DGR Can we bet on a breakthrough in the near term?

Some Facts:

  • Ontario has 20 of Canada's 22 nuclear reactors

  • 80% of all electricity generating plants in Ontario will need to be refurbished or replaced in the next 15 to 20 years

  • 441 nuclear power reactors are operating in 30 countries

  • All the waste created by Canada's plants needs long term storage.

  • A properly designed DGR requires the use of standard engineering and not a scientific breakthrough.


What am I for and what I know

 I'm for the selection of the safest spot for DGRs based upon facts including all the risks for long term storage of nuclear waste.  It's too important an issue to be derailed.

Further, I don't care where it goes as long as it is the best site geologically and strategically with risk minimized.  There are no scientific breakthroughs required.


Written for Canadian Community News by Mike Sterling

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Much has been made by SRASOS and other anti-nuclear activists about waiting for scientists to achieve a breakthrough for disposal of spent nuclear fuel.  They say let's do nothing now and wait for science to come up with something new.   Let's examine what is meant by their wish.

Present Situation

We have all of Canada's high level waste needing to be disposed of as soon as possible.  There is a plan to do so and this entails the creation of a Deep Geologic Depository for low and intermediate waste and another for high level waste.  This is an engineering project that will use well known and tested engineering processes.  It does not depend upon breakthroughs of any kind. Ok, so maybe a social breakthrough on the meaning of stewardship.

No matter where it goes, it will be fought tooth and nail by the anti people.  It's a long process.  They are now opposing the low and intermediate site in Kincardine.

We have some members of SRASOS and outside activists wishing and waiting for a scientific breakthrough.  Isn't that surprising?  Some even are bold enough to suggest using Breeder Reactors or Fast Breeder Reactors to get rid of the waste.  I'd suggest they worry about the risk and the cost of that suggestion.  Also, ironically even after that we would need a DGR.

For so many reasons, BR are a bad solution.  If a BR project would go ahead now, I'd be dead set against it.  Hand me my sign to stick on my lawn, but let me select the colours and the wording.

BRs are way, way to risky and complicated.  Am I sure about an immanent scientific breakthrough now, in 10 years or 10,000 years that would make the waste disappear.  No, I can come up with no concrete reason to be so sure.  Here is why.

What is Research?

We are so used to statements like "Would you research this for me".  Usually this means.  Please look it up for me using known and trusted sources. Make a few phone calls.  That's not scientific research at all.  It is what it is. It's asking questions about facts.

Real research is very hard work and sometimes futile too.  There are many problems that have been known for ages, but have resisted solution.  Take for example the Navier-Stokes Equations that deal with the flow of liquids and gases past objects.  They may be used to model the weather, ocean currents, water flow in a pipe and air flow around a wing.  Want a quick $1,000,000 and fame?  Solve that problem.  Sponsor some smart people and put them on a tight deliver schedule  It would be worth billions for mankind, but don't bet on the results, cost or schedules.

Here is another example.  We all know many, many people with cancer, some terminal.  There are thousands of researchers working on cancer cures or abatement.  Lots of money is donated.  When will it be cured?  How are the researchers selected for dollar support.  Who knows? 

Would it help to put all the research money in one spot?  Let's say we put a research lab in London Ontario and put all cancer research money possible into building and staffing it leaving no money for obscure research.   Would it be successful and if so when?  Of course the answer is who knows?

Research success can come from any place and at any time.  The closer you get to the building blocks of the universe and life itself, the harder research gets.

Cancer Research and Nuclear Waste Disposal.  How are the possible breakthroughs related?

Why have we not gotten a cure for cancer?  The reasons are many, but the most important one is that a cure will involve dealing with the basic building blocks of life at a level close to the secret of the way cells are built and age.  Why do some cells fail to replicate properly?  How can research crack this puzzle?  When can we expect a solution?

Getting rid of nuclear waste with a magic solution is much like cancer research and just as complicated and maybe more.  We are dealing with the root principles of the universe and breakthroughs don't come easily.  It's just not at the atomic level, it's on the border and below where atomic theory joins up with quantum mechanics.

