Co-written by Mark Mattson and Tristan Willis.
A raindrop, on its own, is no lake. But if enough raindrops fall a puddle will form, then a pond and eventually a lake. It’s hard to say how many raindrops are needed to form a lake, but it’s easy to spot the lake once it forms. The Greeks understood this, they called it the sorites (Greek for heap) paradox: a grain of sand is not a heap, but if you add another grain, and another, and another, eventually, you end up with a heap.
Ontario’s first commercial CANDU reactors began operating in Pickering in 1971. CANDU reactors must be supplied with uranium fuel bundles in order to generate electricity. And these fuel bundles need to be replaced as they decay. The ‘spent’ fuel bundles are often referred to as high-level waste; they are extremely radioactive and will remain so for tens of thousands of years.
Each day since the first Pickering reactor opened, Ontario has produced high-level waste. As more reactors were built, waste was produced at an increasing rate. And the plans for Pickering, Darlington, and Bruce will mean more waste will continue to accumulate on our freshwater shores for decades to come.
Currently, there are 18 commercial CANDU reactors operating in Ontario; 4 at Darlington, 6 at Pickering, and 8 at Bruce. In the last few years tens of billions of dollars have been budgeted to invest in more nuclear power generation with little public oversight of the costs or the environmental liabilities. Subject only to "notice and comment" proceedings before the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, decisions have been made to extend the life of the Pickering reactors, refurbish all 4 of Darlington’s reactors, build 2 new ones and overhaul all of the Bruce reactors. In effect, committing to larger amounts of high-level nuclear waste that will add to our huge pile until at least 2060 without ever discussing what to do with the waste.
For the past 30 years, our high-level waste has been stored above ground, next to the reactors that produce it. This may be convenient but it’s not acceptable. When Ontario’s reactors were built it was anticipated that high-level waste would remain on site, in wet storage, for 10-20 years before being put into dry storage and sent off to long term storage facility. Disturbingly, the nuclear industry has yet to settle on how, when or where a permanent storage facility for high-level waste will be built.
By 2010, there were over 7 million kgs of high-level waste at Darlington, 12 million kgs at Pickering, and over 18 million kgs at Bruce. That works out to a little over 1 kg of high-level waste for each Canadian. And it’s all being stored on site, above ground, right next to Lake Ontario and Lake Huron, the freshwater drinking supply for millions of Canadians and Americans who live in Great Lake cities and communities.
Why isn’t Canada’s ever-larger nuclear waste problem discussed more often; by government, the regulator, or the media? Unbelievably, we hear more from nuclear promoters trying to brand nuclear power as “green,” “sustainable,” and deserving of sustainable energy grants and subsidies.
The only thing “green” about nuclear is its low carbon footprint when compared to technologies like coal. But its prolific water use, toxic air by-products, water pollution, fish kills, and fuel processing dangers make it a false choice. The nuclear industry needs to stop fantasizing about being green and take responsibility for the millions of kilograms of toxic waste sitting next to the world’s most significant freshwater Lakes. The nuclear industry wants to keep producing more bundles of waste without acknowledging the giant heap they’ve already created. It’s a problem we’ll all end up paying for unless we force the industry and start talking about it today.