December 2006: Calling Premier McGuinty

Where will all of Ontario's nuclear waste be stored?
December 1, 2006

Ontarians will go to the polls next October to elect their provincial government.

If last September's provincial by-election in Toronto is any indication, energy policy and ethics will play a major role in the next election. Indeed, the new NDP MPP who won the by-election claims energy was the defining issue in that campaign.

It should come as no surprise that energy would break out from the pack of issues to dominate the campaign, outstripping health care, education, crime, and mud-slinging in this inner-city riding.

Since being elected in 2003, the McGuinty government has back-pedalled on its promise to phase out coal and committed to build new nuclear reactors, despite atomic power's 40-year history of high costs and poor performance.

Ontario's energy plan as proposed by the Dalton McGuinty government is a ratepayer-funded return to the failed policy initiatives of the 1970s. While other countries, such as Germany and Spain, are fighting climate change and phasing out their unreliable nuclear stations by shifting investment to cleaner and greener energy options, McGuinty's plan opts for spending more than $40 billion on nuclear power, effectively blocking any serious investment in green energy.

In the event that this was not controversial enough, Environment Minister Laurel Broten undertook to quietly change the law and had the energy plan exempted from an environmental assessment.

Nuclear generation is plagued with a myriad of problems: high costs, poor performance, and the looming fear of the unspeakable—a reactor meltdown or major accident.

And then there is the waste.

Electricity from nuclear power is generated when atoms from uranium bundles interact at high speed, creating heat that in turn creates steam released at high pressure to turn turbines. In the simplest of terms, nuclear generation can be described as the world's most expensive way to boil water.

Nuclear waste is the product of "spent" uranium bundles that can no longer produce adequate heat to boil the water and turn the turbines. The problem is: while these bundles can no longer turn turbines, they remain active and "hot" for a long time.

Nuclear waste created in a reactor today will remain radioactive and deadly poisonous for a million years. And to date there is no fail-safe method of safely storing nuclear waste.

This is where ethics come into the next campaign: Is it ethical for politicians to invest in nuclear power today when they don't know how to dispose of the deadly radioactive waste?

Is it ethical for any politician to support a plan that creates poisonous waste, if they are not willing to accept a storage facility in their own riding or community? If they are going to ask Ontarians to support their vision of a nuclear future, shouldn't they first tell us exactly where they plan to store the waste by-product?

If the McGuinty government proceeds with its planned nuclear expansion, it will double Ontario's current nuclear waste stockpile over the next two decades, creating an additional 30,000 tonnes of radioactive waste.

Currently, waste is stored at reactor sites. This has worked reasonably well for the past 50 years, but there are another 999,000-plus years to go. France is already experiencing serious problems with leaks at facilities in the Champagne region that are contaminating ground water.

The provincial government argues that nuclear waste disposal is a federal issue. Clearly, this is an abdication of responsibility by the province. But, more importantly, regardless of whose job it is to deal with the waste, is it ethical to produce these long-lived lethal wastes in the first place, when there is no known method to dispose of them safely?

As Ontario government leaders begins to position themselves for the next election, they will argue that they have no option but to go nuclear. Ironically, they will position it as the best option for the environment: they must replace coal to combat climate change, and, if not nuclear, the lights will go out in Ontario.

The "choice" framed by the government conveniently ignores its own research that a diverse mix of green and clean alternatives could replace coal and nuclear over the next 20 years.

Regardless of how they try to sell their nuclear plan in the next campaign, in order to be credible and indeed ethical, the provincial Liberals need to come clean with voters about where they will store the nuclear waste they plan to leave as a legacy for the province’s inhabitants--and they need to do it well before the next election.

(Bruce Cox is executive director of Greenpeace Canada.)