Documentary searches for hope in nuclear waste

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Hope isn’t a word most people associate with high-level radioactive nuclear waste.

But an upcoming documentary on its storage in Ontario takes an optimistic perspective on a depressing subject. It’s called Nuclear Hope.

 “Hope can have a very positive meaning – we hope for a better future, we hope for a better life, all of those things,” said the independent film’s co-director, Colin Scheyen. “Hope can also be misguided. Without the right knowledge behind it, hope can be very shortsighted.

“Hope is a perfect word to use toward nuclear energy.”

 Scheyen’s film explores the science and controversy surrounding the proposed deep underground storage of most of Canada’s high-level radioactive waste. That’s the extremely dangerous used fuel from a nuclear reactor – the most radioactive of nuclear waste.

The film hits select theaters and possibly a television network late fall, Scheyen said. It features interviews with nuclear experts, scientists, government officials and residents of nine areas that expressed interest in storing the waste.

The goal is to venture beyond the hot rhetoric to create real, informed discussion — which Scheyen said is nonexistent.

“No matter if you are pro-nuclear or if you are anti-nuclear, you at least have to come to grips with the fact that you have to do something about the waste,” Scheyen said.

“And maybe the best way to bridge this gap between people who are so vehemently against the nuclear industry and those so vehemently in favor of it is by coming to grips with how to deal with that waste.”

About 15 percent of Canada's electricity is produced by nuclear plants. At 15,000 kWh each, Canadians annually use more electricity per person  than almost any other country, according to the  World Nuclear Association.  Image taken from Nuclear Hope

About 15 percent of Canada’s electricity is produced by nuclear plants. At 15,000 kWh each, Canadians annually use more electricity per person than almost any other country, according to the World Nuclear Association. Image: Nuclear Hope

A nuclear controversy

Canadian nuclear waste has been much in the news. In May, a Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission panel approved storing low and intermediate level waste created by Ontario Power Generation, a utility that supplies more than half of the province’s electricity. That waste would be stored underground at the utility’s Bruce Nuclear Site near Kindcardine, Ontario. The choice is controversial because it is close to Lake Huron and in a basin that provides drinking water for millions of people. The plan is open for public comment until September.

Low and intermediate-level radioactive waste includes gloves, protective clothing, machine parts and laboratory equipment — anything disposable that comes into contact with radioactive materials. It accounts for 97 percent of the world’s nuclear waste, but only about 5 percent of total radioactivity.

But Nuclear Hope is about the high-level waste managed by the Nuclear Waste Management Organization, a federal agency created in 2002. It is much more dangerous and takes significantly longer to decay.

What does Canada do with extremely radioactive high-level waste for hundreds of thousands of years? The question has implications for international relations and the future of the Great Lakes.

 If you’re expecting Nuclear Hope to have an answer, you will be disappointed.

“I think that answer is much bigger than any one person or any one film,” Scheyen said. “It would be really arrogant for me to say I have the answer to the problem.”

Unlike other documentaries on the same subject, Nuclear Hope doesn’t choose sides. Scheyen and his co-director, Alberta filmmaker Shane Smith, didn’t look to argue a point — they just want you to.

The nuclear debate is clouded by misinformation, said Scheyen, also a writer and an educator.

“I think the anti-nuclear movement has been very good at using a lot of fear,” he said. “And, I will say, some of it is totally for the right reasons, and some of it for, I think, counter-effective reasons.

“And in the same way, the (nuclear) industry itself has told a lot of half truths, things that don’t necessarily give the full picture, but paint the industry in a positive way.”

A search for volunteers

Construction of the repository is more than a decade away. The federal agency is just beginning to choose a location. Nine areas are under consideration — all in Ontario, the home of most of Canada’s nuclear production. That’s down from an initial 22.

Nuclear Map

Nine areas in Ontario have expressed interest in learning what it means to host a nuclear storage site. Image: Nuclear Waste Management Organization

The candidate communities were not picked by the agency but volunteered to learn more about housing the waste, said Michael Krizanc, the Nuclear Waste Management Organizations communications manager.

“This community has to determine what it wants for its future, and whether this is the vision it has for itself,” Krizanc said.

But who would welcome a future with nuclear waste beneath their feet?

Housing the waste has its perks like more jobs, better jobs and near-guaranteed economic security and growth, Krizanc said.

“Some communities believe they are uniquely-positioned because they have a history of mining,” he said. “Other communities see this as something they can do on behalf of Canada.”

