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​Let DGR process perform its function; research should continue

November 8, 2020

To the Editor:

I find it ironic that those rabidly opposed to the proposed Deep Geological Repository (DGR) for used nuclear fuel in South Bruce, keep claiming that there is not enough research to support building a DGR; yet, they keep insisting we stop the research and have a referendum. You can’t have it both ways.

A research paper from Sweden, written by Szakalos and Hultquist, claims that the copper canisters would corrode much quicker than anticipated. What is left out of the discussion, when that research paper is brought up, is the many research articles written since, disagreeing with those conclusions. To summarize it: when you put copper in oxygen-free water (like the anoxic environment of a DGR), you don’t expect anything to happen because copper is stable in oxygen-free water according to thermodynamics (i.e. it doesn’t corrode).

For many years, people had observed tiny amounts of hydrogen that come off the copper in solution, and the question was why, as there was no visible damage to the copper, only the existence of the hydrogen. SKB (Sweden’s equivalent to the Nuclear Waste Management Organization or NWMO in Canada) goes through a number of pieces of evidence, including an analysis of the work by the detractors (Szakalos and Hultquist), to demonstrate that this is not a process that will lead to failure, even if you project it to one-million years. SKB points out that even the data of Szakalos and Hultquist does not support high corrosion rates.

You read that right – the overall corrosion damage proposed by the detractors is much higher than anything that could actually happen based on their own results. It is believed that because the copper was not degassed, it is likely that they are observing the slow release of trapped hydrogen from manufacturing, as per a report by Hedin et. al. in 2018.

The NWMO’s measurements show a little bit of hydrogen being released in the early stages of the exposure, which can be carefully measured and equated to a corrosion rate. They also show that the hydrogen release decreases over time and that it only occurs at elevated temperatures (i.e. early in the disposal process). The proposed canister has a copper layer that is three millimetres (mm) thick. It is estimated to take one-million years to corrode through 1.25 mm. In other words, the copper is twice as thick as necessary to remain intact for one-million years.

“Nothing man-made has ever lasted as long as a DGR is required to last.” Yes, that is very true. Which is why a DGR does not rely solely on man-made elements. The rock formation is the most important “barrier” in this entire process. The correct rock, with an extremely low hydraulic conductivity, that has been stable for hundreds of millions of years is the key to long-term used fuel storage. Many reports worldwide state that the remaining issues with DGR’s are NOT technical, but social in nature. The science behind a DGR is sound. If the science was not sound, the many countries worldwide using nuclear energy would not be planning them; but they are.

We need to have the borehole-testing done so we will know for sure what the characteristics of our rock formation here are. Maybe the hydraulic conductivity is too high. Maybe the rock is not as strong as estimated. Maybe it is oxygen rich, instead of oxygen deficient. All of those things would have effects on the process and our suitability as a host community. We owe it to future generations to at least do the research and see if we even have a suitable site here! Maybe those generations will want to build a DGR if we fail to. At least we could save them some of the trouble of finding a suitable site.

So many people have had to move away because there was nothing to keep them here. Jobs are not plentiful! Our community is not thriving. I get it, this project seems like a “trojan horse,” with some hidden agenda waiting to be exposed. It’s not! Let the process work and see what it has to offer for our community. The tax base alone from a $23-billion project would be so beneficial to this municipality.

The jobs produced, the Centre of Expertise, the Underground Demonstration Facility, the infrastructure improvements, the families it could attract … the list goes on. If we simply say no based on “what-ifs” and unlikely “worst-case scenarios,” and 50 years from now this project is enacted and operating safely somewhere else, we are going to be wishing we had at least let the process play out.

Sheila Whytock

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