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Deep-sixing the Deep Geological Nuclear Waste Repository

What follows is an edited version of my recent submission/intervention to the Joint Review Panel Hearing on the proposed Deep Geological Repository adjacent to Lake Huron. This project is intended to segregate “low- and intermediate-level” nuclear reactor waste from the environment for the hundreds of thousands of years required.

First, a quote: A MESSAGE TO PEOPLE WHO LIVE NEAR NEVADA TEST SITE: UNITED STATES ATOMIC ENERGY COMMISSION, JOINT TEST ORGANIZATION, CAMP MERCURY, NEVADA, February, 1955 “Some of you have been inconvenienced by our test operations. At times some of you have been exposed to potential risk from flash, blast, or fall-out. You have accepted the inconvenience or the risk without fuss, without alarm, and without panic. Your cooperation has helped achieve an unusual record of safety. … “I want you to know that in the forthcoming series, as has been true in the past, each shot is justified by national and international security need and that none will be fired unless there is adequate assurance of public safety.” (1)

The harebrained idea of shooting nuclear waste into the vastness of space, to get rid of it, has fortunately been shot down. But now the Panel is being asked to approve, in effect, ejecting nuclear waste out into the vastness of time! This is far from reality-based problem-solving.

Science for Peace has a more than 30 year history of working towards nuclear disarmament. The threat of nuclear weapons nonetheless persists and even increases. Attention has broadened to the entire nuclear chain with the understanding that the nuclear power industry arose out of the military, and that the attendant secrecy has had significant influence on both academic and political/societal processes. By “nuclear chain”, I refer to the entire cycle: starting from mining and refining – including depleted uranium weapons as a by-product – through fission and eventual decommissioning, to storage and disposal, or to reprocessing and nuclear weapons.

Science is a process of sensing and knowing reality. Infants, it has been shown, can perceive physical reality accurately, but, in keeping with how the child’s developing mind works, the sense-making may be distorted in characteristic ways. As adults, it is our responsibility to make efforts to understand and correct distortions that may persist, especially when under stress or a sense of pressure or threat of whatever sort.

My intent today is not so much to add to the flood of data and details, but to support reflection on the complexity and the implications of any decisions that result.

The public knows that decisions regarding radiation, including the various components of the nuclear fuel chain, are a matter of life and death. The public asks: How is it that an x-ray can cause cancer, but nuclear medicine can at the same time treat cancer? Why does the general public not know how much and what type of radioactivity was released by above and below-ground detonations? Or, where all the disposal and burial sites are for low, medium, and high level waste? Or, what has become of such burials or other forms of disposal? And why is there not open data on the numerous releases, accidents, and near-catastrophes? And what qualifies the people that decide on the standards for determining what is “safe and acceptable”?

Are the ads to attract retirees to Elliot Lake (a uranium mining site) consistent with the standard of informed consent regarding medical risks? And how informed were the neighbours of the GE-Hitachi uranium pellet manufacturing plant in downtown Toronto? How is the public, or for that matter the Panel, to evaluate applicable studies that involve biased selection, complex statistics and unclear underlying assumptions?

It is tempting to give up when faced with the plethora of units and terms; with the frequent lack of clarification of whether one is talking about external or internal exposure, or immediate or delayed effects, and with standards, that seem to change over time, promulgated by bodies with links to the industry. And, what do the terms “high, low, and intermediate-level waste” really mean?

This Joint Review Panel is commended for providing this forum for public input. Also deserving of credit are the many people, who have, over the years, pressed for such a forum. I was disturbed to hear that this may be the last such proceeding, as Canada descends further into what may be called a new dark age of suppression of accessibility to knowledge. In order to make a realistic decision, this Panel needs reliable information, especially that which bears on life, illness, and death.

Like the tobacco, fossil fuel, and pharmaceutical industries, the nuclear and weapons industries have refined the art of obscuring reality. For example, there is frequently a reference to “normal background radiation”. This obscures the fact that the newly created radiation is in the form of new elements, many of which exert their toxic effect once they are incorporated into the biological organism, rather than irradiating the organism from the outside. Because they mimic naturally occurring elements, these new elements are incorporated (often greatly concentrated) into the tissues, organs, and cells of the organism. Those that emit alpha-particles are especially damaging, as they carry out their destruction from extremely short range.

The state of knowledge regarding the medical aspects of exposure to external and internal radiation is at an early stage. Recent discoveries regarding epigenetic and whole-genome effects call for a fresh, urgent look. Increasingly, it is clear that not only cancer can result (after significant delays) but also teratogenenic effects, chromosome damage, and heritable diseases, along with a general increase in disease susceptibility, all of which may appear only after generations.

The nuclear power industry arose out of the nuclear weapons industry, with a lack of an arms-length relationship between the military, industry, regulatory bodies, governments, and various global health agencies, universities, and research institutes. The imperative to proceed at full speed and the accompanying aura of secrecy have greatly distorted the scientific and regulatory process. For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) must first receive approval from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) prior to addressing and disseminating information on nuclear-related health issues, under what is essentially a business model. The IAEA represents itself as a quasi-official entity while it baldly issues misinformation on nuclear risks. Reputable medical journals continue to cover the sequellae of Chernobyl and Fallujah, Iraq. The illness and death from Fukushima won’t be evident for years or decades.

