Are there lessons for Canada in Japan’s nuclear near-meltdown?

As communities line up for a shot at storing Canada’s nuclear waste, the industry’s opponents point to the Fukushima Daiichi plant


Bruce Fidler is the mayor of Creighton, Sask., a town of about 1,500 people on the border with Manitoba. “It’s pretty much a one industry community,” he says. “Mining is the largest employer we’ve got.” If Fidler gets his way, that could one day change: this town could become a nuclear waste dump.

The nuclear reactors used in Canada are somewhat different from those used in Japan, but the way we handle spent nuclear fuel—which is what was under threat of melting down at the Fukushima Daiichi plant—is very similar. Canada’s nuclear power plants are fuelled by uranium pellets sealed inside zirconium tubes, and then arranged into bundles. (Ours aren’t as long as the ones used in Japan; in Canada, they’re about the size and shape of a fireplace log.) Once they’re used up, these bundles, which are still highly radioactive, are stored at the reactor site in large, water-filled pools, where they can stay for up to ten years. They’re then transferred to massive silos or vaults, where they keep cooling down.

“The spent fuel pools can contain more toxic material than the reactor itself,” says Tom Adams, an energy and environmental advisor. Used nuclear fuel remains a health risk for “many hundreds of thousands of years,” according to the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), an industry-funded group created in 2002 to manage Canada’s nuclear waste.

Canada has relied on nuclear power for over 40 years. In that time, we’ve produced over two million used fuel bundles, which—if stacked like cordwood—could fill six hockey rinks from the ice surface to the top of the boards, according to the NWMO. Like some other nations, including the U.S., Canada is working towards a more long-term plan: burying these used nuclear fuel bundles, about 85,000 of which are produced here each year, in a massive dump 500 metres underground.

Since May 2010, when the site selection process was officially launched, eight communities have passed a resolution asking to learn more about what it would mean to host such a facility. Three of these communities are in Saskatchewan, and five in Ontario, says Michael Krizanc of the NWMO. Hosting a nuclear dump would offer several benefits, Krizanc says: “It’s $16 to 24 billion over the life of the project, involving thousands of jobs for 60 to 100 years or more. This will have a significant impact on any community, and indeed any province, it’s located in.” Community interest is key, since this project won’t be imposed on anyone, he insists. “We are not going to go out saying, it looks like you’ve got nice rock here, do you mind if we drill a few holes?”

There are still several questions around how such a facility would work: for example, how nuclear waste would be transported across the country to the site. Just bringing in the existing fuel could take 30 years, Krizanc says. The dump will likely be expandable, so it can store all of Canada’s nuclear waste for the foreseeable future. And it would be designed in such a way that these fuel bundles could be retrieved if need be.

A site should be selected around 2020, and the dump could be operational by as early as 2035. Fidler feels hopeful about what a project could bring to his community. “Japan hasn’t changed our feelings about it,” he says. He’s hoping Creighton’s residents look at the proposal “with an open mind.”

For Brennain Lloyd, who lives in North Bay, Ont., the crisis in Japan raises serious concerns about how Canada stores its nuclear waste—and the NWMO’s plan doesn’t comfort her. “Events in Japan have illustrated how big a concern this used fuel is,” says Lloyd, project coordinator for Northwatch, an Ontario-based environmental group. “And now the NWMO is looking for some mythical rock to bury it in.”

In Ontario, where nuclear power accounts for about 50 per cent of the province’s energy supply, two new reactors have been proposed for Darlington, just outside Toronto. Northwatch was one of several groups that petitioned for public hearings into these reactors be delayed, at least until some lessons from Japan could be absorbed. (The three-week hearings are proceeding as planned.) For Lloyd, used nuclear fuel is a big part of the concern. “In the Darlington, they don’t really have a plan for the waste,” she says. Meanwhile, in Quebec, one of two other provinces—along with New Brunswick—to host nuclear plants, opposition parties are pushing for the province’s one reactor to be closed, to be eventually replaced with renewable energy.

Adams agrees that we shouldn’t rush ahead with plans to expand nuclear power. “I think we should not be making any decisions about our own nuclear industry,” he says. “We ought to focus on understanding what’s going on in Japan.” Depending on what lessons emerge, safety standards could be overhauled, which could affect anything from operating practices to plant design. For example, after the Three Mile Island disaster, “major changes were made throughout the industry and design upgrades had to be put into place,” says Gerry Frappier, Directoral General of the Directorate of Assessment and Analysis for the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC). And after a major blackout in 2003, updates had to be made to the Pickering nuclear plant, too. “I can’t understand the rationale for pursuing an inquiry into the environmental assessment of these reactors,” Adams says, “when we haven’t had a chance to digest what’s going on with the most informative reactor safety experience ever.”

“Right now, we’re very confident about the safety of our fleet,” Frappier says. Still, as a result of the earthquake in Japan, the CNSC has requested that all major nuclear facilities in Canada review their safety. “It’s normal practice whenever an event occurs in the nuclear industry,” he says.

In the wake of events of Japan, maybe it’s no surprise public opinion has turned against nuclear power: one new U.S. poll shows that 39 per cent are currently in favour of promoting increased nuclear power, compared to 47 per cent last October. It’s impossible to predict how those numbers will change as the situation in Japan stabilizes, but as provinces continue to pursue nuclear power—and to seek out safe, reliable energy sources—it’s an increasingly pressing question.


