Those with a keen eye might have noticed an unusual sight in the parking lot of the Memorial Sports Centre last week. Those curious enough to stop and check it out were able to experience a hands on learning environment that is tied directly to a major industrial project that could impact the town of Ignace.
The trailer in the arena parking lot was the property of the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) who brought their Mobile Learn More Centre to town as part of a tour that will see it criss-cross the province to help inform the population about who they are, what they do, and what exactly will be going on in the future. The NWMO itself is a not-for-profit organization made up of energy producers in the country who have been tasked by the Canadian government to come up with a long-term storage solution for used nuclear fuel. Vince Ponka, the NWMO’s regional communications manager for northern Ontario, explained that the Mobile Learn More Centre is very much what it sounds like on the surface.
“It is a trailer with interactive exhibits and displays that really help people get a sense of the whole nuclear fuel cycle, as well as learning more about the long-term plan for used nuclear fuel,” he explained.
“I was with the Mobile Learn More Centre in Ignace the other week and what I found is that it’s just a great way to really show people the story without just telling them, to be able to point at these small models of used nuclear fuel.”
The story the Mobile Learn More Centre is telling is that of nuclear fuel in Canada, from being mined from the earth in Saskatchewan, being processed into fired ceramic pellets in southern Ontario, put to work inside of one of several nuclear power plants in Canada and then finally retired and scheduled for disposal as it becomes nuclear waste. That disposal is key to the NWMO’s mission, which is to implement a long-term disposal program that will take all of the nuclear waste in Canada and dispose of it in a safe, environmentally and historically safe fashion. So far, the plan is to create what Ponka called a “deep geological repository” site several hundred metres below the surface that is geologically and environmentally sealed off from the surface to prevent any contamination and which will be monitored for decades to come.
Ponka explained that part of the Mobile Learn More Centre’s purpose is to help dispel incorrect notions about nuclear fuel itself. Rather than the glowing green ooze or plutonium bars that are popular on television – like the materials Homer Simpson frequently interacts with at his place of work – one pellet of nuclear fuel, once it has been fired into the useful ceramic form, is only a few centimetres tall, and no wider than a crayola marker. It also serves to show how nuclear waste is currently being managed in Canada, and what safety measures are in place there.
“We can also show [at the Mobile Learn More Centre] that the above-ground storage where it is now, when the used fuel is taken out of the nuclear reactors, it’s put in cooling pools for seven to ten years,” Ponka said.
“Those cooling pools are ten feet deep, of water, and yet that ten feet of water is enough to protect anyone from any of that radiation. So it really gives people an idea of what used nuclear fuel is and the steps we take to protect the environment and people from that waste.”
The Mobile Learn More Centre also touches on the NWMO’s efforts to work with Indigenous communities across the country in addition to those that are closer to the final sites to be considered, as well as other practical concerns the public may have, like around transporting the used fuel from its current storage site potentially across the province to the new location. Included at the mobile centre is a mockup of the container that would be loaded onto trucks for transportation, and the myriad safety features implemented into those containers, which the NWMO stated would ensure that even in the event of a catastrophic accident during transportation, the containers would remain completely sealed.
Since the NWMO is working towards a long-term storage site for used nuclear waste, they have narrowed down an initial list of 22 potential sites for the deep geological repository to two finalists: Ignace and South Bruce, both in Ontario. The selection process, Ponka explained, was entirely voluntary, with those potential sites allowed to withdraw their name from consideration at any point in the process. Now, with the final two potential sites selected, the goal is to make sure either is geologically sound, that there is no potential for contamination once the used waste is stored deep below the ground, and that the people and communities in the immediate area are informed. That objective of keeping communities informed is, in part, what the Mobile Learn More Centre is about.
“It’s basically going through 21 northern communities, including Ignace and Kenora, so really covering the whole area” Ponka said.
“We’re very excited also to be going to several First Nations communities as well.”
When talking about the long-term impacts of the deep geological repository, Ponka said the initial goal the NWMO had when the Government of Canada tasked it with coming up with a safe and isolated storage location for the used nuclear fuel was to make sure whatever they wound up with would keep the public and environment safe for a length of time most people can’t fathom.
“This is going back to roughly 2021, and we started speaking to Canadians about what the plan to safely contain and isolate used nuclear fuel would look like,” he explained.
“That’s when we heard that a deep geological repository was the best long-term solution, because the benefit of that solution is that it really does look to the very long term, like, ‘will this be safe literally one million years from now?’ And it will be, because in all likelihood, in 50-60,000 years where both of us live could be under a few kilometres of ice, so our scientists want to make sure wherever this material is, it’s safe, it won’t be affected by this ice age. That’s a big factor; making sure everything is safe for the long-term.”
The final decision for the location of the depository site is expected to be made near to the end of 2023, at which point a decade of work will be started to do further environmental assessments and other regulatory work, after which construction will begin. The overall lifespan of the site is more than 100 years before it will eventually be decommissioned and sealed off.
The project is also facing opposition from groups like “We the Nuclear Free North,” who held a virtual webinar in May to highlight what they described as three areas of concern: informed consent, a lack of scientific evidence of the safety of deep geological repositories, and transportation.
For those who missed the NWMO’s Mobile Learn More Centre this time around, Ponka said the plan is to bring the unit back through communities in the future to help continue giving educational opportunities to those interested. More information can also be found on the NWMO’s website at nwmo.ca.