If all goes well, a site will be chosen within seven to 10 years.

Along with community approval, the proximity to aquifers and to mineral deposits that could encourage mining that threaten the facility’s structure are weighed. Rock stability for storage some 1,640 feet underground is considered.

This diagram gives an idea of what the proposed deep geological repository could look like, and how waste would be stored within it.  Image courtesy of the Nuclear Waste Management Organization

This diagram gives an idea of what the proposed deep geological repository could look like, and how waste would be stored within it. Image: Nuclear Waste Management Organization

Construction would follow several years of testing.

The agency has to demonstrate the project’s safety to regulatory authorities, the host community and to all Canadians, Krizanc said. Communities are allowed to withdraw at any time.

Film trilogy planned

 Nuclear Hope is to be the first of three films about the project. The second will cover the repository community and its residents when it is chosen. The third will be created many years after the repository is built. It will document how the waste site changes the community.

 In the three years it took to produce Nuclear Hope, staff on the independent project that he and Smith funded never included more than six or seven people at a time, Scheyen said.

It takes a staggering amount of time before the radioactivity in nuclear waste falls to safe levels. Plutonium takes about a quarter of a million years to fully decay — about 12,000 human generations, according to the Nuclear Information and Resources Service. The repositories to house these materials have to be built to last just as long.

“It poses the question, how do you communicate with people who do not yet exist?” Scheyen said.

“It’s like as one gets older and has children, one begins to realize, it’s not just about me anymore, it’s about this child. I think that nuclear waste is like that in a lot of ways, because it forces us to not think about what is the best solution for us, but really, what is the best solution for people 1,000, 100,000 years from now.”

Can today’s solution become tomorrow’s problem? 

 Groups like Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump worry that nuclear storage has serious environmental ramifications, especially so close to the Great Lakes. Beverly Fernandez, spokesperson for the activist group, said the risk of contamination is too big to take.

Scheyen filmed many scenes, including this one, in a decommissioned U.S. repository in New Mexico.  Image: Nuclear Hope

Scheyen filmed many scenes, including this one, in a decommissioned U.S. repository in New Mexico. Image: Nuclear Hope

Activist groups are circulating petitions and proposals that would ban the underground waste sites in the Great Lakes basin.

Even very short exposure to high-level nuclear waste is fatal to people. Indirect exposure is known to cause cancer and genetic mutations.

Today, the waste is stored within large, water-filled concrete pods reinforced with steel lining and standing on the surface of nuclear power sites. The water within the pods cools the waste and shields its radiation. The used fuel must be stored this way for at least 40 years before it is cool enough to move to permanent storage, according to the World Nuclear Association, an international organization that promotes peaceful nuclear energy.

“The material has been stored safely above ground for 40 years,” Fernandez said. “They can re-encase it in hardened concrete flasks that are bomb-proof, and that way they can be monitored for leaks.”

But the deep repositories are generally agreed to be the best storage for high-level waste, according to the World Nuclear Association. The storage pools at nuclear plants are not an appropriate long-term option, said Wolfgang Bauer, a theoretical physicist and university-distinguished professor in Michigan State University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.

“You have to get rid of that waste,” Bauer said. “You cannot simply store it in the pods at the power plants. Eventually there accumulates too much of it. So, you have to have a long term solution.”

Most developed countries harness nuclear energy, but few have a permanent storage solution for its waste. Many countries have just begun discussing it. Others, like Finland and Germany, are building storage sites.

“The debate itself is, do we put radioactive material underground? Is that the best decision we can make?” Scheyen said. “Even the best geologist will say, you can never 100 percent guarantee that it’s going to work.”

As an Ontario-native, Scheyen said he feels responsible for the problem and its

Ontario's wilderness is a contrast to the waste that could eventually lie beneath it.  Image: Nuclear Hope

Ontario’s wilderness is a contrast to the waste that could eventually lie beneath it. Image: Nuclear Hope


“I think this is an issue that really challenges our capacity to be responsible for what we’ve created,” he said. If we’re going to do this, we better make sure that everyone’s involved, and we’d better make sure that we’re doing it for the absolute right reasons.”

Nuclear Hope is being shown around the world this summer in places such as Montreal, Pakistan and Rio de Janeiro. Before the commercial debut, Scheyen hopes to screen it in the nine communities interested in hosting the site.

“That, to me, is a great opportunity to get the people in these communities talking, to actually create a room, an open space, where people can come together and have open and frank discussions about this,” he said.

As for the repository itself?

