The government has a tough selling job ahead

By Jaimes Raiswell

If a good salesman, as the saying goes, is one who can sell an icebox to an Inuit, what kind of salesman does it take to sell nuclear waste to the general public?

For the federal government, which has about one million used Candu fuel bundles for sale (roughly enough nuclear waste to fill three hockey rinks to the top of the boards), the trick isn’t going to be what kind of salesman they have to recruit, but how that salesman will flog a product no one seems to want.

The key to the problem of disposing nuclear waste is going to be how the government convinces the public waste storage is safe. And that can only be done through a lengthy public relations campaign.

In defense of the government, the risk to any potential buyer seems slight. Atomic Energy Canada Limited (AECL) spent a good deal of time and effort from 1978 to 1994 researching a method for the safe disposal of nuclear waste.

They’re going to bury it.

According to Larry Shewchuk, an AECL spokesperson, underground waste disposal is completely safe.

When he says “safe,” Shewchuk means the waste would pose no threat to nearby inhabitants for literally “thousands of years.”

Kristen Ostling, the national co-ordinator with Campaign for Nuclear Phaseout, isn’t quite as certain.

“Our studies show that the waste canisters will corrode and leak within 500 years,” she says. “The waste, itself, however, will last longer than that.”

At the moment, Canada is only involved in short-term nuclear waste storage (both in concrete silos and in special cooling pools), a measure that serves as a hundred-year stop-gap solution. Now the federal government is looking for a more suitable and long-term method for waste disposal.

AECL presented its environmental impact study to the federal government in 1994. The government turned AECL’s findings over to the Seaborn panel, set up by Ottawa to look into the effects and consequences of nuclear waste disposal. Its mandate was to review AECL’s findings and get input from the general public. Seaborn’s mandate for public consultation makes it unusual. No country has ever asked the public for its opinion about dealing with nuclear waste.

The Seaborn report came out in February 1998. It presented a series of options for disposal, ranging from underground disposal, disposal in the Canadian Shield being one example, to above-ground and on-site disposal.

The study found while the negative environmental implications of underground disposal are remote in the worst case, it advised that the federal government work to develop the public relations angle of the proposal. In short, it recommended more consultations.

Indeed, public consultations in such a matter are key to the process. If anyone is remotely entertaining thoughts of taking the federal government’s nuclear waste off their hands, they ought to be as informed as possible with regard to the deal they’re signing.

Dealing with nuclear waste isn’t like dealing with a corpse — it’s true you can bury both, but the public has to be convinced nuclear waste won’t come back to haunt them in 40 years.

The Globe and Mail, March 9, suggested Natural Resources Canada had approached the Association of First Nations (AFN) regarding the disposal of nuclear waste in the Canadian Shield. The article went on to say the federal government and the AFN had met on at least one occasion and that the native communities might be persuaded to take nuclear waste if the price was right.

John Embury, press secretary for Natural Resources Minister Ralph Goodale, called the article “ridiculous.” He says the government has not yet decided how it will dispose of the waste and nor has the government initiated any contact with the AFN.

“We’re (the department of Natural Resources) not even within years of beginning a consultation process with anyone, let alone the AFN, regarding the disposal of the nuclear waste.”

Aside from the ethical issues the notion of selling nuclear waste to the AFN presents, without further public consultation, the proposal seems a bit short-sighted.

To speculate: the trade-off for the federal government would see them dispose of roughly 1.3 million used Candu fuel bundles in a short time. In exchange, they would provide a large chunk of cash to the AFN and the opportunity for a huge swell of jobs on native reserves. Of course, while the short-term results would mean increased prosperity in a sector of society which has been traditionally hard-done-by, the long-term effects would almost certainly be disastrous.

In the end, the trade-off for the AFN becomes the issue of risk versus reward. Risk comes in the form of possible harm to both the environment and to the land’s inhabitants; reward in the form of an infusion of cash which the Globe and Mail estimates at around $11 billion over the next 70 to 100 years.

The key, of course, to the whole issue is not where to get rid of the waste. The trick, for Natural Resources Canada, will be its ability to sell the concept of nuclear waste storage to the Canadian public.