420 meters beneath the ground, microscopic particles of minerals hung in the damp air creating an eerie glow from the distant lights. Standing alone in the dark, damp granite tunnels of the Underground Research Lab near Lac Du Bonnet Manitoba, a person could easily imagine a dragon or balrog emerging from around the corner.
The summer I worked at URL, the 420 level was just being developed, but the 240 level (240 meters beneath the surface) was a full-fledged research lab with rooms, doors and a big round hole in the floor where a canister of spent nuclear fuel would hypothetically reside. It was initially thought that the granite shield in this part of the country would be ideal for storing spent nuclear fuel (a.k.a. nuclear waste), which is currently stored in less-than-ideal circumstances up on the surface of the planet where you and I live. As it turned out, however, water seepage though fractures in the rock was problematic enough to mothball those plans.
Now, apparently, the search is on for a new location for a nuclear waste repository, and one of the top contenders is Creighton SK, just west of the Manitoba border. Unsurprisingly, some people appear to be overreacting.
This is interesting to me, because it is precisely what I wrote about in a paper for my Master’s degree in economics: the divergence between public perceptions of risks associated with the transportation and storage of high level nuclear waste, and the reality of those risks. I explained it using theories of behavior under conditions of uncertainty and the economics of irrationality. It was all very fascinating (… I wrote with dry sarcasm.)
I won’t get into that here, but what I will do is clear up a couple of misconceptions, because based on a recent Winnipeg Sun story, serious misconceptions are still out there.
As reported by the Sun, the prospect of spent nuclear fuel being transported across Manitoba prompted Donovan Carter, a former city councillor, to publicly display his gross ignorance of the issue:
“A severe accident on a highway or a railway, which causes a nuclear waste shipping container to rupture, then we are talking a high-level of radioactive activity … which kills instantly,” Carter warned, citing it would be at a disaster of a much larger scale than the Lac-Mégantic explosion.
I’m not sure if Carter is envisioning a Hiroshima-like nuclear detonation, or perhaps a toxic cloud of green radioactive gas spreading across the land, causing everybody it touches to erupt in agonizing blisters and extraneous eyeballs before collapsing to the ground and melting away into a pool of slime, but neither scenario is accurate.
Perhaps we should start by explaining what nuclear waste is. It is a solid, not a liquid or a gas. More specifically, it is a bundle of steel rods that look like this:
The rods contain cylindrical pellets made up of uranium, plutonium, and other by-products of the nuclear fission process. And yes, it is radioactive.
Will you die instantly if you should happen to come into contact with it? Well, if you somehow happened to come into contact with a spent fuel bundle the moment it is pulled out of the reactor, you would die and probably pretty quickly. Within the hour, perhaps. Luckily reactors are built such that people don’t have to manually handle radioactive fuel bundles.
Due to the exponential nature of radioactive decay, spent nuclear fuel “cools” (in a radiation sense) quickest when it is first created. This means that years, or even days afterwards it has already lost a good chunk of it’s radioactive potency. According to nuclear giant Cameco, after one year in storage, spent fuel has already lost 99% of it’s radioactivity.
Make no mistake: it is still very dangerous for a very long time. I would not recommend using a ten year old spent fuel bundle to roll out a tight muscle in your thigh, but would being in the vicinity of one kill you instantly as Carter suggests? No. That is an huge exaggeration.
That exaggeration presumes it is possible to be exposed to one in the first place. When nuclear waste is in dry storage above ground (it is normally stored in containment pools filled with water) it is kept in steel-lined concrete canisters that are 20 inches thick. If transported, it is done in similarly robust containers that are designed to withstand collisions with trains and anything else that may come along.
In the unlikely event that a canister were to “rupture” in an accident, how would the nuclear waste leak out? It is, as explained earlier, a bundle of steel rods. What might happen in that worst-case scenario is that water from a ditch or pond could seep into the container, become contaminated, and leak back out contaminating the environment in that area. This would indeed be a problem, but more on the scale of an oil truck accident — and much less likely.
Every country that uses nuclear power has a problem with nuclear waste. The problem is that nuclear waste is produced and needs to be stored or sequestered for hundreds of years. Above ground storage in containment pools or concrete canisters is a temporary solution. It is not something that is ideal for isolating dangerous material for centuries. Perhaps technology will be developed that will allow us to process or reuse the fuel to transform it into lower level nuclear material (read up on ‘breeder reactors’ if you’re interested) but in the interim we need to get it out of the way, and sticking it 1000m under ground in solid rock may be the best way to do that. But doing that will involve moving the material.
Transporting nuclear waste is not entirely risk free, but the risks are small and manageable. To suggest that it could result in a disaster “of a much larger scale than the Lac-Mégantic explosion” is foolish and unproductive. When I was standing deep underground in an excavated granite corridor imagining a dragon around the corner, I was still grounded in reality. Mr Donovan Carter, for one, is having much more difficulty separating imagination from reality.