Nuclear seminar highlights water protection

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer
kkellar@fortfrances.com

The people behind creating a new long-term storage solution for Canada’s nuclear waste held an information seminar highlighting how they will ensure the water and surrounding areas will be protected from any possible contamination.

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) held an hour-long seminar on Monday, March 21 regarding their Adaptive Phased Management project, currently in the process of settling on a permanent location for waste generated from Canada’s nuclear energy plants. Titled “Water Protection: A Shared Priority,” the seminar dealt with the ways the NWMO plans to contain the used nuclear fuel cells created through the nuclear energy process in order to keep both the environment and those living nearby safe from radioactive materials.

NWMO’s manager of Engineered Barrier Science Peter Keech and reconciliation coordinator Rebekah Wilson were the presenters for the seminar. Keech noted that there is indeed a risk involved with nuclear power, particularly in the radiation given off by the fuel bundles. With a reactor using roughly 5,000 ceramic bundles at a time, each of which is capable of powering a single home for 100 years, according to Keech, the process provides plenty of energy at low costs, but the journey for the NWMO begins when the energy production ends.

“People often hear about radiation, and they may or may not totally know what it is, but it spans a large range of different wavelengths of light,” Keech explained.

“We have to work to protect people from ionizing radiation, which are shorter wavelengths and higher energy, things like gamma rays and x-rays. It really becomes about shielding and managing the radiation.”

To that end, the NWMO is working to create the Deep Geological Repository, a storage facility with a chamber planned to be hundreds of feet below the surface, dug into bedrock, which will house the stored nuclear waste for the rest of its decaying process, calculated to be thousands of years. The fuel itself will be stored in several different layers of containers that will each work together to keep the fuel as contained as possible, including a copper shell, bentonite clay and the very bedrock itself.

“I spend a lot of time doing research on things like the used fuel container and the bentonite clay to understand their performance over a very long period of time,” Keech said.

“Those are critical barriers to maintain the system where the water cannot reach the fuel.”

The fact that the entire presentation focused on water was the result of extensive conversations the NWMO had with communities and partners, and Wilson noted that one concern people have with the NWMO project is the potential for water to interact with the used fuel and return to the surface. She explained that due to the different layers of earth between water we can see in a lake or river and where the fuel will be stored, there is very little chance of that kind of contamination.

“If you’re looking in the shallow groundwater zone, what you’re seeing is a lot of fractures and cracks in the rock where water can travel through,” Wilson said of the area that is roughly 150 metres underground.

“When we finally get down to the deep groundwater zone, which is around 500 metres underground, you’re seeing none to very few fractures in the rock. There are very few pathways for water to make it through. Our proposed Deep Geological Repository would be located in that deep groundwater zone where water does not easily travel through.”

The idea, then, is that there is very little groundwater to be seen at the depths the waste will be stored, and what water is there already will take an exceptional amount of time to move to the surface in the event it does come into contact with radioactive waste. Furthermore, the materials of the storage facility are chosen for their resilience to break-down in the face of moisture or time, or, in the case of bentonite clay, actively swells in size when introduced to water, which will in turn create a tighter seal to prevent any further movement of the water.

Wilson also spoke to the Indigenous knowledge and cultural beliefs of water, noting that it is considered a living being, and thus has a spirit of its own. Wilson explained the NWMO is working to show the same level of respect to area water sources as Indigenous people do, something they learned from speaking with Indigenous communities, leaders and knowledge keepers.

“The reason we’re bringing together these two conversations is really an opportunity to teach each other,” she said.

“We recognize there is a gap between Indigenous knowledge and Western knowledge. Recognizing that Indigenous people, for centuries have really been forced to learn Western science, but that hasn’t really been reciprocated with Western scientists learning about Indigenous knowledge and why it’s important, and really recognizing that both of these knowledge systems are valid and vital on their own. In our work we call it ‘interweaving,’ so finding intersections, ways of bringing those knowledge systems together without losing any pieces of them in the process… to create a better project.”

The entire seminar was recorded and has been posted to the NWMO’s YouTube channel, NWMOCanada. For more information about the NWMO, visit their website at nwmo.ca.