‘We really want to find a long-term solution’: Canada inches toward permanent storage of radioactive waste


Report suggests two Ontario communities have what it takes to store nuclear waste

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Canada has moved one step closer to finding a permanent spot to store the millions of bundles of radioactive waste that have been generated in the nearly half-century since it started producing nuclear energy.

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On Thursday, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), a Toronto-based non-profit created by Parliament that has been scouring the country for storage spots since 2010, released reports that detail why it believes two communities in Ontario could safely store radioactive nuclear waste for time immemorial.

The list of potential spots has been narrowed from 22 communities to just two: the Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation-Ignace area in northwestern Ontario and the Saugeen Ojibway Nation-South Bruce area in southern Ontario.

“The larger plan, of course, is (to build) a deep geologic repository where you put the fuel in a stable underground location,” Paul Gierszewski, director of Safety and Technical Research at the NWMO, said. “It would be surrounded by various barriers, and … (would) hold the fuel while it just sits there, and its radioactivity passively decays away.”

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Gierszewski estimated there are a couple of million radioactive bundles of spent nuclear fuel — each about the size of a fireplace log and weighing around 20 kilograms — currently stored at various nuclear reactors and research sites in New Brunswick, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec. But that is considered a temporary arrangement until a permanent storage site deep below the earth’s surface can be built.

The NMWO in 2023 plans to select one of the two communities, South Bruce or Ignace, as the place to permanently store the radioactive waste, and then begin the impact assessment process and construction.

As a result, within several years, two trucks per day could begin carrying nuclear waste to a permanent storage location, Gierszewski said.

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Building the underground cavern to store the waste is one the largest infrastructure projects in Canadian history, according to NMWO spokesperson Bruce Logan.

“What the government said is we really want to find a long-term solution,” he said.

The search for a permanent storage site comes as the federal government pushes towards building small modular reactors that could be distributed to mines and oil project or remote locations that are dependent on diesel generators for electricity, rather than the large-scale nuclear reactors of the past half-century.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is currently reviewing a licence for a small modular reactor and a spokesman for USNC-Power, a subsidiary of Seattle-based Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp., has said it would like to build 100 scaled-down reactors around Canada over the next two decades.

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Allison Macfarlane, director of the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia, and former chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Allison Macfarlane, director of the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia, and former chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images files

But Allison Macfarlane, director of the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia, and former chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said that small reactors are still an emerging technology with many unanswered questions.

“None of them have been built yet,” she said. “We really don’t understand what the costs are going to be yet.”

Macfarlane also said finding an underground storage spot for radioactive waste, which contains various isotopes, some of which takes millions of years to decay, is imperative. Exposure to the waste can cause radiation illness or cancer.

“It’s highly radioactive material, and we need to minimize our exposure to it because we can’t make it disappear,” she said. “Leaving it on the surface is not a good option.”

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Nuclear energy proponents say it emits fewer greenhouse gasses than fossil fuels, which is an important consideration as the country works to reduce its emissions to net zero by 2050 to limit climate change.

But nuclear disasters, such as the Fukushima meltdown in 2011 after a tsunami hit Japan, and Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986, which released radiation and forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people, as well as high construction costs have created concerns around the growth of nuclear power.

The NMWO’s “confidence and safety reports” released Thursday offer details on the differing geology of each potential permanent storage area.

The Ignace area in Northwestern Ontario, known as the Revell site, is part of the Canadian shield and features crystalline rock that is 2.7 billion years old, according to the report.

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“This rock unit has the depth, breadth and volume to isolate the repository from surface disturbances and changes caused by human activities and natural events,” the report said.

Meanwhile, the rock formation in the South Bruce area is sedimentary limestone estimated to be 360 million to 485 million years old.

“There is currently no indication that the South Bruce Site location will experience extreme rates of erosion, uplift, or subsidence that would significantly perturb the geosphere over the next million years,” the report said.

Gierszewski said the permanent storage site will look like an underground mine, with rooms where radioactive waste, packaged in steel and concrete containers, can sit.

“There’s three things that we needed to have confidence in,” he said. “Safety: It has to be a safe site, able to hold the fuel. Transportation: we needed to be able to move the fuel from where it is now at the various nuclear stations to the site. And partnership, because we want to be working with the communities; they have to be part of this process.”

• Email: gfriedman@postmedia.com | Twitter:

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