How to put Canada's nuclear waste to bed

What do you do with two million highly radioactive nuclear fuel rods, enough to fill six hockey rinks, sitting in seven locations hundreds of kilometres apart? Canada has a plan.

Plan would bury spent nuclear fuel rods deep underground

Canada is working through a plan to store highly enriched nuclear waste from its seven nuclear sites, including the Pickering nuclear reactor in Ontario. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

Canada's nuclear industry has a problem. And, by extension, so do all Canadians.

Sitting in seven locations across Eastern and Central Canada are more than two million fire-log-sized used nuclear fuel-rod bundles. That's enough to fill six hockey rinks up to the top of the boards.

Even though the bundles are used, they are still radioactive — dangerously, fatally so. And they are going to be that way for the next few hundred thousand years.

Canada is currently attempting to find a location to store spent nuclear fuel bundles like this one, which will remain radioactive for more than 200,000 years. (

If you want to put that in perspective, think about Homo sapiens. Humans have only existed in our present form for about the last 200,000 years. Most of that time was spent running around hunting other animals and gathering nuts and plants in an effort to keep from starving.

Nuclear power is brand new by comparison — about 70 years old. And yet, the detritus of our quest for electricity with the help of broken atoms will be with us, in our terms, forever.

So what do you do with more than two million bundles of used nuclear fuel that once powered the country's Candu reactors?

Canada has a plan.

Bury it — deep

Under the deep geological repository plan, spent nuclear fuel bundles would be encased in copper containers, then embedded in holes bored into rock 500 metres below ground. (Nuclear Waste Management Organization)

In 2002, the federal government passed the Nuclear Fuel Waste Act. The law mandated that Canada's nuclear energy companies — Ontario Power Generation, New Brunswick Power and Hydro-Québec — create something called the Nuclear Waste Management Organization.

NWMO's job is "to study possible approaches, recommend and then implement a plan for the long-term management of used nuclear fuel in Canada," according to the organization's May 2010 document Moving Forward Together.

Warning future generations

Once you get the nuclear waste in the ground, how do you make sure people thousands of years in the future know enough not to dig them up too soon? Some people have done some thinking about that.

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The agency considered several options, but the 2002 law specifically required the organization to study three different methods:

  • Deep geological disposal in the Canadian Shield.
  • Storage at nuclear reactor sites.
  • Centralized storage, either above or below ground.

The NWMO liked elements of each method and eventually came up with what it called "adaptive phased management."

Essentially, this means finding a willing town in or near the Canadian Shield, sink a 500-metre shaft and at the bottom build a network of tunnels where the nuclear fuel bundles — which the NWMO estimates will total about four million by the time Canada's nuclear reactors are retired, in about 40 years — will live. Forever.

Dangerous bundles will need to be moved

The other wrinkle is getting the waste from reactors and research facilities where it's resting now, to a deep geological repository hundreds, possibly thousands, of kilometres away. The NWMO says that if the waste is moved by road, there will be at least 53 truck shipments a month to the repository over a period of 30 years or more. Trains and ships might also be used.

Most of Canada's spent nuclear fuel is stored above ground in metal containers at seven reactor sites. The fuel bundles are first cooled in water for 10 years. (

The agency admits the odds are there will be some sort of an accident. But even if there is, it is confident there will be no leak of radiation.

The containers for the bundles will be made of 30-centimetre-thick steel, with an even thicker slab for a top that acts as a shock absorber and is secured in place by 32 bolts the length and width of a man's arm. Each box carries four tonnes of used nuclear fuel and, fully loaded, weighs about 35 tonnes.

In 1984, the U.K.'s Central Electricity Generating Board put on a little demonstration to demonstrate how tough these boxes are. They put one in the middle of a railroad track and ran a locomotive at it. The train exploded into bits. The shipping container needed a new coat of paint.

The NWMO says other countries' nuclear trash will not be put in our repository. And the only thing that will end up down there is used nuclear fuel — the dirtiest and most dangerous of Canada's nuclear waste.

That's the plan. Now all they have to do is find a suitable host town and convince Canadians they can get the bundles there safely.