Gordon Edwards critiques Canada's proposed Deep Geologic Repository

This blog post consists of a “guest appearance” by the veteran Canadian activist Dr. Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility. On June 23, 2014, Dr. Edwards wrote a letter to the Joint Review Panel of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency as part of his application to intervene at public hearings (scheduled to begin September 9, 2014) regarding the proposed Deep Geologic Repository [DGR] for low-level and intermediate-level radioactive waste—to be located less than a mile from Lake Huron.
The CCNR has been a mainstay of the opposition to nuclear in Canada since 1978. The CCNR website describes itself as “dedicated to education and research on all issues related to nuclear energy, whether civilian or military—including non-nuclear alternatives—especially those pertaining to Canada.”
I have the impression that the CCNR may not be receiving as much attention as it deserves in this era of social media and interactive, multimedia websites. The CCNR website has the simplicity of early web design; however, the no-frills approach is not a weakness. It makes it easy to find the valuable resources on contemporary and historical issues. The main thing is the high value of the content. Anyone who is serious about nuclear education will not be put off by the lack of frills.
I found the letter below posted on a Facebook page and wanted to help it circulate more widely. Dr. Edwards wrote it in response to those who have suggested that he is merely a mathematician and not qualified to speak on nuclear energy issues. His response is a convincing defense of his qualifications, but, more importantly, it is a concise and incisive description of all that is wrong with the idea of burying nuclear waste. He explains clearly how the main problem is the way that the problem is framed by the nuclear industry—with its assumptions and its chosen terms that come pre-loaded with semantic prejudices. The process is infected from the start by what psychologists call “motivated reasoning.” Proponents start with an objective that needs to be validated, so they create hypotheses and collect data while wearing conscious and unconscious blinders that lead them only to their desired conclusions. In the process, logic fails and the proponents are unable to distinguish between fact and opinion, unable to see that their conceptual framework has led them to a dangerous dead end—as if the argument itself is stranded and irretrievable at the end of a dark shaft in a deep geologic repository.
I contacted Dr. Edwards to obtain permission to publish his letter. He hopes readers will follow up by reading other documents on the CCNR website and of course by getting educated and active before the upcoming hearings on the Deep Geologic Repository proposed for Ontario’s nuclear waste. If you want to publish the letter in another source, please don’t alter the text, and provide proper citation and context.

date: June 23, 2014
to:     Joint Review Panel of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency
re:     application to intervene at the hearings on Deep Geologic Repository [DGR] for low-level and intermediate-level radioactive waste

I am a mathematician, originally a graduate of MPC (Mathematics Physics Chemistry) at the University of Toronto in 1961 with a Gold Medal in Math and Physics.
My Ph.D. topic was proposed to me by one of the greatest mathematicians in the world, Alexandre Grothensieck, my PhD supervisor was the brilliant Brazilian/Canadian mathematician Paolo Ribenboim, and my external examiner was one of the greatest mathematicians that Canada has ever produced, Irving Kaplansky.
I was subsequently hired by the Science Council of Canada to conduct an ambitious study into the Role of the Mathematical Sciences in Canadian education, business, industry, economics, government and scientific research—the results were published in seven volumes.
It is a striking feature of the OPG proposal that its justification is almost entirely based on mathematical models and estimation procedures that are exceedingly simplified and largely unvalidated through real life experience—especially on the time scales that are envisaged.
A hypothetical engineered repository that remains impervious to outside influences as well as internal forces, and that even resists the intrusions of all living things including humans, is exactly that: a hypothesis. In science, and in applied mathematics, a hypothesis or a model that cannot by its very nature be tested against reality remains just that—a hypothesis that may be right or may be wrong, but for which there is no scientific methodology to decide which alternative is correct.
The deliberate abandonment of highly toxic man-made materials that remain dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years cannot be ethically or scientifically justified based on such hypothetical reasoning, especially when the experience of the last 75 years demonstrates that we humans have more often been wrong than right in our prognostications for safe abandonment of nuclear wastes.
As a scientifically-educated lay person on nuclear matters, I have one characteristic that seems to be in short supply in the nuclear establishment (including the regulatory agency) and that is distinguishing between what we WANT to be true and what we KNOW to be true.
The nuclear establishment wants reactors to be safe, and therefore they conclude that they ARE safe. Indeed, across the front cover of the 2009 Annual Report of the CNSC, six words are emblazoned—FACT: NUCLEAR IN CANADA IS SAFE. A regulatory agency that cannot distinguish between a fact and an opinion is hardly in a position to insist that the public accept its decisions as reliable or objective.
That same nuclear establishment wants the burial and abandonment of nuclear waste to be accepted as a perpetually safe solution to the industry’s number-one public relations problem.
By calling the abandonment process “disposal” (a word that has no scientific meaning but is based solely on human intentions) the industry wants the public to accept that they are protecting humans and the environment as if by some magical enchantment (uttered in arcane mathematical language) that cannot be broken by the forces of nature or by any other agency.
But this is not true science, it is an elaborate form of self-assurance and wish-fulfillment—utilizing mathematics as a magic spell to protect us from any rude realization of what could go horribly wrong once monitoring has ceased and retrievability has become practically impossible.
Indeed, why would anyone want to retrieve the waste unless a significant amount had already escaped into the environment? But by then retrieval is likely to be far too late for the situation to be corrected, for the migration of wastes out of the repository is probably well underway and cannot be arrested. The damage can only be limited, but not really reversed or even adequately contained.
In sum, I believe I may have something of value to offer to the panel on these topics.

Dr. Gordon Edwards
June 23, 2014

The only thing I would add to Dr. Edward’s letter is that the viability of an engineered repository may no longer be only hypothetical. The WIPP facility in New Mexico was a test of the hypothesis, and the recent failure there showed, after only fifteen years of operation, that deep burial of nuclear waste is unlikely to be a satisfactory solution that can hold up over thousands of years.

Related news:

Chad Selweski. “Senators urge Kerry to fight Lake Huron nuke waste dump.” Daily Tribune (Royal Oak, Michigan). June 24, 2014.

Joseph Trento. “Breaking Bad: A Nuclear Waste Disaster.” DC Bureau. June 5, 2014.

Sasha Pyle and Joni Arends. “Reader View: WIPP accident reveals serious problems.” Santa Fe New Mexican. June 2014.

Other posts on this topic:

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