A location is yet to be set and the timelines stretch 25 years in the future, but one thing seems certain: nuclear waste will be buried in the Canadian shield.
As the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) – a not-for-profit organization established by the federal government – starts analyzing communities as part of the process of selecting a site to bury used nuclear rods, details continue to sharpen on how the project will one day look.
The first big decision – one that is well underway – is where the burial of used nuclear rods will happen. Geologists with the NWMO are looking for a specific slate of geologic features, including stable bedrock and little flowing water underground. But equally important, according to NWMO director of communications Mike Krizanc, is finding a host community willing and able to handle the growth that will come from the site.
“You can’t impose this on anyone,” Krizanc said during a recent media tour of the Darlington Nuclear Facility in Pickering, Ontario. “You need an informed and willing community before you go about doing it.” So far 21 communities across Ontario and in Saskatchewan have expressed interest in learning more about the facility. The NWMO is now working on both social and geological assessments of those communities in order to narrow the list.
The interested communities fall into four geographical areas, including Bruce County in southern Ontario, the north shore of Lake Huron, northwestern Ontario and northern Saskatchewan.
Eventually the list will be narrowed down to one or two ideal communities, at which point a five-year detailed site assessment takes place.
What about neighbours?
While the communities had to reach out to NWMO to get their name on the list, a big question remains on how much say neighbouring communities will have on the plans.
For both the Lake Huron north shore and northwestern Ontario communities, regional First Nations governments have issued statements saying no to any nuclear waste facility in their territories.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) announced in 2012 that it will not support nuclear waste being buried anywhere in northern Ontario.
Then-Grand Chief Stan Beardy said at the time that First Nations concerns were being ignored in the site selection process.
“We have a mandate from the Creator to protect our lands and waters and have been doing so for thousands of years,” Beardy told Wawatay in January 2012. “Nuclear waste is a poison that will damage our homelands.”
The Anishinabek Nation has likewise issued its rejection of any burial of nuclear waste in its territory – setting up for a fight if one of a number of interested communities that overlap Anishinabek territory, including Eliot Lake, Blind River and Wawa, progress to the next stage of assessment.
Krizanc said that consultation with First Nations remains the duty of the Crown, and that consultation will not take place until the site is identified sometime in the next five to ten years.
But Aboriginal communities are being informed when a community has expressed interest, he said, and invited to determine how they can participate. And while neighbouring communities will not have a “veto” over the project like the host community will, Krizanc explained that they do have the right to have their questions answered and their concerns addressed.
“Hopefully the communities we’re working with will reach out to their neighbours,” Krizanc said. “And anybody else who says they have an interest needs to be engaged and involved.”
Currently there are about four million used fuel bundles being stored in aboveground facilities. Most of them are held at Ontario’s three nuclear power plants – Darlington, Pickering and Bruce. The NWMO estimates that by 2035, when the underground storage facility construction will be underway, there will be four million used fuel bundles to bury.
The plan involves burying the used rods 500 metres underground, in a specially-designed container set inside a bentonite clay vault. The intent is to keep the rods secure and free from water seepage for up to one million years – a period that will likely include 10 separate glaciations and countless earthquakes.
Andre Vorauer, NWMO’s Senior Technical Specialist, has been tasked with modeling the worst-case scenarios to determine how the vault will respond. He said the NWMO is confident that it can plan for the security of the fuel rods over the one million years it will take for the uranium to return to its natural level of radioactivity.
“Time is the key component of all of this,” Vorauer said. “The barriers are making the process take a long time, and the longer it takes the less radioactive it will be.”
Vorauer said that a significant hazard exists for several hundred years, after which the rods will pose a moderate hazard for tens of thousands of years while the radioactive elements continue to break down.
He noted that the rocks in the Canadian Shield have not changed in up to four billion years, and even underground water found in the shield has been found to be older than 1.5 billion years.
The idea, he said, is that one million years is actually a short period of time in geologic terms.
Meanwhile, other alternatives for dealing with the increasing number of used nuclear fuel rods are either not proven, or come with more danger than bury the rods, Krizanc said.
The alternatives considered including blasting the rods into space, building permanent aboveground storage facilities, or leaving the waste at existing nuclear plants for future generations to deal with.
Construction and transportation
Once a host community is selected and all the consultation work is complete, construction of the underground storage facility will begin. The construction phase could total $24 billion, with an estimated 1000 jobs. Another 600 permanent jobs and $200 million annual investment are expected to last about 40 years while the existing used fuel rods are buried in the storage facility.
The host community will also feature a centre of expertise on nuclear waste management, which will bring a large number of technical jobs to the region.
Meanwhile, depending on where the site is located, used nuclear rods will have to be transported from their current location to the storage facility. A transportation method has not yet been selected, Krizanc said, although rail, road and ship are all options.
And while no decisions on the location or further details are imminent, the NWMO plans to continue its work educating the public and communities about the project.
“One of the luxeries is that time is on our side,” Krizanc said. “We don’t have to rush into anything.”