NWMO focusing on safety when it comes to transporting used nuclear fuel

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) — currently in the process of selecting a site of a deep geological repository for used nuclear fuel — attended last week’s Northern Ontario Municipal Association (NOMA) conference to highlight the technologies at work ensuring that transporting said waste is as safe as possible for all involved.

The presentation, delivered early on the second day of the NOMA conference, was delivered to the assembled delegates by NOMA transportation planning manager Caitlin Burley and relationship manager Norm Sandberg.

While Sandberg began the presentation with a quick overview of the not-for-profit organization and its mandate, along with the plan for the deep geological repository located 500 metres below ground in an “acceptable geology,” the main thrust of the seminar was in regards to the transpiration plans surrounding getting the used nuclear fuel to the storage site. With one proposed location for the repository located near Ignace and the other near South Bruce, regardless of which location is chosen some used fuel will have to cross the province from as far away as Manitoba or New Brunswick.

Burley explained that while there is plenty of evidence available that states safe transportation of used nuclear fuel is achievable, she noted that of equal importance to NWMO is the inclusion of Indigenous science and social safety.

The Northern Ontario Municipal Association met in person for the first time since 2019. The event was hosted in Fort Frances, and featured guest speakers who presented ideas on issues which affect northern Ontario. – Allan Bradbury photo

Turning to the subject at hand, Burley stressed that used nuclear fuel is the most highly regulated material currently transported in Canada, and is generally done so in very small amounts equalling about five shipments per year. To put Canada’s used nuclear shipment numbers into perspective, Burley shared a slide showing that the United Kingdom transports 300 shipments per year, Germany transports only 40 per year, meanwhile the United States has transported 3,000 shipments to date, though the slide did not clarify what dates were used as a metric.

Regulation in the country is overseen by Transport Canada and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, who also oversee the transportation of roughly one million radioactive shipments in the country per year. Burley noted the design of the packages used to transport used nuclear fuel have been designed with a worst-case scenario in mind.

“The transportation packages for used nuclear fuel are designed to withstand severe accident conditions,” Burley said.

“These extreme tests are set by an international body called the International Atomic Energy Agency. Finally, there is an incredibly strong international track record for transporting used nuclear fuel. In almost 60 years and 20,000 shipments, there has never been an accident that has caused human or environmental harm as a result of radioactive release.”

Burley said the safety plan for transportation is multi-levelled, and includes the aforementioned package, which she called the heart of the transportation program, the primary way to protect people and the environment from the used nuclear fuel. The other layers of safety are stringent operational controls, security and emergency management plans, and a federal requirements compliance-focused management system.

Going into detail with the transportation package, Burley noted the package itself needed to go through a regulatory process to certify the safety and durability of the proposed package. According to Burley, the NWMO package had to go through a free-drop test, after which the most damaged part of the package resulting from the drop test is then subjected to a puncture test. That same package is then put into a fully-engulfing fire, suspending and exposing all six sides of the package to a continuous flame. Finally, the package is submerged under water at different depths to ensure the material within won’t start to seep out. the NWMO also provided a video of demonstration trials, which can be viewed at the NWMO Youtube page, or directly at https://youtu.be/Soo2GBDZ8kk. The video contains examples of a test in the ’80s which saw a locomotive ram one such package at 160km/h, and another test in Germany in the late ’90s exploded a rail tank car filled with propane next to another package. In both cases, the package survived the tests with minimal damage, and no leak of the interior contents.

“If you can believe it, the tests that we are required to do are actually more severe than either of those demonstration trials that you just saw on the screen,” Burley said.

Burley said the organization is committed to including everyday Canadians and Indigenous partners in the planning portion of the project, which has been ongoing for the past several years. The NWMO says since 2015 they have met with thousands of individuals and groups across more than 300 different meetings to hear out and address concerns raised.

Burley and Sandberg both stressed that the transportation of used nuclear fuel to the deep geological repository site will not happen until said site is completed, which is scheduled to be in the 2040s. At that time, the NWMO will begin transporting the estimated 5.5 million bundles of used nuclear fuel that will be in the country by the end of life for Canada’s current nuclear reactors.

The NWMO will be holding an informational webinar on May 10 that will go in depth on some of the plans surrounding the project, with details of the webinar to be released in the coming days. For more information about the NWMO or their transportation plan, visit their website at nwmo.ca.