As what has been wrought is so truly horrible, perhaps there has been an extra effort to magically undo the horror. This is partly done through the various glowing promises that have accompanied the massive proliferation of the nuclear industry. It has also meant that when things go wrong in the reactor, the public is often kept in the dark. In such an atmosphere, proper studies of the short and long-term health effects cannot be done. It also means that people cannot consent to being subject to the impacts of nuclear products in any situation. They can never be fully informed. Studies can be easily manipulated statistically and in terms of experimental design, such that the conclusions that are desired can be “supported”.

Other easily obscured facts: These poisons are not just inert chemicals that dissolve in water evenly, or distribute themselves uniformly in the ecosystem. Biological organisms concentrate or magnify these elements, and hence, their potential damaging effect up to several orders of magnitude. A single atom of uranium, plutonium, or other radioactive element is not labeled “made in Canada”. Who is responsible, then, for its ultimate use, for example, for bombs, or as depleted uranium (DU) munitions that are causing so many fetal abnormalities in the Middle East? And there are the immense piles of mining tailings giving new meaning to singer Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”. We humans evolved with most of the uranium in the ground, safely away from our DNA.

Shamefully only a few, such as physicist Joseph Rotblat of the Manhattan Project, have spoken out. Those who have done so are often shunned by colleagues and pushed out of their positions. More insidious is the pervasive self-censorship.

It is our opinion that the panel has a duty as well as an opportunity to examine the numerous unsuccessful and/or harmful attempts to cope with the problem of mounting nuclear waste globally.

Any decision regarding any step in the nuclear chain must take into account the implications for the entire chain, including both civilian and military aspects; the impossibility of predicting behaviours of distant future generations; the effect on the inhabitants, especially children, growing up exposed to the ever-increasing human-induced “background” internal radiation; and the cumulative results of irresponsible decisions that assign little value to the lives of those in the future, let alone of those currently living, especially the vulnerable and dispossessed.

It is like Russian roulette: There may be a large number of barrels in the gun. But at least one of them does have a bullet in it. Any death is tragic, but in the case of the nuclear industry, what is being hidden is the potential for unimaginably massive catastrophes. We must keep in mind that a single nuclear reactor contains and produces vastly more nuclear poison than was released by any of the nuclear bombs.

Rather than probabilities and predictions, let us shift our focus from what might happen to what has actually happened. I have listened to the dictaphone recording retrieved from the situation room at Three Mile Island where we hear that, rather than inform the public, the first thought was not to cause public panic. Where is public health in this picture? And what about the innumerable actual or potential “sacrifice zones” of Windscale/Sellafield, Hanford, Oak Ridge, Savannah River, Chalk River, Fukushima, and maybe Greater Toronto?

I would hope that this Panel will demand an answer to the question: Why do you not have the information that you need in order to make a responsible decision? Every decision we make about energy production and energy use is affecting the future of humanity in unbelievably rapid ways. The nuclear bomb was horrible, and so is the nuclear industry. It is not a miraculous answer to the world’s problems. Everyone must be involved in figuring out: What do we do now with the damage that already has been done? People can take responsibility for the land, distant peoples, and future generations. An example is the indigenous concept of caring for seven generations.

The Committee for Future Generations calls on us “to hold the nuclear industry to account for knowingly putting all life on this planet at risk, while continuing to create the most lethal man-made substance on earth.” (2)

The child gradually acquires a realistic sense of time, and of the future. As adults, you can think realistically of a distant time and people. If we don’t commit collective suicide through war and climate catastrophe, there will indeed be real people, living real lives, connected to us in some way.

In conclusion, I would like to address the members of the Panel. Should you decide to recommend approval of this scheme, your names will remain forever connected with the consequences. This may include releases or contaminations, but also in effect giving the go-ahead, whether you intend to or not, to further such repositories. It is not just limited to low or intermediate level waste. There is nothing to stop the nuclear industry from using your decision as a signal to proceed with more nuclear development, as it might then be argued that there is a “safe place” to put the poisonous products.

I return to my beginning quote from the letter to the unwitting guinea-pig “downwinders”. At the time, it was known that radionuclides could kill. Currently, Canada’s government not only decreases regulation, but actively promotes lethal industries such as asbestos, destructive mining practices, and extraction and transport of dangerous petroleum products. China and South Korea, whatever their other failings, have said “no” to food imports from contaminated areas of Japan.

If you make a considered decision against this repository, a small but crucial component of the nuclear chain, you will be taking an important and necessary step of finally saying “No”.

Jim Deutsch MD, PhD, FRCP is Board Member of Science for Peace. He would like to thank Judy Deutsch, Gordon Edwards and Chandler Davis for helpful suggestions.

References: (1) (2) Rosalie Bertell (1985) No Immediate Danger: Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth. Toronto: The Women’s Press Kautzlarich D and Kramer R (1991) Crimes of the American Nuclear State: At Home and Abroad. Northeasern University Press.

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