Storing nuclear waste a $24-billion problem

There are two million high-level radioactive fuel bundles sitting at temporary storage sites in Canada, as the Nuclear Waste Management Organization wrestles with the mandate of finding a community to host a central storage facility for the waste for perhaps tens of thousands of years.

There are two million high-level radioactive fuel bundles sitting at temporary storage sites in Canada, as the Nuclear Waste Management Organization wrestles with the mandate of finding a community to host a central storage facility for the waste for perhaps tens of thousands of years.

More than 120,000 high-level radioactive fuel bundles are stored at the Point Lepreau nuclear power plant in New Brunswick. (Canadian Press)

Throw in the fact that the cost of storing this nuclear waste could be up to $24 billion — a figure that will likely rise — and environmental groups are dead set against a central facility, and it shapes up to be a challenge of colossal proportions.

The process of finding a site to bury the high-level spent fuel has dragged on for decades as reactors keep churning out more spent bundles.

In 1998, after almost 10 years of study, a federal environmental assessment rejected the storage option. People involved at the time with the Seaborn Panel, as it was called, were convinced that the science was good but the central storage option did not have public support, as people feared accidents and contamination.

The 1998 decision will end up costing Canadians billions more as the cost of a storage facilty rises, pushed by inflation and unfavourable economic conditions.

The waste storage issue languished and lacked direction until the Nuclear Waste Management Organization was mandated by the federal government in 2002 to find a site and build a permanent, underground storage facility for the waste.

How dangerous is the spent fuel?

A description of the effects of the fuel was given to the federal government in 1993. It said this of the spent fuel:

"Most of the radioactive elements in the used fuel decay rapidly to stable elements. One hour after removal from the reactor, the used fuel bundles have lost over 60 per cent of their radioactivity; however, the remaining fission products are still highly penetrating. One year later, a person would still receive a lethal dose of radiation from the used fuel in about 10 minutes. After 500 years, the penetrating radiation is no longer a threat but the longer-lived elements still give off radiation that would prove dangerous if ingested."

The NWMO, made up of utilities that create and store nuclear spent fuel waste (each bundle is about the size of a fire log, weighs 24 kilograms, and is radioactive and dangerous to people), has been touring the country recently to gauge the response to a central facility in communities where waste is temporarily stored near reactors.

The group is moving ahead again with a target of 2035 for a central site.

In June 2009, the NWMO travelled to New Brunswick, site of the Point Lepreau nuclear generating station, which has been operating a Candu reactor since 1983. Like the nuclear sites in Ontario, Quebec and AECL's nuclear research facility in Manitoba, New Brunswick is storing spent waste (121,000 bundles) in temporary quarters at its site near the Bay of Fundy until a central site is built.

There have been detractors, but people in the province have generally accepted nuclear power and the presence of the plant in Point Lepreau, and there has been serious consideration given to adding an additional reactor.

In what could turn out to be one of the biggest construction projects in Canadian history, the NWMO said the host community for the central storage site will have hundreds of skilled workers on site during the construction phase, and that "wealth creation" in the form of personal income and business profits during the construction phase will be in the billions of dollars.

As well, during the first 30 years of operation, when the spent fuel is being transported for storage, NWMO estimates spending will be in the range of $200 million each year - again benefiting the host community.

But despite those big economic numbers consider the New Brunswick government's reaction when it was suggested by NWMO that any of the four Canadian provinces involved in the nuclear industry could be home to the central storage facility. (The group has yet to even approve the process by which a site is selected for "deep geological repository," as it is called).

"I don't care. I mean I don't care. Have they done research on New Brunswick for nuclear waste? I would suggest they haven't," said the province's Energy Minister Jack Keir.

NWMO clearly has work to do in certain areas.

The money trail

The NWMO estimates it will cost somewhere in the range of $16 billion to $24 billion to site, build and maintain a central storage facility big enough and safe enough to handle the bundles. Some of the money will be used to store bundles at reactor sites before they are moved.

Ontario Power Generation, NB Power Nuclear, Atomic Energy Canada Limited, and Hydro-Quebec have been paying into a trust fund since 2002, building up a nest of $1.5 billion by 2009.

The four nuclear partners are kicking in money to the trust fund each year and will be contributing $163 million in total by 2011. The overall fund is expected to grow to more than $2 billion by 2011, and increase to cover the construction costs of the facility. Given the recession and the financial crisis that began in the fall of 2008, the rate of return on the trust fund will likely have to be adjusted, as many funds lost money or saw a much lower rate of return.

"It's a leap of faith that the [trust] money will be enough," said Julie Michaud, with the New Brunswick Conservation Council.

Mike Buckthought of the Sierra Club Canada said he has no faith in the cost estimates.

"Look at [the nuclear industry's] track record. Whenever we see an estimate for the cost of a plant, the cost is higher. It's the same for this," said Buckthought.

