Response to NWMO

Dear editor,

In his Dec. 6 letter, James Kimberley asks “why go to Finland when anything they saw there could be seen here?” – as if any hole in the ground is the same as a Deep Geological Repository (DGR) for used nuclear fuel.

That misconception is driven to a large extent by the misleading “dump” moniker, so Kimberley’s bogus narrative shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Besides which, the Finland trip participants were also able to visit the used fuel packaging plant (UFPP) as well as a nearby nuclear power plant – where the used fuel comes from (along with another plant in the south-east of the country, and future plants elsewhere in the country, notably Hanhikivi in the north).

NWMO is planning to build a similar UFPP at the DGR site (complete with “hot cells”), although it’s likely to be smaller than the one at Onkalo, because Canadian used nuclear fuel bundles are much smaller, as are the copper-clad containers.

But the important point about the underground part, is that Onkalo’s current extent is just slightly beyond the initial “Underground Demonstration Facility” (UDF), that NWMO will also be building, as a first stage of DGR development, after a hosting agreement is reached.

Construction and operation of the UDF will be crucial in providing “ground truth” that will be documented in a subsequent license application to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (with public hearings).

Operation of the UDF in particular, will be used to demonstrate things like placement and retrieval of the used fuel packages (according to preliminary plans), as well as demonstrating various long-term monitoring instrument technologies.

Tomography between adjacent tunnels may also be performed, to check for fractures, and the degree to which they exhibit “connectivity” – or not.

The Onkalo UDF is currently performing all that demonstration work, with much of the documentation available online, in English.

So it is an excellent “preview” of what NWMO hopes to be doing in the future.

Apparently the visitors from Ontario were shown some of the on-going demonstrations, but only they can tell us which ones, and their specific purpose.

Likely different demonstrations were shown to different groups, depending on which were available for viewing at the time of their visit, without interfering with operation.

Aside from being ill-informed about the significance of UDFs – both at Onkalo and eventually in Ontario – Kimberley & We The Nuclear Free North (WTNFN) also repeatedly confuse “demonstration” with “experimentation”. Experimentation was carried out decades ago, at the URL – Underground Research Laboratory – at Whiteshell, Manitoba.

Even earlier, and on a much smaller scale, experimentation was also carried out at an existing mine near Atikokan. Opposition sometimes misrepresents it as an early attempt to build a DGR, which it was not, just as the URL at Whiteshell wasn’t either. In both cases, the geology was far from ideal for a DGR, but good for studying geology which shows exactly WHY it’s not ideal.

Kimberley writes that “some of the most state of the art mining technologies in the world exist right here in Ontario,” but he ignores the fact that mining technologies used in mineral resource extraction are NOT applicable to DGR excavation: DGR excavation requires special techniques that minimize damage to the surrounding rock.

This was developed at the URL – Underground Research Laboratory – at Whiteshell, Manitoba.

It’s not “mining technology” per-se, but DGR-specific technology.

Similar techniques were used at the Onkalo DGR in Finland, but they also use mechanical “tunnel boring machines” (TBMs) to excavate the used fuel container placement pits.

Depending on how TBM technology evolves in the market, NWMO may also end up using it, 20 years from now, especially in the limestone in South Bruce.

Large TBMs are already used in various tunneling projects across Canada, including the Niagara hydro expansion project, Toronto subway lines, and a potash mine in Saskatchewan.

And lastly, Kimberley’s statement that “Snowlab is located in the former Vale Creighton mine site near Sudbury,” is false. The Vale Creighton mine is very much operational, as documented in the company’s latest nickel production figures.

This is an issue for SNOLAB – not “Snowlab” – because the ongoing blasting causes seismicity, both direct, and induced “rockbursts”. That seismicity and associated fracturing is anathema to DGRs and is one of the main reasons why DGRs are not sited in or near mines or potentially attractive mineral ore bodies. Mineral ore bodies also generally occur in highly fractured rock, typically as a result of hydrothermal circulation, which of course is likewise a no-go geology.

As for that Ignace firetruck, why didn’t Kimberley’s home town of Atikokan donate their own firetruck, to head-off NWMO’s donation? It’s very common for large companies to donate to their host communities; check out what Vale Creighton does in Sudbury (besides hosting SNOLAB in their nickel mine).


Jaro Franta
P. Eng., retired 2011, from AECL