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Climate Change and Used Nuclear Fuel Management 

Duane Pendergast, Wednesday, March 23, 2005 


I participated in the preparation of the National Climate Change Process Technology Issue Table Options Report[1].  Informal polling of my colleagues on the Table brought me firmly to the conclusion that uncertainty over the disposition of used fuel really is one of the most important barriers to the use of nuclear energy to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.  These generally well informed people were not very aware of the technology available to evaluate and establish means to deal with used fuel.  A discussion of “barriers” to nuclear fission is covered in Appendix 4[2] of that report. It recommends that some $5 million annual funding be provided over the short term to develop alternative used fuel management concepts. A large funding commitment building up to some $500 million annually over five years to develop other climate change technology was also identified[3].  

Following publication of the Technology Issue Table Options Report, the Sustainable Development Technology (SDTC) Foundation was established. It was announced[4] by Graham Campbell, one of the Co-Chairs of the Technology Issue Table, and has reached a level of funding roughly commensurate with the recommendations of the Table. SDTC "supports the development and demonstration of clean technologies which provide solutions to issues of climate change, clean air, water quality and soil"

On April 25 2001 the Nuclear Fuel Waste Act was introduced to parliament. It was passed on June 13, 2002. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) was established per its provisions shortly thereafter.  Perhaps the recommendation from the Technology Issue Table for funding study of used fuel alternatives was not totally co-incidental. The NWMO is acting on its national mandate to review the status of used nuclear fuel and recommend a way forward.  

The NWMO has taken some unique initiatives to establish an open and transparent approach to involving stakeholders and members of the Canadian public. One way for the public to participate is to provide written submissions commenting on the ongoing discussion which is available on the NWMO website[5]. Submissions are posted to add to the discussion there. I have read much of that material and have made some submissions. 

Computare Commentary  

The primary goal of the NWMO is to establish the way forward for management of used nuclear fuel. Many background and synthesis discussion documents were commissioned, prepared and posted. Members of the public and stakeholders have been polled and interactive discussions with selected participants have been undertaken. The input from this discussion with Canadians has been documented and published on the website. Initially there was little interest or mandate to consider the benefits of nuclear energy in an overall context and the focus was on the management of used fuel. However, there is an interesting trend developing which indicates that the Canadian public is beginning to show interest in reusing and recycling nuclear “wastes”. They are concerned with their need for energy and the possibility of reducing the amount of waste to be dealt with. They are recommending that flexibility and adaptability be maintained in the approach reccomended to make the potential energy derivable from used fuel available for future generations. The NWMO discussion papers are moving toward accommodating such an approach in their planning of the way forward. Computare’s comments have focused primarily on those aspects of the discussion related to energy supply and climate change. 

Discussion Document 1 and “Ethics of High Level Nuclear Waste Disposal in Canada 

This discussion paper, prepared by the NWMO, and one of the background papers contrast the narrow focus of the NWMO mandate with a wider evaluation scope suggested by Professor Peter Timmerman. Computare summarizes the questions raised by the Professor on a single page. His questions raise the thought that used nuclear fuel and the hazards it presents should be evaluated in a much larger context. His words could be taken to imply that we should be considering future energy benefits and dangers from other hazards such as, for example, climate change in the nature of warming or possibly even the onset of an ice age.  

Guiding Concepts: 1-1 Sustainable Development and Nuclear Waste 

Computare’s comment on this document, and complementary commissioned commentary from Robert Morrison, focuses on the need for continuing supplies of energy to sustain development. Nuclear fuel management, global energy supply, and sustainable development are strongly linked. 

Guiding Concepts: 1-7 Drawing on Aboriginal Wisdom 

Several of the background papers provide extensive overstated commentary on the need to protect humanity from nuclear fuel waste from hundreds of thousands to a million years. Some suggest that human and environmental values projected far to the future should not be discounted.  These fatuous comments are apparently made without conscious thinking of the fundamental and rational need for life to focus on the present. Earth's northern hemisphere was struggling with an ice age for most of the last hundred thousand years. There are many other possibilities for personal disaster and forthcoming widespread global catastrophes ranging from disease to asteroid impacts, global warming or maybe another ice age. That is why we live for the present and do reasonably discount the value of the future environment and humanity.  

The paper on aboriginal wisdom provided a breath of fresh air with the suggestion humanity should look just seven generations ahead. Computare concluded that “the NWMO will come to full appreciation of this seven generation traditional wisdom as progress is made toward the recommendations expected of it by November 2005”.


