The organization responsible for managing Canada’s nuclear waste and the U.S. Department of Energy have pledged to work together on the long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel.
On May 16, the U.S. Department of Energy and Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) signed a joint statement of intent in Washington, D.C. A key tenet of the agreement is “robust information-sharing” when it comes to science and technology programs, joint technical studies and best practices on managing used nuclear fuels, including from small modular reactors.
Both countries recently highlighted the prominent role they want nuclear power to fill in terms of addressing climate change and global energy security issues exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
While some governments and advocates tout nuclear power as a key solution to the climate crisis, opponents point out it takes a long time to get facilities up and running when deep greenhouse gas emissions reductions are needed by 2030 to limit the devastating impacts of climate change. The technology for small modular reactors remains in its early stages, but Alberta, Ontario, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan all intend to deploy SMRs in the coming decades. Beyond timelines and concerns of nuclear weapons proliferation, the big question is how to safely deal with the radioactive waste created by nuclear energy production.
Tuesday’s statement of intent “is a great example of how the international community can come together to support safe and responsible nuclear development and ensure that socially acceptable radioactive waste strategies are developed early,” said Debbie Scharf, assistant deputy minister of the energy system sector with Natural Resources Canada. “I look forward to seeing this collaboration in action.”
Established in 2022, the NWMO is a Canadian not-for-profit tasked with managing the country’s used nuclear fuel. It is in the midst of selecting a site to store Canada’s nuclear waste roughly 500 hundred feet underground in what is called a deep geological repository. The NWMO has said it will come to a decision in 2024 after it extended the decision deadline earlier this year to make time for more consultations with First Nations communities and municipalities. The site selection process began in 2010.
There are two possible sites, both in Ontario. The first potential site is in Ignace, 250 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay, and the second is roughly 180 kilometres northwest of Toronto in South Bruce.
According to the NWMO, the storage project will only proceed in an area with informed and “willing hosts,” where the municipality, First Nation and Métis communities, and others in the area are working together to implement it.
The U.S. currently has one deep geological repository near Carlsbad, N.M., that permanently houses nuclear waste created by the nation’s nuclear defence program 2,150 feet underground in salt formations. Specifically, it permanently stores clothing, protective equipment, tools, debris, soil and other items contaminated with small amounts of plutonium and other human-made radioactive elements, according to the Department of Energy’s webpage for the pilot program.
This type of product at the U.S.’s aforementioned Waste Isolation Pilot Project falls into the category of low-level nuclear waste. Intermediate-level waste is typically used reactor core components, resins and filters used to purify reactor water systems, according to the NWMO, while high-level waste is the used nuclear fuel itself, which is highly radioactive, long-lived and requires careful, long-term management. The latter is what Canada’s deep geological repository will house.
For the time being, all nuclear waste is stored on-site at Canada’s four major nuclear power plants, three of which are in Ontario. Nuclear power is a key part of the province’s energy mix. In 2019, nearly 60 per cent of Ontario’s electricity was produced by nuclear power, according to Canada’s energy regulator.
The statement of intent signed Tuesday does not come as a surprise. In March, Natural Resources Canada and the Department of Energy released a joint statement on the two countries’ intent to collaborate.
“Nuclear power provides affordable low-carbon energy while contributing to the security of energy supply as a reliable, clean energy source,” read the statement, published March 27. Canada and the U.S. “recognize that advanced nuclear technologies such as small modular reactors present an opportunity to strengthen global energy security, and lower emissions while creating economic growth,” it said.
Both the March statement and the recent agreement emphasize “consent-based siting for the long-term management of radioactive waste” is part of a “common vision” shared by the countries.
The NWMO has a similar co-operation and information-sharing agreement with Andra, its French counterpart.
— With files from Matteo Cimellaro
Natasha Bulowski / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer