Overview of Low and Intermediate Waste
May 26, 2015
Written for Canadian Community News by Mike Sterling
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The Joint Review Panel Recommendation
"The Panel is of the view that the sooner the waste is isolated from the surface environment the better. The Panel notes the importance of reducing and, if appropriate, reusing and recycling the waste. However, it recognizes that current technologies to alter the waste to render it no longer hazardous are limited, particularly for intermediate level waste that contains radionuclides with longer half-lives. The Panel concludes that the likelihood and consequences of an event resulting in the release of radionuclides from surface storage are greater than they would be for a DGR. The Panel is of the view that the risk of waiting until technologies are available to eliminate the hazards associated with longer-lived radionuclides outweighs the benefits."
The Joint Review Panel Report after many months of study states in their report that we must go forward sooner rather than later with a DGR for low and intermediate waste. A DGR is the best solution because it is the SAFEST alternative including doing nothing. The Panel concluded categorically and stated concisely:
"The Panel concludes that placing the L&ILW in an appropriately located underground repository would pose a lower risk to human health and the environment than surface storage."
Considering the engineering and social aspects, the JRP shows that SAFETY and reducing risk was paramount in their considerations.
They studied the social issues extensively. The proponent, Ontario Power Generation (OPG), had covered those issues, but will require continuing outreach. The social issues complex as they may be are tied inexorably to the SAFETY issues.
The 432 page report is 'sprinkled' with recommendations that relate to both the social and engineering aspects of the project roll-out. This makes the report an active document and a guideline.
The object of these guides will be closely monitored by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) as well as garner attention from other international regulatory agencies.
Before we go into the JRP's environmental assessment in a forthcoming article, we will review what radioactive waste is and how it is categorized. Surprisingly, after all these months, waste categories and the subject of the DGR for low and intermediate waste still is little understood and often misidentified in the public sector especially by the anti-nuclear organizations which are numerous.
Starting with basics we can review the short video below about radiation itself. It's an excellent basic look and is a jumping off point for understanding the DGR purpose.
What is radiation? A Video
As you can gather from the above video, radiation occurs naturally and we are exposed to it every day of our lives. We are not immune to its long term effects, no matter the origin. For example, we all know the effects of sun damage on the human body.
The panel considered radioactive waste produced by Canada's CANDU reactors. That waste is the subject of the JRP findings.
Unless we work at a nuclear power plant or research facility, we are unlikely to encounter radioactive waste first hand, but we deal with some form of it all the time. For example smoke detectors do not need special disposal, but utilize a form of radioactivity to do their job.
Many of us encounter medical radiation, either personally or in the lives of friends and family. Dental radiation from x-rays has to be shielded from the technicians.
Medical waste often has a fast rate of decay or a short half life and yet still it must be considered and regulated especially in shipment. Over a million shipments of medical radioactive material take place yearly in North America.
What kind of waste does a CANDU reactor produce? Canada, using international standards characterizes their waste as follows:
1. Used fuel rods that have reached the end of their productive life without special re-cycling using forms of breeder reactors.
This type of waste remains radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. It begins its retirement as spent fuel in a deep water pool for 6 to 10 years and then is placed in the canisters shown below at the Bruce site. The building where the waste is housed is shown below. It is about the size of a Super Wal-Mart and of similar construction as you can see in the picture.
This type of waste is NOT the subject of the JRP study and recommendations. High level waste will not be stored in the proposed DGR.
2. Another source of radiaiton is called Intermediate Level Waste (ILW) and it consists of parts of the reactor that have been replaced. For example valves, huge steam boilers and such things as tools that have become significantly radioactive fall into the ILW category. This type of waste can remain radioactive for time periods that require long term planning and care.
Steam Generator is ILW or Intermediate Level Waste. Note the proximity of the workers.
3. Finally in the course of day to day plant operations such items as rags, clothing, mops and other tools become radioactive and this is called Low level waste. (LLW) These sources of radioactivity must be measured, logged and eventually stored.
There are vast quantities of this type of waste at the Northern Waste Management site at the Bruce. Some of it comes from the Bruce operations and some is trucked in from Pickering and Darlington power plants.
Low-level radioactive waste contains material that is more radioactive than clearance levels and exemption quantities allow. This type of waste loses most or all of its radioactivity within hundreds of years.
Some misdirected people have trivialized this waste. They would not be pleased with a garment woven from the waste material wrapped around them on a cold winter night. I'm sure they would object.
Nor would they like this type of waste in our landfills or part of the rain runoff to the lake in case of a violent storm.
Therefore, OPG, NWMO, CNSC and Bruce Power carefully attend to this waste to keep it out of the biosphere. It is measured, logged and stored.
Why? It's SAFER to do so. What do they propose long term? OPG proposes a DGR. Why? It is the SAFEST method of storage now known. It is the most conservative approach. It is the method of least process complications. The JRP concurs in OPG's recommendations.
Low Level Waste being sorted in preparation for storage
Note that part of the low level waste consists of ashes resulting from the incineration of certain types of low level waste. The volume reduction of about 60:1 is achieved in waste that can be incinerated at the NWMO site at the Bruce. But, these ashes and filters then must be stored as low level waste to be moved to the DGR. Why? It is SAFER.
The purpose of the DGR on the NWMO site is the SAFE long term storage of Low and Intermediate waste, not high level waste.
The low and intermediate waste must be sorted, logged, contained and held in a DGR according to the panel findings. The Joint Review Panel considered other options at the hearings. They were rejected because of SAFETY and process complications. The simpler the process long term, the SAFER.
The 'do nothing' alternative was rejected too because the DGR was SAFER in all categories according to the JRP.
Ironically, the do nothing alternative leads to more complications in the future. To accept the JRP findings is to line up squarely on the side of SAFETY.
The Social and SAFETY issues are intimately bound together. To reject JRP's findings requires a reason not considered or presented to the panel. What is that reason? If it exists, why did the anti-side not present it in the very long and open hearings?
For Qualifications of the JRP see below:
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Tuesday, May 26, 2015