As Co-coordinator of the Huron Grey Bruce Citizens Committee on Nuclear Waste I was invited by the Sr. Communications Advisor for the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) to tour the Western Waste Management Facility at Bruce Power. I eagerly accepted the offer and visited the site a while ago.
My first stop was at the Visitors’ Center at Bruce Power. When you enter this building the first thing you see is a beautiful mural representing life in Bruce County. Included in this mural are images depicting the First Nations influence, Scottish and marine heritage, natural resources and agricultural life of Bruce County. But what I found curious and rather out-of-place in the upper right hand corner was the image of a nuclear power plant. I understand that since the 60’s Bruce Power has been a major employer in the area, but it looked absurd set among all the beautiful images. It reminded me of that game “what doesn’t belong here.”
The Visitors’ Center is an interesting place to visit. It is filled with interactive displays about nuclear energy. It also has a scaled down model of the Bruce Power/OPG site placed on a table by a window overlooking the entire location. From there the view of Lake Huron is spectacular.
I was met by an official from the NWMO. Next we were off to the Western Waste Management Facility. But before we could proceed I needed a security pass. What I saw next was unnerving.
Since 9/11 security has changed dramatically at Bruce Power. One week before my visit I was asked to submit personal information such as my name, address and phone number. At the gate we were met by guards in full paramilitary gear wearing bullet proof vests carrying automatic rifles. These guards are referred to as SWAT teams. They undergo specialized training and often compete in international competitions. According to the US National SWAT championships website, in 2011 the Bruce Power SWAT team came first in competitions. http://www.nationalswatchampionships.com/results.php
I got out of the car and went into the station. I handed in my driver’s licence to be copied and was given a security pass. While we were inside guards searched the van including the trunk.
We arrived at the Incinerator Facility and I was signed in again. Security is extremely tight there which while comforting is at the same time disturbing. I had been given instructions to wear natural fibres so that radon could not adhere to my clothing. Then I was given a hard hat, safety glasses and they made sure I was not chewing gum or eating any candy. Eating food is strictly prohibited in the facility and is a reportable offense because radiation can be transmitted on food. Everyone carried a radiation level detector but me, however I was told stay close to the tour guide and hers’ would suffice. At the end of each day they put the detectors in a shelf on the wall and they are monitored regularly.
Then we went through a radiation detector. This is done upon entering and exiting every area. It is a screen that you must stand close to and lay your hands on while being perfectly still for ten seconds. You then turn around and repeat the process. If it announces “clean!” you are then free to go to the next area. This happens all day long as you move about the building.
According to the Western Waste Management Facility website, “OPG’s Western Waste Management Facility stores all the low and intermediate level radioactive waste from OPG-owned or operated reactors. Low and intermediate level waste produced at Pickering, Darlington and the Bruce nuclear generating stations is transported by truck to the WWMF for interim storage.|”
So what is low and intermediate level radioactive waste? Well from what I saw it could be just about anything. If it entered a building and was in contact with radiation it had to be incinerated. It could me a mop head, packaging from a piece of computer equipment, a gown, gloves, or any material.
Low level waste is received at the WWMF’s Waste Volume Reduction Building where it may be processed through incineration or compaction to reduce its volume. Following volume reduction, low level waste is placed in above ground concrete warehouse-like structures called Low Level Storage Buildings. Intermediate level waste, because of its radiological and physical properties, is not processed for volume reduction.
But low and intermediate waste comes here from Pickering and has for 40 years. I was told that there has never been an incident transporting the nuclear waste in all these years. That is an incredible safety record in my opinion. That means that for 40 years every transport that has been made has been perfect. They have had absolutely no problems. No tires have blown. The weather has been cooperative. There has never been an incident of driver error. Every vehicle has run perfectly on the roads for 40 years without one mechanical problem. There has never been an incident where a truck has been involved in a multi vehicle accident. This is remarkable. I would like them to hire these drivers and use their vehicles to transport our children to school. That would be a comfort to parents.
But back to the incinerator….We visited the incinerator control room. The incinerator is completely computerized and there are safety checks built into the system to monitor the exhaust for toxins and radiation.
