Canada narrows list of possible locations for nuclear waste facility

Canada is a step closer to picking a place to store spent nuclear fuel underground for the next 100,000 years, a project that's backfired on some of the world's other nuclear economies.

7 of 22 municipalities dropped from list of potential sites

Canada is a step closer to picking a place to store spent nuclear fuel underground for the next 100,000 years, a project that's backfired on some of the world's other nuclear economies.

Despite the stigma of radioactivity, 22 Canadian municipalities expressed interest in hosting such a facility. Four have now been moved up the list for further evaluation, while seven have been rejected as not suitable. The other 11 are still in the initial assessment phase.

Final approval could take another couple of decades, but if a site is found and approval given to build a Deep Geologic Repository (DGR), the project will generate thousands of jobs, some lasting generations. 

Billions would be spent constructing a vast warehouse over 500 metres underground to contain some of the most radioactive waste in the world.  

Deadly byproduct

Nuclear energy has helped meet Canada's electricity needs for more than 40 years, but a deadly byproduct has been steadily building up as a result.

There's a growing inventory of spent uranium pellets. The radioactive pellets are stored inside long tubes bundled together like 24-kilogram logs.

Spent uranium pellets from nuclear reactors are stored inside long tubes that are bundled together like 24-kilogram logs.
Heading the search for a secure place to store those tubes is the Nuclear Waste Management Organisation (NWMO), funded by Canada's four nuclear agencies, which describes the situation this way: "If Canada's entire current inventory of just over two million used fuel bundles could be stacked end-to-end, like cordwood, it would fit into six NHL-sized hockey rinks from the ice surface to the top of the boards."

At present, spent fuel is stored at seven different sites across Canada, including at the reactors it once powered. But that’s not a long-term solution, because in time those reactors will be decommissioned and dismantled.

In its quest for a site, the NWMO took the novel step of asking Canadian communities if they'd think about hosting the highly-radioactive payload.

"Well, we didn't know what to expect" said Jo-Ann Facella, director of social research and dialogue at the NWMO.

"We put out the plan that Canadians had come forward with and the government had selected as Canada's plan. And an important part of that plan, it emerged from Canadians, is that these facilities only be implemented in a willing host."

What also came back were expressions of interest from 22 different municipalities, tempted in part by the promise of employment if they’re chosen. Some were also drawn by the fact that for taking part in the selection process, they'll get $400,000 even if they're not chosen, providing they advance far enough in the process and a DGR is ultimately approved. 

All those on the list are from Ontario and Saskatchewan, none from the nuclear-power provinces of New Brunswick and Quebec. (Ontario already hosts the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station, where a proposal to construct another DGR on-site for low-to-intermediate level nuclear waste is far more advanced.)

Among the first communities to move up the list is Creighton, Sask. - population 1,500 - where every Monday is Bingo Night, but the town has never won the jackpot of jobs, says Mayor Bruce Fidler.

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)
"We've been looking at different things throughout a number of years to attract more business, more industry to the area. So that's why we are learning more about this process."

Creighton is the only Saskatchewan site left on the list. But southern Ontario sits on just the right kind of rock, a thick plate of limestone delightfully named the Ordovician Cobourg Formation. Water contamination and seismic activity is not thought to be an issue for a facility built in that kind of rock, though 24 American reactor operators "cannot show that their reactors would withstand the most severe earthquake that revised estimates say they might face," according to the New York Times this week. 

Three Ontario towns with promising geology are moving to the next level of evaluation for a DGR; Hornepayne, Ignace and Schreiber.

Eleven other Ontario sites are still in the early stages of assessment; Blind River, Brockton, Central Huron, Elliot Lake, Huron-Kinloss, Manitouwadge, Nipigon, North Shore, South Bruce, Spanish, and White River.

Seven sites have been turned down because their geology’s not right, or they lack the 250 acres of  land above ground for ventilation buildings. They include English River First Nation, and Pinehouse in Saskatchewan.  And in Ontario, Arran-Elderslie, Ear Falls, Saugeen Shores, Wawa, and the Township of Red Rock.

Mixed reception

In Saugeen Shores on Lake Huron, Mayor Mike Smith expressed regret about missing out on the potential economic bonanza a DGR project would bring, but notes nuclear waste is also controversial.

Canada's spent nuclear fuel is temporarily being stored at seven main facilities across the country.
"It's in the neighbourhood of a $30-billion project, so I think that's a fairly big infrastructure project that would have big economic benefits. But it would also have some pretty big social effects on our community."

Indeed, the rejection notice is welcome to some.

"We are very pleased the NWMO has eliminated us from the siting process" said Pat Gibbons, speaking for Save Our Saugeen Shores, a citizen's group opposing DGRs in the region.

"We feel that the Great Lakes Basin is not the appropriate place to bury nuclear radioactive waste."

That's because of fears of leaks in and out of underground nuclear facilities. It has happened before.  

In Lower Saxony, German engineers at a salt mine used as a DGR for radioactive waste since 1967 have discovered water coming in, and that the structure has begun to weaken. A salt mine in Morsleben used for similar purposes has also become unstable.

More recently, American authorities shut down the DGR near Carlsbad, New Mexico, in February after workers were exposed to radioactive gas that was also detected above ground.

We need to meet robust technical requirements, but at the end of the day it's going to be the decision of society when, and if, and under what conditions, we want to move forward with this project.- Jo-Ann Facela, NWMO

The NWMO's Jo-Ann Facela contends a DGR in Canada would involve more sophisticated controls and technology than anything that exists today. 

"We need to meet robust technical requirements, but at the end of the day it's going to be the decision of society when, and if, and under what conditions, we want to move forward with this project."

And if that's not enough, the narration in one of the NWMO's promotional videos adds a dash of guilt to the pitch. 

"Canadians have told us that our generation - which benefits from nuclear energy - has an obligation to move forward now with a long-term management program for the used fuel we produce. It would be unfair to future generations to wait any longer."

Meanwhile, Canada is piling more spent fuel bundles on to those virtual ice rinks every year.


Rick MacInnes-Rae

World Affairs

Until his retirement in July 2014, Rick MacInnes-Rae was the World Affairs Correspondent for CBC News. A former Europe Correspondent and host of Dispatches, his 37-year- career with the CBC has taken him across much of the globe.