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Moving radioactive waste is risky beyond measure

The nuclear industry plans to transport highly radioactive waste over thousands of kilometers every day, for more than 40 years. We must demand better solutions.

For decades, the nuclear industry has been creating vast amounts of inconceivably dangerous radioactive waste from nuclear reactors, the infamous reactor cores that are the prime concern in nuclear disasters. 

Currently, there are more than 76 million kilograms of this spent fuel cooling and decaying on the grounds of nuclear power plants in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick. This waste will remain deadly for hundreds of thousands of years – longer than the Great Lakes have existed, longer than human beings have walked the Earth. 

Canada isn’t the only country struggling with a radioactive waste problem. No country has found an acceptable, long-term solution for highly radioactive waste.

In Canada, the process is led by the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), an entity created by the provincial utilities that made and “own” the waste. 

The NWMO proposes to bury the spent fuel in a very deep hole called a Deep Geological Repository (DGR), and it is in the final stages of a decades-long process to pick a “willing host community.” The last two potential communities remaining on its list are Teeswater (South Bruce) in southern Ontario and a site in the heart of Treaty 3 territory near Ignace, Ontario, 290 kms northwest of Thunder Bay.

A map of the two sites under consideration for hosting a deep geological repository (DGR)

Transporting highly radioactive waste from the nuclear power stations to a permanent DGR in either of these communities may be the most dangerous and controversial aspect of the NWMO plan.

The deadly nature of the waste greatly complicates the logistics of transporting it over thousands of kilometers from current storage to the final disposal site. Upon arrival at the DGR, the waste will have to be repackaged by robots on the surface. The NWMO proposes to handle one shipment per day to avoid having radioactive waste sitting on the surface until the robots can get to it. This means that it will take more than 40 years to move the stockpiled waste.

According to the latest Transportation Plan from the NWMO, each of these daily shipments will be made in conventional tractor-trailers, escorted by armed guards, through highly populated communities. The NWMO is also considering the option of transporting the waste by rail for parts of the journey. In previous transportation plans, the NWMO has suggested that the waste could be transported via ships on the Great Lakes. In other words, everything is on the table.

We need better policies in Canada.

The federal government is currently seeking public feedback on its new draft policy for Radioactive Waste Management and Decommissioning. We have until April 2nd to have our voices heard.

The government’s proposed changes could have a profound effect on how the nuclear industry deals with the spent fuel, as well as the mountains of slightly less deadly radioactive waste it has accumulated. But the draft changes proposed so far fall drastically short of what is needed to protect our health, our water, and our future.

The policy must clearly address how impacted communities will be consulted, informed, and protected. And most importantly, it must commit to allowing communities to refuse to take the risks asked of them. We must not compound the errors of the past by allowing the disposal or abandonment of this accumulated waste to impact future generations.

Please take a moment to tell the government we need a better policy in Canada. Read and sign our letter now.