny.
According to a statement from the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, “New nuclear projects below the 200 MW thermal threshold are subject to licensing and assessment processes by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.”
Alexandre Deslongchamps, spokesperson for the minster of natural resources, noted that the CNSC “is peer-reviewed and world-renowned” and “will only approve projects if it concludes that they are safe for people and the environment, both now and in the future.”
With files from the Financial Post
Comment from Mark Mackenzie: I am flabbergasted as to how a facility can get away with calling a 7 storey high dump a ‘Near Surface Disposal Facility’. At 7 stories high, I invite any Chalk River executive to jump off and tell us how close they were to the surface…. There is no reason to jeopardize the incredible value of the Ottawa River for a nuclear dump within 1 kilometre. The CNSC is hardly an effective regulatory body as they merely rubber stamp whatever the profit oriented nuclear industry wants. SNC Lavelin ‘anything for a buck’ is the Canadian partner. Great group today bringing awareness to the importance of this issue. Three Green Party candidates – Angela Keller-Herzog, Lorraine Rekmans and Claude Bertrand were highly articulate about how the Ottawa River needs to be protected.
Comment from Lynn Jones: Someone should tell the NRCan spokesperson that CNSC was outed long ago as a “captured regulator” that is world renowned for nothing other than promoting the industry and the projects it is supposed to regulate. Even the international nuclear industry refers to Canada’s “benign regulatory environment” when touting Canada as the place to come and tap into the public purse to develop small nuclear reactors.
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.:-(