It's in a world that is hard to explain.  Normal rules of Newtonian physics don't work.  Einstein's general relativity does not integrate well with it either.  What is the unifying principle of all of nature?  Normal atomic physics does not work at that deep level.  So you want a breakthrough?  So does everybody

How Sad it Is

Wouldn't be nice to gather together all the experts from the Perimeter Institute, Harvard, MIT, Waterloo, and the Max Planck Institute and more?  We could give them money, lots of money.  We could give them a nice place to live here in Bruce County or down near Waterloo.  Yes we could.  Talk about the difficulty of doctor recruitment.  It would be child's play compared to getting the right people.

The only thing we could not give them is a schedule.  They could not give us one either.  We would stand there looking at each other and thinking:  What next?  In the mean time isn't it prudent to follow a very low risk solution that we have before us.  That solution is a DGR.  It is also cheaper, much cheaper than waiting.

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Ok, How do you know?

I worked in research organizations.  They  had tons of money, great offices, good people, great places to eat, the best of equipment and a management that put no restrictions on the researchers whatsoever.  Some were looking at the basis for the rules of the universe.  Others were far more mundane and just working on what interested them.

The organizations produced lots and lots of good things in all kinds of areas.  Successful research was done.  It was never done on a schedule that made any sense to the management, but they did not care, at that time they had money  to burn.  In fact they had to be reminded of the importance of a result all the time.

Later money got a bit tighter and management wanted to do what they called "Directed Research".  This  means they would direct good people to solve some problem that could make them money on a tight schedule.  Actung!  $olve this problem. 

Are you crazy Mr. Management.  That's not how it works.  You  should look instead for a very poor patent clerk in Switzerland.  He might have a good idea.  What was his name?  Albert something or other.

Now if you're talking about development of technology, we can give you a pretty good schedule, but basic research into the secrets of the universe?  Good luck!

I remember working with a very smart guy and commenting to him how neat his solution to a problem was.  He said:  "Who cares? Management will not understand it anyway"    He was a high strung guy and two days later he was dead.  Depression, work, lack of recognition, personal life,  I don't know?  The spark plugs of these good research groups are eccentric.

Guess what?  The success of such organizations went down like a rock and all the good people left to work in fields that interested them. Most did engineering and technology which is much easier to predict and manage. Silicon Valley attracted many, universities and government labs did too. 

Medical and other forms of research go on in high tech areas too.  Lots of great research was and is being done in strange places.  The troops do not like to be told what to think about and where to think about it.

Why do the management people make this mistake?   Why does SRASOS make the same mistake?

They do not understand what research is all about and they push in all the wrong directions.  It's not like designing a new smart phone.  That's what SRASOS is doing now.  Well intentioned?  I'm not sure any more. It is just another poorly thought out red herring. They are trying to herd cats or do nothing.

Lesson for Activists and SRASOS

Don't count on the solution to a very difficult problem that will satisfy you over the present DGR engineering solution. I know you won't trust the scientists anyway.

Will you bet on a solution that you can accept in the next 10 years, 25 years, 100 years, 10,000 years?  How about 250,000,000 years.  That's the goal and mandate given to NWMO. Do you have the same sense of stewardship over that time frame?

250,000 years is what nature dictates and it is the mandate of NWMO to achieve safety and cost objectives over that time frame.  It's an engineering problem.  NWMO wants to use standard engineering.  How come SRASOS and the activists would rather dream  up risky ideas or do nothing?

Oh no matter.  Most stewardships of the activists are very short.  We need to concentrate on a 250,000 year solution.  I think NWMO has one. 

Let them do their work.  Proven process, standards, risk analysis and standard engineering can be managed.  Basic research cannot be managed. 

Did anyone manage Crick and Watson to the solution to the mystery of DNA? Are you crazy? Linus Pauling even made a terrible mistake in that research arena. 

The management at the Cavandish Lab told Watson and Crick NOT to work on it.  So much for research insight and scheduling.  Your wish may come tomorrow.  Don't bet on it.  Way to risky.

If something comes along, let's welcome it and turn to experts to evaluate it.  Normal humans need experts That's better than giving strange deputations before Town Councils that make no sense at all.

For a detailed look at some of the opinions and solutions outlined above

DGR A Year and a little more in review Read More

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Monday, September 16, 2013