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Canada’s Deliberate Quest for Permanent Waste Storage

Issue 3 and Volume 3.

BY Brian Wheeler, Associate Editor

Canadians have used electricity generated by nuclear power reactors in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick for decades and the country has produced just over 2 million used fuel bundles. With each used fuel bundle weighing about 24 kilograms and stretching 0.5 meters in length, the used fuel bundles could be stacked to fill six hockey rinks from the floor to the top of the boards. Canada, like other countries, is now planning what to do with the radioactive waste.

In 2002 the Canadian federal government passed the Nuclear Fuel Waste Act requiring nuclear waste producers to set-up a non-profit organization to study, recommend and implement a long-term plan to manage used nuclear waste. That same year the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) was formed by Ontario Power Generation, New Brunswick Power and Hydro-Québec to help Canadians answer the question, “Where should our used nuclear fuel be contained and isolated for the long term?”

Between 2002 and 2005 NWMO spoke with over 18,000 Canadian citizens and 2,500 Aboriginals and came up with Adaptive Phased Management. Approved by the government in 2007, Adaptive Phased Management gives communities in Canada the chance to tell the NWMO what they feel are important feature for dealing with the waste. Unanimous support was given to safety and security. That preference led to a decision to build a deep geological repository in a “willing and informed” community.

Conceptual drawing of the Deep Geological Repository. Photo courtesy NWMO

“It’s not just a technical approach to finding a suitable, technical site for a deep geological repository. It really has just as much to do with the management system which engages citizens in decision making at every step,” said NWMO Communications Manager Michael Krizanc.

Because it is a community-driven process, communities must approach NWMO to learn more about the repository. The project, which would include a dedicated surface area of 250 acres, would include the deep geological repository, transportation for the used fuel and a center of expertise. The center of expertise is expected to attract national and international research and become a hub for scientific collaboration, said Krizanc.

Deep Geological Repository

The deep geological repository requires a subsurface suitable rock host of 2.5 kilometers by 1.5 kilometers (930 acres) at a depth of about 500 meters (1,640 feet). Among other things, the repository site must not contain known groundwater resources and the host rock formation should not contain natural resources which might be disturbed by future generations.

The repository would consist of a series of service shafts and tunnels leading to placement rooms where long-lived, used fuel containers would be stored in the rock formation and covered with bentonite clay. To get the used CANDU fuel to the repository, NWMO would transport the nuclear fuel from interim sites to the repository in specially designed casks before repackaging the fuel in the long-lived containers. Currently, waste from Canada’s 22 reactors is stored on-site at the five nuclear plant sites. The waste is kept in pools for seven to 10 years before it is transferred to dry storage. Construction on the deep geological repository alone is estimated to take about 10 years.

Community Involvement

Since the process began in 2002, one community has formally contacted the NWMO to express an interest in the repository. Several others have shown preliminary interest. Krizanc stressed that while NWMO will not approach any communities, the organization is confident others will come forward.

But once a community does come forward a lengthy process of discussion is anticipated. The NWMO would work with the specific community for eight to 10 years to provide them the information necessary for the community to make an informed decision. Throughout a nine–step process, including insuring willingness and insuring a suitable rock formation underground, the municipality or Aboriginal group may drop out at any time. So may the NWMO if it finds the site to be unsuitable.

So far, the NWMO has found that along with safety and security, Canadians have said they would want nuclear waste to be retrievable for several reasons. One reason they want the fuel to be retrievable is in case something fails within the repository, endangering their safety. They also would like to see the waste retrievable in case future generations want to use it in a different fuel composition or if better technology and advanced sciences are available.

“Canadians have said that this generation has a responsibility to manage used fuel that has been produced for our benefit and not leave it behind,” Krizanc said, “as a legacy for future generations.”

Funding

Over the life of the project, including construction and research, the cost will range from $16 to $24 billion. The Nuclear Fuel Waste Act required that all nuclear energy producers in Canada set-up trust funds for this project and only the NWMO has access to those funds, but only after a construction license has been issued. Being said, NWMO is responsible for maintaining a funding formula to ensure that enough money is set aside and available when it is needed. And with $2 billion currently in the trust, the NWMO and producers of nuclear waste examine costs on a regular basis with the next review planned for completion in 2012.

There are no fixed timelines set in place to complete the Adaptive Phased Management process. But due to budgeting and planning, there are conceptual timelines in place and Krizanc expects to have the construction license by 2035.

“This is more than just building a repository,” said Krizanc. “We are going to take the time that is necessary to do it right.”

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