One of the most bizarre and contradictory features of the DGR as it currently stands is that the terms of the proposal render the DGR totally unnecessary. The current DGR proposal claims that it is mostly to house low-level waste from the Bruce plant’s operations – mops, filing cabinets… items that have seen minimal contact with actual radioactivity.
But if this were true, then the whole DGR is completely unnecessary – and might be the hugest boondoggle in Canada’s history. Low-level waste of the type described in the proposal is currently dealt with just fine by incinerating it and storing it in canisters for ten years, after which its radioactivity has decayed to the point where it is undetectable. Not only is there adequate space above-ground to store this waste, but the ten-year time-frame of processing the waste means that it is not piling up faster than it should be decommissioned. In other words, building a huge, multi-billion dollar underground facility to house it for thousands and thousands of years is a complete and utter waste of money and human capacity.
On the other hand, the volume of intermediate level waste produced by the Bruce complex is small enough that storing it is not going to be a problem for quite a while. It’s true that there is no dedicated permanent storage for it right now, but (unless there’s something extremely serious that OPG isn’t telling us) its current storage situation is not problematic, and it would be completely dwarfed by the volume of the DGR.
Historically, however, the original rationale for the DGR was that it would house high level waste. As with some other facilities, it seems to have been given a regulatory wink and nod that it’s okay to reclassify this high level waste as intermediate level [read more here], as well as serve as a storage facility for all sorts of nuclear waste from all over Canada.
This sort of bait-and-switch tactic is also characteristic of other underground storage facilities around the world. When the Asse (Germany) underground nuclear waste storage facility was investigated, all sorts of unauthorized additions were discovered [read more here]. We’ve already noted how the Forsmark facility seems to already be de-icing its access passageway with heat generated from stored waste that is supposed to be intermediate or low level. And nobody has much of an idea of what’s at the bottom of the Dounreay nuclear waste storage shaft, except for the radioactive sodium that keeps reacting with the seawater filling the shaft, thus releasing the hydrogen that caused their explosion (they have installed venting to remove the hydrogen before it reaches explosive concentrations again).
The truth is, once the facility is granted its license, it’s just really hard for a regulatory agency to keep tabs on what it actually stores there – even assuming the agency has the slightest interest in doing so.
But this also raises the questions of whether the proposed DGR, which truly is designed for low and intermediate level waste, is really capable of handling the high level waste that they plan to store there – and make no mistake that in spite of the intermediate level label, the description that OPG provides of the waste that it plans to store includes waste that is classified as high level waste virtually everywhere else in the world.
At the end of the day, it’s really hard to know how OPG plans to use this facility, because so little of what they say about that makes any sense. But it’s hard to think of any use that isn’t either (a) a total waste of taxpayer money or (b) storage of dangerous materials for which it is not designed.