The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) is promoting the notion that burying all of Canada’s nuclear fuel waste in a deep geological repository (DGR) as described in their Adaptive Phased Management plan is “Canada’s plan.”
But is it Canada’s plan? Did a broad base of informed Canadians of diverse backgrounds recently and specifically choose the strategy of burying all of Canada’s nuclear fuel waste in a deep geological repository?
No. Here is what actually happened.
In 2004, the NWMO hired Canadian Policy Research Networks Inc. to conduct focus groups of Canadians on the subject of nuclear fuel waste management. Focus groups are customarily used to gather feedback, not to arrive at national plans. Also, if the results were intended to represent the wishes of all Canadians, the groups should have been large, diverse, and reasonably informed.
Let us examine, in three parts, how representative the focus groups were.
1. To be representative of all Canadians, the number of participants should have been large. Was it?
No. In fact, only 462 Canadian adults participated in the focus groups.
For perspective, in 2004 Canada’s population was 31,946,300. The 462 who participated in the NWMO’s focus groups therefore comprised 0.00144 percent of Canada’s population.
2. To be representative of all Canadians, the focus groups should have been conducted in diverse locations and communities. Were they?
No. Focus groups were conducted exclusively in 12 large cities: Vancouver, Calgary, Saskatoon, Thunder Bay, Sudbury, London, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, Moncton and Halifax. The locations were oddly skewed to eastern Canada, where urban voters might be more likely to favour transport of nuclear waste to a remote rural location.
Study authors successfully matched focus group demographics to the current Canadian population’s age and education level. However, only 10% of the study participants lived in rural areas (not surprising when the focus groups were conducted in cities), although in 2004 22% of Canadians were rural.
Most glaringly, only 3% of study participants self-identified as “Aboriginal.” Study authors used Canada’s 2001 Census as a guideline, which reported 4% of Canada’s population as “Aboriginal.” The Census process has been criticized for not capturing accurate numbers of Indigenous peoples (see ctvnews.ca/thousands-of-aboriginals-still-not-counted-in-census-1.270878). Given the proportion of First Nations and Metis persons in communities near today’s potential DGR sites near Ignace and in South Bruce, the 3% representation of “Aboriginal” peoples in the focus groups hobbles the study’s results and makes their current use irrelevant and frankly offensive.
3. To represent all Canadians, focus groups should have included Canadians who were knowledgeable about nuclear power and waste issues, as well as those with no prior knowledge or opinion. Was this the case?
No. Many with informed views about nuclear energy or nuclear waste management were excluded from participation, purportedly to create a match between attitudes held by the general Canadian population and attitudes held by the focus group participants. Although this might seem reasonable on the surface, the process also held the potential of eliminating those with working technical knowledge pertaining to the matter and skewing the participant population towards the non-knowledgeable.
The study’s authors admit that one of the study’s difficulties was that “few people, outside of experts, are familiar with issues related to nuclear energy.” However, this difficulty was exacerbated by specifically excluding those with knowledge of the subject.
Taking #1, #2 and #3 into account, the idea that these focus groups represented all Canadians (or represent them today) is certainly inaccurate.
What Did Study Participants Actually Decide?
Patronizingly, the study’s authors point out: “It is difficult for most people to conceive of the possible impact in 500 or 1,000 years of decisions made today.”
This statement paves the way for the study’s very general and predictable conclusions.
Participants were not presented with practical, physical options for nuclear waste management. Rather, they were asked to deliberate on “sharing rights and responsibilities across generations,” and “ensuring confidence and trust in a management approach.”
Participants arrived at many resolutions. Some have been ignored by the NWMO, such as the inconvenient “Future generations must be able to access the used fuel to apply better technology and manage the used fuel more safely or efficiently,” and, “We need to reduce the amount of used fuel that we create, by conserving energy use, by assessing the costs and benefits of all types of energy, and increasing our use of alternative sources of energy such as wind and solar power.”
However, as detailed on page 18 of the study document, entitled “Responsible Action – A Citizens’ Dialogue on the Long-Term Management of Used Nuclear Fuel,” participants also resolved that the generation of Canadians who consumed the energy and produced the waste should be responsible for the waste.
From that general resolution in the 2004 focus group study, the NWMO appears to have extrapolated the much more specific notion that abandoning nuclear fuel waste in a deep geological repository is “Canada’s plan.”
It’s a great notion from a promotional perspective, but simply unsupported by the discussions that took place. Canadians did not decide that burying high-level nuclear waste in a DGR should be part of “Canada’s plan.” The NWMO decided this. This is the NWMO’s plan.
Read the 2004 report here: Responsible Action: A Citizens’ Dialogue on the Long-Term Management of Used Nuclear Fuel
You are invited to contact We the Nuclear Free North and join in the fight to keep nuclear fuel waste from being abandoned in the bedrock of Northwestern Ontario.