This article came from Northern Life, Sudbury’s biweekly newspaper.
If the entire current stock of used nuclear fuel in Canada were stacked like cordwood, it could fit into the space the size of six hockey arenas, from the ice surface to the top of the boards.
Of course, used nuclear fuel isn’t stored in hockey arenas. But what exactly happens to it? The uranium dioxide pellets are contained in half-metre-long cylindrical bundles made of a strong, corrosion-resistant metal called Zircaloy.
So far, in the 40 years nuclear power has been used in this country, we’ve produced two million of these bundles. After coming out of a nuclear power plant reactor, this material is “cooled” in pools of water known as used fuel bays on site at nuclear facilities for at least 10 years, until it becomes less radioactive.
Then it’s moved from the used fuel bays into robust concrete and steel containers, and stored in large warehouses on the station site. Although these containers are designed to last at least 50 years, they’re not a permanent solution.
The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) was created to look at just this problem. The NWMO, founded by the country’s nuclear producers, derives its mandate from the Nuclear Fuel Waste Act, which came into force in November 2002.
The new organization’s first task was to do a three-year study on “possible approaches for the long-term management of nuclear fuel,” according to Jo-Ann Facella, the NWMO’s director of social research and dialogue.
Canadians told them that the ultimate goal should be to bury the country’s current and future nuclear waste deep underground, in a facility known as a “deep geological repository.”
“But they also said that in moving towards that ultimate goal, they wanted us to do it…so that we were making decisions in a series of steps, and involving ordinary Canadians in those decisions at each point along the way,” Facella said.
In 2010, the NWMO began the site-selection process for the deep geological repository, a process which is expected to last at least eight years.
The organization only works with communities interested in potentially hosting the facility – it doesn’t approach any communities itself.
A number of northern Ontario communities have expressed interest in the project, including some relatively close neighbours of Greater Sudbury’s — Elliot Lake, Blind River, Spanish and the North Shore.
Both of these communities, along with Nipigon and White River in northwestern Ontario, and Saugeen Shores, Brockton, Huron-Kinloss and South Bruce, are at step two of the site selection process, meaning they’re learning more and undergoing initial screenings.
Wawa, another fellow northeastern Ontario community, is in step three of the site selection process, meaning it’s undergoing preliminary assessments.
Ear Falls, Ignace, Schreiber and Hornepayne in northwestern Ontario, along with English River First Nation, Pinehouse and Creighton in Saskatchewan are also at this step.
“We’re not in control of who comes forward, but Canadians told us we should be focusing on the provinces that are involved in the nuclear fuel cycle because they’ve had a benefit from it,” Facella said.
“That would be Saskatchewan for uranium mining and Ontario and Quebec and New Brunswick, because they have nuclear power plants.”
The NWMO is planning to suspend the expressions of interest phase of the project on Sept. 30 of this year, meaning new communities would no longer be eligible to participate in the project.
The $16 to $24 billion deep geological repository, which would be paid for by the country’s nuclear power producers, is a multiple-barrier system designed to safely contain and isolate used nuclear fuel over the long term, according to information provided by the NWMO.
It will be constructed at a depth of roughly 500 metres, depending on the geology of the site, and will consist of a network of placement rooms for used fuel.
Used nuclear fuel will be loaded into specially-designed and certified containers at the reactor sites, and transported to the repository site, where it will be repackaged in corrosion-resistant containers made of copper for placement in the repository.
The containers will be lowered through a shaft and transported underground to one of many placement rooms. The containers will be placed in vertical or horizontal boreholes drilled into the rock. They will then be sealed using bentonite clay.
The used fuel will be monitored and will be retrievable. It will be sealed only when the community, the NWMO and regulators agree that it is appropriate.
“The design is to ensure that people in the environment are protected for now and in the future,” Mahrez Ben Belfadhel, director of geoscience with NWMO, said. “We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of years.”
Given the consultations, regulatory approvals and construction time lines, the NWMO estimates the earliest this facility will be in place is 2035, making it a mulch-generational project.
A number of factors are used to choose an appropriate area for the facility. This includes the right type of rock – either sedimentary or granitic rock – and a site that’s stable and not likely to be substantially changed by future geological process and climate changes.
Another factor is avoiding areas which might be subject to future human activities such as mining and exploitable groundwater resources at the repository depth.
Greater Sudbury, with its rich mineral resources, was not among the communities which expressed an interest in the project. Had it done so, though, the exploitable minerals in the area might not have excluded it as a potential site, Belfadhel said.
“In our site selection criteria, we have one criterion that the repository should not be in an area where there are exploitable natural resources,” he said.
“What we mean is the repository should not be in the vicinity of resources. It can be at a certain distance, though. A general mining area doesn’t mean that area could not be potentially suitable.”
One thing is for sure, though — the project will be good for the economy in the community it’s located in, and for surrounding areas, according to the NWMO.
It will create 600-800 jobs during construction, and 300 jobs while it’s been operated. During the long-term monitoring of the facility, there will still be some jobs on site. In terms of spinoff jobs in the surrounding region, those could amount to about 3,000, Facella said.
When asked if Greater Sudbury’s mining supply and service sector, given its expertise in mining and technology, could benefit, Belfadhel said it’s quite possible they will.
“This project requires a wide range of expertise, going from mining to other trades,” he said.
“Any area with experience in building infrastructures will have the type of resources that are required for this project. This project is too big for a community. The region that is surrounding the host community will certainly benefit from the project.”
Belfadhel said it’s certainly rewarding for him to work on a project that has such long-reaching consequences.
“On a personal level, I feel I’m contributing to a very important aspect of our society,” he said. “I’m doing it for myself, my children, and the children of my children.”
For more information about the Nuclear Waste Management Organization, visit www.nwmo.ca.
Northern Life reporter Heidi Ulrichsen recently attended a briefing on the future of the country’s nuclear waste. Check back to NorthernLife.ca over the coming week for more articles on this subject.