Nuclear waste can be highly toxic and last generations. This is not disputed.
But nuclear waste management has come a long way since the mid-20th Century, and today is serviced with effective, evidence-based solutions. The challenge is not so much one of science and technology. Rather, it is public engagement, consultations and genuine dialogue between the public and the experts.
The public is justified in its concern for nuclear waste. No question. These concerns about nuclear waste are why the industry is subject to such stringent regulations. It’s why management and workers take their compliance requirements so seriously.
The nuclear industry follows a hierarchy of short-term, long-term and permanent storage approaches. These approaches are based on waste’s varying rates of radioactive decay—some taking 100 years to decay while others last thousands of years.
This hierarchy of storage is based on the best science available. It is not infallible but it is a vast improvement over practices that took place in previous decades. Waste produced during and immediately after the Second World War—what we today call legacy waste—was sometimes disposed with less rigour since regulatory oversight was not fully developed. For example, early experiments in nuclear energy at the Chalk River Laboratories west of Ottawa, in the 1940s and ’50s, led to some contaminated soil.
The contrast between how nuclear waste was handled, then and now, is like night and day. Today, regulations are stringent and practices cautious. Yet, within public perception, the haphazard approaches of the past are easily conflated with the rigorous, effective practices of the present.
Early in our century, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Canada (NWMO) was established to look at managing Canada’s used nuclear fuel. The NWMO held a series of public consultations and came back with two recommendations:
1) Waste should be retrievable: The organization concluded that technology could conceivably turn today’s nuclear waste into tomorrow’s resource, or that new methods might be found for safely using it or destroying it.
2) Deep geologic disposal is viable: Uranium is mined from geological areas in which the material has sat undisturbed for millions of years. The NWMO concluded that if the waste can be returned to similarly stable geological areas, it can be stored safely until it decays.
The challenge now lies in identifying hosting communities in geologically suitable locations, allowing for long-term disposal that is socially acceptable, technically sound and environmentally responsible. The entire process will be subject to strict regulatory oversight to ensure that it is done correctly.
Through meaningful dialogue and extensive public consultation and communication, acceptable and safe locations can be found. It is vital that we listen to public concerns and share the evidence we have for safe storage solutions. This dialogue should involve communities where waste could be stored as well as any downstream communities that have concerns.
Two-way discussions are essential to informing the community about how waste is managed and risks minimized. Community members need to share their concerns and have their questions answered. Such a dialogue is essential to gaining necessary community support and establishing awareness about storage plans.
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