Pickering’s nuclear waste problem just got bigger

Some 740,000 fuel bundles containing radioactive isotopes are sitting at Pickering, the legacy of close to 50 years of nuclear operations, and there is nowhere for the waste to go

When you’ve dug yourself into a world of trouble, the first step is to stop digging, the old saying goes. It’s a lesson Ontario’s nuclear industry would do well to learn.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) wrapped up hearings last week to consider a 10-year extension of operations of the aging six-reactor Pickering Nuclear Generating Station. 

The Ontario Clean Air Alliance, Canadian Environmental Law Association and Greenpeace all urged the CNSC to reject Ontario Power Generation’s request to extend the station’s operating licence to 2024. The plant is scheduled to close August 31.

Greenpeace’s senior energy analyst Shawn-Patrick Stensil likened OPG’s application to a request “to expose millions of people within the (Greater Toronto Area) to the possibility of a nuclear accident.” 

But while concerns over safety and emergency preparedness dominated the submissions of critics, OPG’s plans for nuclear-waste fuel bundles already being stored at the Pickering site has received comparatively little attention.

Some 740,000 radioactive fuel bundles are sitting at Pickering, the legacy of close to 50 years of nuclear operations. 

Placed end to end, the half-metre long bundles would stretch from Kingston to St. Catharines. More than half of these are sitting in open water pools. The others are in conventional commercial storage buildings beside the Lake Ontario facility.

This is not some benign waste product. The bundles contain materials that can release radioactive isotopes that can penetrate the human body. They also contain an enormous amount of plutonium, enough to construct more than 11,000 nuclear warheads. 

But the biggest problem is that there is absolutely nowhere for this waste to go. 

Half a century after the start of nuclear power operations in Canada, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization is still on the hunt for a “willing host” community to accept the thousands of tonnes of spent fuel that will remain highly radioactive for thousands of years. 

They certainly haven’t found such a community on the Bruce Peninsula, where another nuclear mess is waiting for clean-up

Furious opposition to OPG’s plan to bury radioactive waste near the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station on Lake Huron has been mounted by people on both sides of the border. 

This means there is little chance the waste currently being stored at Pickering is going anywhere in the next 60 to 100 years. 

While OPG is planning to expand its conventional storage facilities so that Pickering can continue to operate well beyond 2024, it has no plans to build concrete-reinforced, attack resistant vaults aboveground, as environmentalists are recommending, to protect Pickering’s waste. 

Those, like Premier Ford, who support keeping Pickering running need to explain how they plan to safeguard the thousands of tonnes of potentially deadly waste already stored at the site and why it is a good idea to continue adding more. 

Angela Bischoff is director of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance.

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