Michael Krizanc, communications manager at NWMO, said the nuclear partners are mandated to cover the construction costs and operation of a central storage facility. He is confident the trust fund will cover costs, and said the federal government will not be on the hook for future money.

What is not known is what the effect on everyday ratepayers would be if the price balloons and the utilities must cover those costs somehow.

How spent fuel bundles are handled

"Canada has been generating electricity from nuclear power for more than 40 years. In that time just over two million used fuel bundles have been produced. Each fuel bundle is about the size and shape of a fireplace log, weighing approximately 24 kg," says NWMO.

"After a fuel bundle is removed from a reactor it is safely managed in facilities licensed for temporary storage at the reactor site. First it is placed in a water-filled pool for seven to 10 years while its heat and radioactivity decreases. Afterwards, used fuel bundles are typically placed in dry storage containers, silos or vaults."

Krizanc admitted that his group does not have access to money (and guaranteed money) that was set aside by reactor operators before 2002 for decommissioning and temporary waste management, a figure that reaches into the billions of dollars. Much of the money set aside at that time will likely go to decommissioning plants, a process that is a huge drain on finances.

The nuclear plants operated for decades without paying into a long-term fund.

A spokesman for the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission said his organization did not require the plants to contribute money to a long-term storage plan but did require money for the temporary sites.

The NWMO essentially started fresh in 2002 with regard to finances, despite the fact reactors were creating spent bundles for more than 20 years previously.

A new estimate of the storage costs is expected in the next year, and nobody knows at this point what the tally will be, but given the economic conditions it will be no surprise if it goes beyond $24 billion, a figure that has more than doubled since the early 1990s.

A recap of the Seaborn Panel's report can be found on the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency's website, along with a reference to what the cost of the central site would have been about 10 years ago.

"The cost of a facility based on the concept, estimated by AECL in 1991 dollars, would range from $8.7 billion for five million fuel bundles to $13.3 billion for 10 million bundles, excluding financing costs, taxes, non-routine activities (such as waste retrieval), transportation and any extended monitoring stages," according to the report.

In the United States, the Yucca Mountain central storage project in Nevada was plagued by huge cost overruns, fought by environmentalists and was not welcomed in the end by many residents in Nevada. It was cancelled in February 2009 by President Barack Obama before any fuel was stored, after $9 billion had been spent.

Environmental concerns, social issues

The bundles will have to be stored for perhaps as long as 10,000 years or more as their radioactive nature decreases. The copper and steel containers will be put underground and built to last as long as 100,000 years and withstand pressure from a two kilometre-thick glacier, if an ice age comes in the meantime.

NWMO's initial site screening criteria

  • Have enough available land to accommodate the surface and underground facilities. (The project requires a surface area of about two by three kilometres of open land. Most of the site surface will be suited to landscaped grounds. The surface buildings that would be constructed would cover a small fraction of the total land area.)
  • Be outside of protected areas, heritage sites, provincial parks and national parks.
  • Not contain groundwater resources at the repository depth, so that the repository site is unlikely to be disturbed by future generations.
  • Not contain economically exploitable natural resources as known today, so that the repository site is unlikely to be disturbed by future generations.
  • Not be located in areas with known geological and hydrogeological features that would prevent the site from being safe.

The storage site, however, will likely include a design so that future generations can access the spent fuel (which still has some juice, so to speak) and use it if they choose, as Canada's easily accessed uranium reserves could diminish within 100 years. The material could be reprocessed, for example, and used in a special reactor.

After use in a nuclear power plant the bundles contain radioactive material which can emit X-rays and gamma rays as well as high energy alpha particles and beta particles, which can damage human tissue and cause cancer.

There are two ways the material can get into the environment and create havoc - through the air or through the water table.

The New Brunswick Conservation Council worries about the transportation of the waste to a central site and the potential that journey offers for an accident which could possibly contaminate water tables for centuries. The group, which is against nuclear power, said the only alternative to a central storage facility is keeping the waste on site at the various reactors, where it is being stored now.

"It's easy to access, easy to manage, rather than trucking it somewhere in the country. That's a terrible idea," said Michaud.

In this day and age, terrorism is also a concern, and the issue is being considered.

According to the NWMO's website, "the used fuel is shipped in heavy, impact-resistant containers, so it is not easily removed, accessed or damaged. A current typical road transport container weighs about 23 metric tonnes."

"Removal of the container lid requires special tools and lifting equipment. The used fuel is also highly radioactive, and if removed from the transport container, it would present considerable personal hazard to a hijacker."

Armed guards will be a consideration, all of which could be daunting for a community considering whether or not to be a host for the facility.

Jeremy Whitlock, who works for AECL and is a past president of the Canadian Nuclear Society, said there are likely communities that are willing to step up. A community has to be engaged, "trust the science" and be convinced that the economic benefits are worthy.

A community can't be forced to take the facility, he said.


This is an artist's rendition of what the central storage facility might look like above ground and underground, and shows what the spent fuel bundles will be stored in. (Courtesy NWMO)