Discussion Document 1 – Supplementary Comment re James Lovelock and Gaia 

A short submission from Computare points out the great and sometimes overstated emphasis on environmental protection in Discussion Paper 1 and references a statement from James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia hypotheses. Dr. Lovelock notes  that;

“Nuclear power, although potentially harmful to people, is a negligible danger to the planet. Natural ecosystems can stand levels of continuous radiation that would be intolerable in a city. The land around the failed Chernobyl power station was evacuated because its high radiation intensity made it unsafe for people, but this radioactive land is now rich in wildlife, much more so than neighboring populated areas. We call the ash from nuclear power nuclear waste and worry about its safe disposal. I wonder if instead we should use it as an incorruptible guardian of the beautiful places of the Earth. Who would dare cut down a forest in which was the storage place of nuclear ash?

Such is the extent of nuclear anxiety that even scientists seem to forget our planet's radioactive history.” 

Dr. Lovelock is very concerned with climate change and believes nuclear energy is about the only option available to provide an adequate energy  alternative to fossil fuels. No doubt his comment re the use of nuclear fuel to protect forests is some what tongue in cheek and may seem shocking and uncaring to some. Taken overall, his comment gives pause for serious reflection on the near stifling concern expressed in many of the documents on the NWMO website with protecting humans and the environment from any exposure at all to radiation from used fuel.  

National Dialogue on Values 

The NWMO has sought to talk to Canadians who have no vested interest for or against nuclear energy technology. Nearly five hundred were selected by a quasi random process and involved in one day seminars. Computare provided a lengthy assessment of the reported results. Reading between the lines of the report suggests that the facilitators and reporters likely led the participants with a distorted view of Canadian energy needs and the nature of the hazard from nuclear waste. Still, the common sense of the citizens came through. They urged that the chosen approach to managing used fuel should consider the possibility of reusing and recycling it for future energy and other needs.  

Discussion Document 2: Understanding the Choices 

The latest discussion document from NWMO indicates better understanding of the role of nuclear energy as an energy provider and more appreciation of the need for energy by our society. It is also  forward looking with respect to the potential to establish processes to take advantage of radioactive materials as an energy source as knowledge and need develops. The emphasis on maintaining adaptability with the approach taken so that future generations can take all advantage of nuclear technology is prudent. It seems the NWMO is evolving toward recommendations which will provide adequate isolation of radioactive materials while establishing and maintaining a basis for bounteous long term sustainable energy from nuclear resources. Computare's comment is available here.

Summary (March 23, 2005)

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization is making progress on establishing an approach to nuclear waste management which is understood and accepted by Canadians as a necessary part of providing the energy which will continue to be needed to sustain a large and viable human population. Sources of greenhouse gas free energy seem particularly important in these times as we grapple with a potential need to control atmospheric greenhouse gas levels in the face of global warming. Perhaps we will face even greater energy needs and challenges should the next few centuries or millennia see the onset of another ice age. It is interesting that the past million years on earth – the time period said to be of interest for used fuel management – has seen the earth cycle through several.

Epilogue (December 11, 2005)

I thought I had completed this project last March 23. Then I received a nice letter, dated May 18, 2005, from Elizabeth Dowdeswell, the President of the Nuclear Waste Management Organization. She included a copy of the draft final report, "Choosing a Way Forward", and inspired me to one more review.

That final review has been available on the NWMO website since late August and is also posted here for your convenience.

The final report, "Choosing a Way Forward" was completed by NWMO on schedule in November. I'm still a little disappointed that the study team continues to downplay  the common sense wisdom on human behavior and risk assessment embodied in the seven generation look ahead philosophy credited to Canada's aboriginals. The report continues with excessive reference to dangers a million years in the future. All Canadians, by virtue of their well known and understandable behavior with respect to the future,  place much more value on the near future than on some ill defined and unknowable far future state of the world.

Still, the study team has defined seven generations as 175 years and identifies that time period as a key time phase in the adaptive management approach they are taking. Perhaps that recognition subtly trumps  other references in the report to millions of years of danger. The study team has also taken note of submissions from several pointing out the energy which can be derived from the spent fuel may be needed in the future. They do acknowledge that consideration of that was outside their mandate and have moved on to commendably complete their mandate.

I point out, in my final submission that the existing spent CANDU could be worth as much as a trillion dollars within seven generations. I wish the NWMO well in their stewardship of this resource over the coming decades. (DRP 05/12/11)

[1] Campbell, Graham and Clive Willis, Co-Chairs, Government of Canada, “Technology Issues Table: Enhancing Technology Innovation for Mitigating Greenhouse Gas Emissions”, 10 December 1999.
[2] Loc. Cit. 1, Appendix 4, Nuclear Fission, pp. A54
[3] Loc. Cit.  1, Table 6, Summary of Options and Funding Profiles, pp. A61

[4] Campbell, Graham, Press Release, Office of Energy Research and Development, Natural Resources Canada, February 2, 2001

[5] Nuclear Waste Management Organization, www.nwmo.ca


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