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WATER, ROCKS AND NUCLEAR WASTE

HOORAY! We hit water, and lots of it! At two hundred forty feet the pinkish gray
granite rock gave way to a reddish color and at two hundred and eighty feet our
well "came in." Water was being pumped from the hole at the rate of forty gallons
per minute, and had leveled off at a depth of sixteen feet from the surface. Our
eastern Manitoba household would have plenty of clean, cold water.

Could there be a veritable labyrinth of rivers and streams underground, running
cold and deep, through the ancient Pre-Cambrian rock of the Canadian Shield? The
strangest thought of all was that we had tampered with some of the deep secrets of
the world below us. Nature was permanently altered and had given to us one of her
most valued treasures. For that we were thankful.

While we were well drilling on our property, Atomic Energy of Canada, Ltd.,
(AECL), at its nearby nuclear research station, was conducting test drilling as a
prelude for an underground nuclear waste research laboratory (URL) in our
municipality. It’s officials initially insisted that the granite rock formation in
the area had “remarkably few cracks.” However, during the major excavation of the
URL during the early 1980's, an extensive water-bearing fracture zone was
encountered. Several cracks, including a large fracture resulted in the intake of
considerable amounts of ground water. requiring pumps to run continuously.

Probably the most descriptive statement about the wet condition of the URL came
from Walter Patterson, when he spoke at a 1986 nuclear waste conference in
Winnipeg. Trained in nuclear physics and residing in the UK, he was involved with
many aspects of nuclear technology for decades. He visited the URL underground
facility in as an advisor to a Select Environmental Committee of the British
Parliament. After the visit, the Parliamentarians asked his opinion of the
operation. Patterson told the conferees, that for the first time on the entire
Canadian trip, "I had to say I had not the faintest idea.. I do not know why they
are doing what they are doing: because if this is supposed to be research for an
underground repository for final disposal of spent fuel, everybody in the business
knows that the one thing you have to avoid is water -- and the place is soaking!
Absolutely soaking! Up to here (gesturing) in water!"

My comment to reporters after I visited the URL excavation was “if you plan to go
down into that hole, be sure to take your rain boots, an umbrella and a life raft.
When you think about nuclear waste going into that wet hole, it gives you the
chills.”

Over the ensuing years, our own personal well drilling experience in 1980 has
always been in the back of my mind whenever the subject of deep underground
“disposal” of irradiated fuel waste comes up. Common sense informs us that ground
water can eventually corrode waste canisters and carry lethal radioactive
substances into the environment above. Given the toxic nature and longevity of the
irradiated fuel wastes created by the operation of nuclear reactors, few would
disagree that the presence of groundwater presents a serious problem for the
integrity of an underground nuclear waste repository.

And, what about these lethal substances?

According to Wikipedia, “Certain radioactive elements (such as plutonium-239) in
‘spent’ fuel will remain hazardous to humans and other living beings for hundreds
of thousands of years. Other radioisotopes remain hazardous for millions of years.
Thus, these wastes must be shielded for centuries and isolated from the living
environment for millennia. Some elements, such as Iodine-131, have a short half-
life (around 8 days in this case) and thus they will cease to be a problem much
more quickly than other, longer-lived, decay products but their activity is much
greater initially.”

Hundreds of thousands and millions of years? It may be easier to wrap your mind
around the concept of a billion or trillion dollars!

In the U.S., Yucca Mountain, Nevada was chosen as the preferred site for an
irradiated nuclear fuel waste repository.

One of the reasons the Nevada location was originally selected was because of its
arid, desert location. Yucca Mountain (geologically, a tuff formation) would be
nice and dry. Or so it was thought.

The October 15, 1994 issue of the Las Vegas Sun, reported that “. . Radioactive
water from past nuclear testing has penetrated to layers below the proposed
storage site. Scientists studying Yucca Mountain as a place to store the nation's
high-level nuclear waste have found evidence that surface water from the days of
atmospheric nuclear testing probably seeped to layers beneath the proposed
repository site,” The Department of Energy spokesman, Greg Cook was reported as
saying ". . . the finding is obviously of concern to us because ground water
intrusion within the repository would make it more difficult to contain for 10,000
years the 77,000 tons of spent fuel from commercial nuclear reactors that the
government wants to entomb there."

Carl Johnson, a geologist for the State of Nevada Nuclear Projects Agency, which
monitors the federal Yucca Mountain studies, said that ". . . the finding means
'at least one very fast pathway' exists for ground water to move from the surface
to below the repository site." Johnson said that ". . . samples collected from a
bore hole on the southeast side of the repository site, 100 miles northwest of Las
Vegas, contained tritium and chlorine-36 isotopes, residuals from nuclear weapons
testing. That means the water seeped from the surface to a depth of 1,450 feet
within the 49 years since the first US nuclear weapons test was conducted in New
Mexico and probably since nuclear testing began in Nevada in 1951."

Over the years, billions of dollars have been poured into the Yucca Mountain
Project. In 2009 it experienced major cuts to its budget at the hands of the
Obama Administration. It’s future as a nuclear waste repository lies in doubt.

The latest Canadian proclamation about the suitability of an underground
repository (this one for low and intermediate level radioactive waste) comes from
Ontario Power Generation (OPG). Its plan is for a deep geological repository
(DGR) at the Bruce nuclear facility near the shore of Lake Huron.

In media reports, OPG has stated that "There is a consensus in our research that
shows the natural barriers will help protect the repository," and that "The
limestone bedrock formations that are there have an extremely low rate of
permeability. Also, there is a cap of shale 200 meters (about 656 feet) above the
repository area that would act as a protective layer."

That rhetoric is an echo of earlier optimistic “dry rock” expectations. What
will they find in the limestone excavation? Based on the URL (granite)
experience, and the Yucca Mountain (tuff) one, can we anticipate water logged
caverns feeding into Lake Huron?

But the biggest question of all is what will the industry-dominated Canadian
Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) turn up in its ongoing search for a
willing community to “host” a repository for Canada’s irradiated nuclear fuel
waste? Even if some community in Canada does volunteer for the “undertaking,” any
water found within its underground natural barriers would still be a major
deterrent.

“Water, water, everywhere.” It’s been nearly 30 years since the Underground
Research Laboratory was excavated and over 20 years since the Yucca Mountain
project was started. The time has come to look for other methods to manage
irradiated nuclear fuel waste. In the absence of an acceptable solution, the most
rational and logical first step is to phase out its production.

Walter Robbins
September, 2009

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