Nuclear waste versus time/money waste: which is worse? An international exercise in comic-book posturing

An interesting exchange of diplomatic letters between the U.S. State of Michigan and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission on the matter of the proposed underground nuclear waste repository on the Canadian side of Lake Huron highlights the concern on the American side over the issue of nuclear waste in general. The Michigan government apparently feels there is some possibility of radioactivity migrating across the lake from the Bruce Peninsula and doing harm to the Michigan side; otherwise why would the state senate spend its valuable time drafting the resolution (which looks to be about 700 words). You can view the exchange of letters, and Michigan senate resolution 58, here.

What we see when we choose energy sources other than nuclear. Lobbies that oppose nuclear energy don’t want us to see the risks posed by the energy sources that they are paid to promote. But those risks exist nevertheless.

In terms of credible reality, how likely is it that anything dangerous can seep through the 1.2 kilometers of rock from the proposed repository into the water of the east shore of Lake Huron and then migrate across to Michigan in concentrations high enough to cause harm to anyone or anything?

To put it mildly, not likely at all. How does stuff spontaneously move upwards, against the force of gravity, through 1.2 kilometers of rock? Outside of a volcano forming in a zone with no volcanic activity, I cannot think of a scenario where this happens. But assume it does. What then? Well, Lake Huron contains 850 cubic miles (3,543 cubic kilometers) of water. How much stuff would have to enter the lake on the east side and migrate the 100 some-odd miles across to the west side before water levels on the west shore registered dangerous amounts? A lot.

The proposed repository, called the Deep Geological Repository, or DGR, will contain only low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste. The CNSC categorizes low- and intermediate level waste in the following ways:

  • Intermediate-level radioactive waste: material containing large amounts of radioactive material that requires some form of isolation.
  • Low-level radioactive waste: the least hazardous material, which contains low levels of nuclear substance like cleaning materials used inside a nuclear facility. This waste requires little or no isolation.

In other words, some of the stuff that OPG proposes to bury under 1.2 kilometers of rock, across from 100 miles (160 kilometers) of water, is stuff that requires “some form of isolation.”

I should point out that a few inches of concrete are more than sufficient to provide “some form of isolation.” In other words, any modern commercial building, properly sealed, would be sufficient to form a radiation barrier between intermediate-level waste and the outside world.

In other words, OPG could store all of its low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste in any properly secured downtown building, without causing any harm to anybody or anything. If a catastrophe were to occur, such as a fire or earthquake, which breached the perimeter of the building, then humans nearby would be exposed to about the same level of risk they are exposed to when there is a fire or earthquake involving any other building. We happily live with the risk of fiberglass insulation burning and emitting dangerous nanoparticles. My home town of Ottawa experienced yesterday a fire at a facility that makes fiberglass insulation (one of my employers when I was putting myself through university); as far as I know no nearby residences were evacuated.

On this basis, I would say that 1.2 kilometers of deep rock is more than adequate to protect humans and the environment from whatever small dangers this waste poses. In fact, I would submit that 1.2 kilometers of rock is huge overkill.

For this issue to have pinged the radar of a state legislature representing a jurisdiction across 100 miles of water to the point where legislators have deigned to bother not only their federal senate but also my national nuclear regulator (not to mention other Canadian and Ontario government officials) fills me with green jealousy. I mean, my home province of Ontario has problems. Too many of my fellow Ontarians are unemployed, too many have inadequate housing, some don’t even have proper access to potable water. Our infrastructure is crumbling, and we are in debt. Now, I may not totally agree with the way my elected representatives are tackling these problems; in fact, as any reader of this blog can tell, I often strongly disagree with the way they are tackling Ontario’s problems, and especially Ontario’s energy problems. But I cannot deny that they are tackling them.

Michigan, however, appears to have solved all of its problems. That is why I am so jealous. How else could one explain the utter waste of time, and (Michigan) taxpayer money, that went into the drafting of Michigan Senate Resolution 58? There is absolutely no threat from OPG’s DGR, which will be 100 miles of water and 1.2 kilometers of rock away from Michigan’s Lake Huron shore. This is clearly obvious to anyone who bothers to spend fifteen seconds pondering the question.

For years I have laboured under the obviously wrong belief that Michigan is beset with problems very similar to, even worse than, Ontario’s. I watch a lot of American TV, and follow American news. Clearly, I have been misinformed.

I often wonder what my life would be like if I had no problems. I only hope that should I ever achieve such a state, I do not waste my precious time with such comic-book nonsense.

The Michigan state legislature has obviously gone along with some vocal constituencies who want to block any commercial nuclear development. These constituencies, if they are anything like their counterparts in Ontario, are actively seeking to expand the market for natural gas, a carbon-belching fossil fuel and nuclear’s greatest competitor in the post-coal power markets.

Well, didn’t a pipeline carrying fossil fuel and running through Michigan recently spring a leak, causing untold and real environmental damage? And isn’t natural gas, the anti-nuclear lobby’s favourite fossil fuel, carried in pipelines? And wouldn’t an expansion of the natural gas market necessitate more natural gas pipelines, thereby increasing the risks of another leak in Michigan?

Perhaps the Michigan state legislators should ponder those questions. After all, they deal with real, proven risks.

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10 years ago

100 miles of water is nothing.

According to this article, Canada already has a problem with radioactive tritium in its water in Vancouver.

And since there is NO safe dose of radiation, and humans need fresh water to survive, putting nuclear waste near any water source is not an intelligent solution.

“Nuclear Radiation: There is NO Safe Dose”

Ron Hartlen
10 years ago

A Public that is poorly informed, technically-illiterate and has been deliberately-misled into fearing everything, is a greater risk than any technical risk. What would the Public, collectively, have to say about all this?
1) You can’t put it underground
2) You can’t transport it to somewhere else, and
3) You can’t keep it at the site.
So then Public: what would you suggest? Hold hands and sing songs?

10 years ago

It makes better press for the pols if they talk about Ontario than if they talk about the money wasted bailing out the lazy, thieving, worthless officials and general population of Detroit.

10 years ago

Please read this book: “Radiation and Reason, The impact of Science on a culture of fear” by Wade Allison.
Professor Allison says we can take up to 10 rems per month, a little more than 1000 times the present “legal” limit. The old limit was 5 rems/lifetime. A single dose of 800 rems could kill you, but if you have time to recover between doses of 10 rems, no problem. It is like donating blood: You see “4 gallon donor” stickers on cars. You know they didn’t give 4 gallons all at once. There is a threshold just over 10 rems/month. You are getting .35 rems/year NATURAL background radiation right where you are right now if you are where I am.

Radiation workers have a career limit of 5 rems/lifetime. Divide 5 rems by your present Natural Background Radiation. For Americans, Natural Background Radiation is at least .35 rems/year. Our Natural Background Radiation uses up our 5 rems/lifetime by the time we are 14 years old.

Natural Background Radiation is radiation that was always there, 1000 years ago, a million years ago, etc. Natural Background Radiation comes from the rocks in the ground and from exploding stars thousands of light years away. All rocks contain uranium. Radon gas is a decay product of uranium.