Are there lessons for Canada in Japan’s nuclear near-meltdown?

  1. I think we should definitely learn from the Japanese experience. For 50 years we've held off on finding more suitable long-term storage because no one wants that waste in their backyard. So did the Japanese; in lieu of finding a better temporary storage facility, they decided to store it in an open pool, in an earthquake zone, next to the ocean.

    Perhaps we learn from their experience and find the stomach to make better preparations for storing our spent fuel.

  2. they decided to store it in an open pool, in an earthquake zone, next to the ocean

    None of this is problematic in and of itself. The bigger problem is the height at which the reactor design stores the fuel and the resultant difficulties in getting water flow restored and/or replenished to these tanks if the pumps can't run. Which is why you need to truck in high rise fire engines, office tower construction site cement pumps, and helicopter drops to try and refill the pools.

    The placement of those tanks is driven by the way the reactor is fuelled and the logistical difficulties of moving fresh, highly radioactive, extremely hot fuel containers long distances. If you want to address those, you need to attack the core design of the reactor so as to ensure your short term storage can be accessible and easily attended to in times of emergency.

    • Are you honestly saying that storing spent fuel in an open pool is a better solution than finding a better temporary stopgap measure? Really?

      Your comment on height is akin to the General preparing for the last war; you have no idea which natural disaster may be next. Darlington's pools are almost at ground level, but if there's a major radioactive leak that won't do them any good.

      People are so focused on finding the most absolutely perfect final storage solution that they are absolutely blind to the immediate threat faced by our current storage situation. If you can't go from point A to point B directly, perhaps we could at least find a place in the middle that provides us with a bit more of a safety margin.

      • You realize that when Dave refers to the height of the open pools that contain the spent fuel rods, he is not relating that height to the height of tsunami wave.

        Perhaps you've already checked out this information from the NYTimes site…it's the March 16, How They Work video.

        • I do realize that, EeeOar; he was referencing the difficulty in getting water to that height; I was referencing that the height of the pool is irrelevant when radiation makes it impossible to work in the vicinity.

          Dealing with hot waste is always going to be risky, no question, and pools next to the reactor will always be necessary for the initial time period after it is removed from the reactor. However, my point is that the problem is significantly compounded by the fact that they've also still got 40 years of "cold" waste in the same pool because they've neglected to find a more suitable long-term storage facility for it. All of that older spent fuel, while not nearly as dangerous as the newer waste fuel, is still contributing to the heat problem in the pools…and the level of danger/radiation when the water level drops.

          • OK, good that you knew.

            So maybe you can answer a question for me: in the CANDU reactors, where are the cooling pools located relative to the reactor cores?

            And are you sure that there is/was 40 years worth of spent fuel in the pools at Fukushima? I thought that after 10 years or so, the spent fuel was moved "out back", or is that only with the CANDU design, or even there does spent fuel actually stay in the pools for 40 years.

            What are your thoughts on saving spent fuel until reprocessing becomes more cost effective rather than burying it?

          • It's been 12 years since I've been in the Darlington facility, and I only saw the spent fuel pools twice, unfortunately. However, my recollection is that they are to the north of the containment building, just outside of it, and near ground level. They are quite deep, of course, and connected by some sort of underwater robotic rail system that does connect through to the containment facility. CANDU reactors have been moving their older spent fuel–at least in Pickering–to dry storage facilities that are still located on site, but away from the reactor/turbine buildings.

            Regarding Fukushima, I was incorrect as I was of the belief that all fuel was stored in those pools. The fuel is stored in pools, but two-thirds is in shared pool away from the containment building; only one-third is in the pools above the containment vessels.

            So I learnt something new today. Thanks!

          • Can you share how/why etc you were inside the Darlington facility? Just wondering…

            Regarding learning & related….one of the 'frustrations' of modern life, I suppose…..there is just so much to know about so many different topics. It's one of the main reasons I visit this board.

          • I was at the facility for a semester-long student co-op, located in the adjacent office building. While I got to learn a fair bit about the plant, I was rarely permitted to cross the turnstiles between the office building and into the actual power plant, hence the reason I didn't get to see the pools very often. I just started counting in my head and realized that it was at least 15 years ago that I was there. Probably more. I'm getting old.

            Apparently it was bad form for someone to allow their student to become irradiated, so it was like pulling teeth to get someone to escort me. Pansies.

            And I agree with your comment about learning; one could literally go insane trying to know everything about our world. I should also clarify that I don't consider myself any more educated on this subject than the average joe; I don't know the first thing about nuclear physics.

          • Pansies. ROFL

            Learning: I work in heavy industry, so I feel that I have some additional knowledge (ie a bit above the average joe), but I still find that I have all sorts of unanswered questions regarding Fukushima.

            Whether we like it or not, whether we trust them or not, our modern world relies heavily on experts.

  3. Reading about worldwide debates after the accidents in Japan, I reality more and more how the view on the spent fuel pool changes. Nobody really calculated the rise that arise from spent fuel in account. Most countries don't seen tom have a storage solution after more than 40 years of using nuclear power. Fukushima will probably change politics about it.

    I am doing a survey on political effect and media after Fukushima. You might want to take part:

  4. An interesting column from George Monbiot of The Guardian(?). Up until two weeks ago George was nuclear-neutral.