“All of this comes down to hope,” Scheyen said. “Hope for the best, hope that this is really the best solution. Because, when we’re dealing with something (for) hundreds of thousands of years, that’s all we’re really left with.

“We are only at the very beginning of this story.”

6 thoughts on “Documentary searches for hope in nuclear waste

  1. Tom Wassmer, you can by the book “Plentiful Energy: The Story of the Integral Fast Reactor” or the complete book here in pdf format It is also important to keep in mind reliable 7×24 electricity is required for refrigeration, sewage treatment, water pumps and purification, hospitals, air conditioning, lights in cities, and now desalination, etc some high energy requirements. Wind and solar are needed, but they are incapable of providing these electricity requirements, Energy Returned on Energy Invested is critical Also, mining requirements need to be considered for wind and solar as well Also current state of electricity generation needs to be considered, for example, USA Also “Why Power Density Matters”

  2. Asteroid Miner – This sounds too good to be true. No waste, no proliferation thread, all safe… If you can backup your statements with sources and citations I will reconsider my current anti-nuclear opinion – although – you still have the damned low and intermediate waste issue as materials will come into contact with radiation and become radioactive – and you have a very energy-consuming and dirty mining business on the production side. To me it still sounds that clean renewables: solar and wind are the best solution we have.

  3. A common misconception about NWMO is that it is a Canadian federal agency. The organization describes itself as “established in 2002 in accordance with the Nuclear Fuel Waste Act to assume responsibility for long-term management of Canada’s used nuclear fuel”. This is an example of the industry half truths mentioned in the article. In fact, NWMO is a partnership between Ontario Power Generation, Hydro Québec and New Brunswick Power and thus not really a public agency and certainly not at arms length from the industry. The organization is in a conflict of interest between responsibility towards the public and future generations, and loyalty to its shareholders.

  4. There is no such thing as nuclear waste. It is perfectly good fuel that is being wasted. France already recycles spent nuclear fuel. In the 1960s, we in the US recycled spent nuclear fuel.  We don’t recycle nuclear fuel now for two reasons:

    1. It is valuable and people steal it. The place it went that it wasn’t supposed to go to was Israel. This happened in a small town near Pittsburgh, PA circa 1970. A company called Numec was in the business of reprocessing nuclear fuel. [I almost took a job there in 1968, designing a nuclear battery for a heart pacemaker.]

    2. Virgin uranium is so cheap that it is cheaper than recycling. This will change eventually, which is why we keep the spent fuel where we can reach it. The US possesses a lot of MOX fuel made from the plutonium removed from bombs. MOX is essentially free fuel since it was paid for by the process of un-making bombs.

    Please read this Book: “Plentiful Energy, The Story of the Integral Fast Reactor” by Charles E. Till and Yoon Il Chang, 2011

    Per Till & Chang:
    The Integral Fast Reactor [IFR] uses “nuclear waste” as fuel and gets 100 times as much energy out of a pound of uranium as the Generation 2 reactors we are using now. The IFR is safer than the Generation 2 reactors, which are safer by far than coal.

    The IFR is meltdown-proof. The IFR can be turned up and down quickly and repeatably. The IFR uses metal fuel that is recycled in a system that makes it difficult to get plutonium239 out of the fuel. To make a good plutonium bomb, you must have almost pure plutonium239. 7% plutonium240 and higher isotopes or other actinides will spoil the bomb. IFR Pyro process recycled fuel is useless for bomb making.

    Elements with more protons than uranium are called trans-uranics alias actinides. Actinides are the part of so-called nuclear “waste” that makes it stay radioactive for a long time. The IFR uses up the actinides as fuel. Actinides include plutonium, neptunium, americium, curium, berkelium, californium, einsteinium, fermium, mendelevium, nobelium and all of the other “synthetic” elements.

    The IFR is the ideal source of electricity since it does not make CO2. The resultant “waste” is very small, will decay in only 300 years and is useful in medicine.

    The following countries either already recycle spent fuel or are experimenting with a recycling process or both:
    France, Japan Russia, China, India, South Korea.
    The US recycled spent fuel in the 1960s.

    Purex process: The old one. Separates out plutonium, but does not separate the isotopes of plutonium. Any bomb made with this plutonium from a powerplant reactor would fizzle. You can’t make a plutonium bomb with more than 7% Pu240.

    Pyro process: Leaves plutonium mixed with uranium and trans-uranic elements. [All fissionable elements are kept together with uranium]
    Other processes [wet] are also under development.

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