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Pros and cons of storing nuclear waste near Great Lakes

Aug 18, 2017

A proposal by Ontario Power Generation to bury low- and medium-level nuclear waste less than a mile from Lake Huron.

U.S. officials want to block it. The Canadian government is considering the request.

We were expecting a decision any day, but the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency has asked Ontario Power Generation for more information about the nuclear waste dump. So another delay.

What is the risk posed by low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste?

Samuel Brinton is a nuclear engineer with the American Nuclear Society. He described low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste as, “everything else that isn’t necessarily the nuclear fuel going into and coming out of a nuclear reactor." 

That includes tools, cleaning material, protective suits and everything that has come into contact with radiation or a radioactive surface. 

Most of these materials fall into the low-level nuclear waste category. According to Brinton, the main types of intermediate-level nuclear waste include filters that clean water cooling a nuclear reactor, and pieces of the reactor itself after it's been decommissioned.

Because intermediate-level nuclear waste is more radioactive than low-level nuclear waste, more precautions need to be taken, Brinton said. It will also stay radioactive longer.

High-level nuclear waste, which is the used nuclear fuel itself, can cause immediate harm to human beings who come into close contact with it.

In contrast, exposure to low-level nuclear waste is only dangerous over long periods of time.

“Low-level waste won’t necessarily give you cancer right away,” Brinton said. “However, long periods of engagement with low-level waste could obviously be extremely harmful to your health. That’s why we manage it. Radiation does damage to biological materials, and so we want to make sure that that radiation is properly protected.”

Brinton said low-level waste generally becomes harmless after 100 to 200 years, although according to Ontario Power Generation, some of the intermediate-level nuclear waste stored in the facility will remain radioactive for more than 100,000 years.

As for the controversial location of the storage facility, Brinton said the geology of the site appeared to be stable. A high level of salinity at the depth where the waste will be buried suggests that water from Lake Huron, or other sources, has not reached that area, as any water would have absorbed the salt.

Nonetheless, Brinton said his fellow nuclear engineers need to do a better job of listening to the concerns of the public.

"We will see," he said. "If this is not a safe location, the community and the government would be held accountable for moving it to a more appropriate location. "

Listen above to our full interview with nuclear engineer Samuel Brinton.

*This story was originally broadcast on April 7, 2017.

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