What is the NWMO’s plan for used nuclear fuel?

By Ken Kellar

It’s not without controversy in the region and elsewhere, but what exactly is the Nuclear Waste Management Organization’s (NWMO) plan for used nuclear fuel in Canada?

As part of an information campaign making stops across the north, the NWMO’s Mobile Learn More Centre was in Fort Frances last month to help illustrate their goal and the steps of their centuries long plan to safely dispose of used nuclear fuel from Canada’s nuclear reactors in a deep geological repository, located somewhere in the province of Ontario. Currently in the running to be the final home of the repository and the future home of the NWMO’s headquarters are Ignace and South Bruce.

NWMO site engagement associate Kevin Muloin led a tour through the mobile centre and walked through the lifespan of nuclear fuel in the country, from initial mining to the proposed plan the NWMO has for storing it for the long term. The fuel begins as uranium ore mined in Saskatchewan and then transported to southern Ontario, where it is processed into uranium dioxide powder which is then fired into a ceramic pellet. The pellets are in turn loaded into metal tubes called a fuel bundle, which is what is used in nuclear reactors across Canada. That pellet, roughly as tall as a quarter and only 12mm wide, is the nuclear fuel itself, a far cry from what Muloin said people usually picture when they think about nuclear waste.

“A lot of people have a perception that it’s a liquid when it’s actually a solid,” he explained.

“That turns a lot of people around as soon as they hear it. They’re thinking liquid, they’re thinking it can move easily.”

The fact that the nuclear fuel itself is what Muloin calls a “stable solid” means that there is no concern of materials leaking out of any potential containment that is put to use.

According to the NWMO, nine pellets of nuclear fuel will fuel the average Canadian home for a year. One regular 355ml pop can full of pellets, Muloin said, would be enough power for an individual’s entire lifetime.

Of course, like all fuels, eventually the pellet has expended its useful energy and must be disposed of. However, spent nuclear fuel remains radioactive and potentially hazardous for thousands of years as the element breaks down. Therefore, the NWMO, made up of Canada’s energy producers, has been charged by the Canadian Government to come up with a way to safely dispose of that used nuclear fuel, which the NWMO describes on their website as “a legal obligation to provide long-term management of Canada’s used nuclear fuel.”

“Right now we have about 3-million of these fuel bundles in storage,” Muloin explained.

“That’s over more than 50 years now generating electricity. We anticipate with the present licensing for the present plants we have, we anticipate 5.2-million fuel bundles in total. In Canadian lingo, that would fill eight hockey rinks to the top of the boards.”

It’s important to note that the entire process of selecting a final storage or disposal site of used nuclear fuel has been a collaborative and voluntary process. Communities who submitted their names for consideration were allowed to withdraw their consent at any time, and Muloin said the NWMO also formed a knowledge base that incorporated First Nations teachings and knowledge to help ensure the organization had a culturally sensitive and respectful way of interacting with everyone in the country who could be impacted.

“We learned early on the interweaving of traditional knowledge with western knowledge and engaging with Indigenous communities were going to be important,” Muloin explained.

“In 2005 we formed a council of elders and youth, of First Nations and Metis people from across Canada. They don’t speak for the local Indigenous communities – consultation at that level happens with the locals. What these people do is they taught us how to go in and engage respectfully. They continue to work with us and one thing they helped us with a couple of years ago was a reconciliation statement.”

Once the bundles are ready to be transported to their final site, it will take 40 years, with two truckloads of used bundles a day, to move all of the used nuclear fuel from their current storage sites. The containers the NWMO has designed for transporting the waste have been tested to ensure that even in the event of a catastrophic accident, no radioactive material will escape and contaminate the environment, according to Muloin and the NWMO.

“Life sized, the truck transportation container is six feet square,” Muloin explained.

“The walls are 11 inches thick, the lid is bolted down by 32 bolts. There’s a double-sealed gasket. It’s very robust. We’d be fools if we thought there wouldn’t be an accident in 40 years, but… we’re listening to people as we go. We’re listening to people for extra layers of protection.”

Muloin went on to say that in safety tests to gauge the effectiveness of the transportation containers, including drop, fire and impact tests, the containers have so far proven to be resistant to puncture or leakage.

The plan from the NWMO for that final resting place is the deep geological repository, a series of sealable chambers 500m beneath the earth’s surface, deep into the bedrock where there is extremely limited contact with the surface. Even water found that far down, Muloin said, is only likely to move a few feet over thousands of years, which is why the NWMO has chosen this particular method of disposal.

Of course, the location of the storage itself is only one part of the equation. How the fuel is stored is another matter entirely. Muloin said those bundles that contain the pellets, made up of the smaller tubes called fuel elements, are how the nuclear fuel is loaded and used in the reactor, and upon depletion, the entire bundle is ejected and placed into a cooling tank for seven to 10 years for monitoring before it is designated for disposal. Those cooling and storage tanks are specially designed to contain radioactivity.

The NWMO’s plan for storing this solid waste is to take the bundles and encase them into a copper-lined cylindrical container, which will then be brought down the hundreds of metres to the storage area. Those containers are then encased in a bentonite clay, which acts as another waterproof protection layer to keep water away from the copper-lined container and radioactive materials inside. the space around the clay containers is then backfilled with more loose bentonite clay, which Muloin said swells up when it comes into contact with water, which will add additional protection.

There is some resistance to the NWMO’s plan to choose a final deep geological repository site in Ontario. Concern has been voiced about the environmental impact of burying nuclear fuel so far below the surface amid the possibility of radioactive material making their way to the surface over time. The watershed that provides much of the drinking water for Dryden, Kenora, many Treaty 3 communities and even Winnipeg is downstream from a potential site outside of Ignace. There are also concerns around the safe transportation of nuclear materials, even in spite of the NWMO’s claims of the durability of their transportation containers. Radioactivity can linger in an area for thousands of years, making even a small leak damaging to the area for generations to come. 

Finally, oppositional groups bring up concerns around a lack of informed consent, pointing to Section 2 of Article 29 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that states “States shall take effective measures to ensure that no storage or disposal of hazardous materials shall take place in the lands or territories of indigenous peoples without their free, prior and informed consent.”

The final site selection of Ignace or South Bruce, Ontario is expected to be made before the end of 2023, which will then begin the site preparation and construction phase, which is scheduled to last 10 years before the first shipment of used nuclear fuel would arrive.