I was introduced to the incinerator operator that day but I am not sure he knew who I was representing. He explained the operation of the computers to me then he started to tell me what he didn’t like about his job. He explained that he used to work in Northern Ontario in the timber industry. He could not understand why double checks are needed in the incinerator at NWMO. As he said “I don’t think the taxpayers would be very happy if they knew how their money is being wasted.” I said “Oh they want you to double check things for them.” It was clear that this employee was not committed to the “safe, responsible management” of nuclear waste. He either did not understand the dangers posed by the by-products of the incineration process or he just didn’t care. Either way, if the double checks that are built into the system were not already there I wonder if this employee would do them himself? I was surprised that he made that statement in front of his supervisors as they were clearly uncomfortable with his words.
We finished up inside the incinerator building and then proceeded outside where I was invited to tour the Dry Storage Facility where the used nuclear fuel bundles are stored. This is not a regular part of the WWMF tour, however I was anxious to see the building.
On the way to the Dry Storage Facility a few items of interest were pointed out to me. Things that cannot be incinerated but that are low level waste are labelled and placed in secure containers. They are stored in large warehouses on the site. If these items are needed in the future they can be located due to the careful labelling system.
Intermediate level waste cannot be incinerated. It is stored in steel lined concrete containers in the ground on site. According to the WWMF website there is the equivalent of about 3 and half Olympic sized swimming pools of intermediate nuclear waste in storage.
When you walk around the site all the grounds are asphalt. This is to limit the transfer of radiation indoors on mud and sand. There is also a small vegetable test garden. Staff grow beans, tomatoes, radishes, lettuce, carrots, beets, and cucumbers a part of an environmental monitoring program. They are regularly tested for toxins and radiation to check the health of the incinerator.
Then we entered the Western Used Fuel Dry Storage Facility and that is where things became very serious. Upon entry to the building you must empty your pockets and put your purse if you have one into a metal tray. Everything is visually checked by SWAT personnel. You then proceed through a metal detector. Your security pass is taken and they give you a special security pass to enter the storage facility. You must first do a full body radiation check. Then you scan your security pass on the wall.
Once inside what you see is like something from the X Files. I expected to have Mulder greet me, but he wasn’t there. Neither was the Smoking Man. But there were a lot of SWAT personnel.
I was given an explanation about how the bundles are stored. The bundles are taken out of the reactor and cooled in water. A container holding 384 used fuel bundles arrives at the facility. It is then welded shut very securely (10 times). This is all done under the security of armed guards. The container is labelled and it is fit so that it is under constant surveillance by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) based in Vienna until they are placed into permanent storage.
There are thousands of these containers….as far as the eye can see. The building isn’t heated but it is warm inside. My tour guide asked me if I wanted to feel the outside of the container and I did. It was warm to touch.
While in storage the IAEA or Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) perform random inspections of the DSC’s and associated records to ensure continuing compliance with the safeguard program standards. There is a Nuclear Non-proliferation treaty in place and that is why every bundle must be accounted for at all times. To read about the treaty check out this website. http://www.international.gc.ca/arms-armes/nuclear-nucleaire/npt-tnp.aspx?view=d
We left the facility and gathered up our security passes. Then we drove past the building where the nuclear steam generators are being stored. We had lunch and talked about the Deep Geologic Repository that is being considered.
When they took the core samples of the proposed site of the DGR they used an engineering firm that was ironically from my home town Capreol. I viewed the core samples and they were amazing. It is astonishing to see samples of the earth from so many kilometers beneath the surface and to know that they are ancient. In spite of why they were taken I was impressed with the work.
My day was through and I thanked my tour guides. I have lived here for many years and had no idea that this graveyard of nuclear waste was just down the road and so close to the lake that I love.
This nuclear dump poses many potential problems. An extreme weather event or a technological accident could result in a catastrophe. And this is in our backyard and has been for some time. I was fortunate to have a firsthand view of it. I realize that many of our fellow citizens make their living producing the energy that creates this toxic by product. But this is a fact. And we must deal with it.
Citizens are complaining about a wind turbine at the CAW centre outside of Port Elgin and the local board of education is contemplating commissioning a health study about the effects of wind turbines. Yet a heap of toxic waste gets bigger by the day at a nuclear generating station down the shoreline and is putting the community and the environment at risk. This is far more dangerous than any wind turbine is and ever will be.
I appreciate the people that are dedicated to watching over this facility and storing these dangerous materials. But we must stop making it. It is simply too dangerous to people and to the environment. We have to find a better way to produce energy. There are many creative people working in the nuclear industry. They should be able to find green alternatives. In the meantime, the toxic nuclear waste just keeps piling up.