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We Still Don't Know Where to Bury Our Nuclear Waste

The US still hasn't built its long-term nuclear waste storage facility. Canada may get there first.

​When US Senate minority leader Harry Reid announced his imminent retirement last month, all eyes looked to Yucca Mountain. The long-time Senator from Nevada has spent much of his career opposing a long-term nuclear waste storage facility proposed at the desert site. With his sizeable influence set to disappear in 2017, many hope—or fear—that a Republican congress could reverse President Obama's 2010 decision to defund the project for good.


In Canada, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) has viewed such drama with great interest. While America's national nuclear waste repository has been hamstrung by decades of infighting and scientific controversy, mostly over its site selection failures, the NWMO is determined not to make the same mistakes up north.

NWMO's plan has been dubbed the Adaptive Phased Management (APM) program, and if completed it will store all of Canada's spent nuclear fuel in a single, enormous underground repository. Only nine northern Ontario communities remain on the list of candidates that the NWMO hopes will be both willing and able to host this country's stockpiles of nuclear waste, and a selection could be made as early as 2018.

Canada has enough nuclear material to fill seven hockey rinks, from the ice to the top of the boards

What to do with Canada's nuclear waste is a pressing concern in a country where 2.5 million spent nuclear fuel bundles are currently kept at or near the reactors that burned them. The NWMO visualizes this volume of nuclear material as large enough to fill seven regulation hockey rinks, from the ice to the top of the boards.

Any location suitable to store that much nuclear material must have an enormous volume of stable geology. The vertical shafts will stretch 500 metres into the Earth, but the storage complex itself will spread outward laterally from there. The waste bundles are contained in heavily shielded casks which can be safely monitored for hundreds of years, and eventually sealed underground for up to a million.


Combined with a transportation plan for securely moving spent fuel from reactors to the chosen storage site, the APM program has an estimated price of roughly $18-billion. Costs could run significantly higher, however, as that number is based on the prospect of storing a projected 3.6 million fuel bundles, while Canada could have as many as 4.6 million bundles before shutdown of all its currently operational reactors. Until a storage site is selected, most of this volume will be stored at power plants which are, by necessity, in some of the most heavily populated portions of the country.

NWMO communications manager Michael Krizanc told Motherboard the organization is very aware of the example set by the United States, and that it has policies in place to keep from falling into the same pitfalls that caused the Yucca Mountain boondoggle.

Foremost among the American failures was a crisis of confidence; in Nevada, citizens overwhelmingly felt that the repository was foisted on them without their consent or even consultation. With a 1987 amendment to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, what had begun as a study including Yucca Mountain as one of its three possible sites became little more than a Yucca Mountain approval project. In a move some refer to as the "Screw Nevada Bill," the US congress declared that Yucca was the only site worth further study for national storage of America's spent nuclear fuel.


Here in Canada, the NWMO is emphatic that "the project will not be imposed on any community." Though the list of possible candidate sites is now just nine, down from the original 22, Krizanc made it clear that "none of these communities have said that they are interested in the project. The only commitment they've made is to learning."

Image: NWMO

The necessity of such diplomatic language is made clear by more than just American infighting; several of the NWMO's own candidate communities have recently mounted protests and anti-nuclear awareness campaigns. This includes Saskatchewan's Pinehouse and English River First Nations, which were recently dropped from the selection process.

The nine remaining candidate communities—all in Ontario—are Blind River, Central Huron, Elliot Lake, Hornepayne, Huron-Kinloss, Ignace, Manitouwadge, South Bruce and White River.

Now that all Saskatchewan communities have been dropped from consideration, it's possible that the NWMO will enjoy a reprieve from activist groups like the Committee for Future Generations—but if the story of Yucca Mountain is an accurate guide, that's an unlikely outcome. With cross-country groups like Greenpeace already weighing in, the NWMO should be prepared not only to select a site with high levels of local support, but to defend that selection against national scrutiny.

Assuming one of Ontario's remaining communities does turn out to be both geologically and culturally ready for the project, there will still be more hurdles to overcome. The next big challenge will be developing policy surrounding spent fuel transportation. Physically moving spent fuel between facilities presents the biggest risks of accident, theft, and sabotage.

Krizanc said that the NWMO will have to demonstrate not only a safe transportation method, in terms of technology and procedures, but a safe transportation route. Some form of armed escort will accompany every one of the hundreds of shipments from all over Canada.

The storage and transport projects will be long term, multi-stage affairs; even on an optimistic timeline, a successfully placed repository project might not see the first fuel bundle actually arrive until 2035, and more likely later. Until then, mid-term solutions, like dry cask storage at power plants all over the country, will simply have to do.