No Nuclear Waste Disposal in the Northwest – or anywhere else!

This article by Graham Saunders, president of Environment North was originally published in the Chronicle Journal on April 17, 2021. 

For the past decade Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organisation, the NWMO, has been looking for a site to dispose of highly radioactive or “high level” nuclear waste.   Most of this waste is currently stored next to three nuclear power generation plants in southern Ontario.  

The NWMO plan is to bury the nuclear waste in a deep geological repository (DGR). Two communities remain in the NWMO site selection process, Ignace in Northwestern Ontario and South Bruce in Southwestern Ontario.

While most countries with nuclear reactors around the world are considering some type of DGR, no final repository for high level nuclear waste is yet in operation.

A DGR in Finland is near completion. They are constructing the final tunnel which will be used as a test site under actual conditions. A successful test is one of the requirements for an operating licence.

A variety of unanticipated complications in the containment of nuclear waste have been occurring for decades. A few early attempts at burial have had shown the methods were not technically sound. In Germany there are two sites, now closed, for low and intermediate level nuclear waste in former salt mines. One started leaking radioactivity after 20 years and the other has ongoing issues with salt dome stability which pose safety concerns. A pilot project in New Mexico has had a number of accidents and malfunctions.

Stainless steel and copper are two of the materials proposed for constructing final storage canisters for the used nuclear fuel. Some research has shown that the containers may degrade sooner than anticipated. Last year, a 20-year study by the Swedish nuclear waste management organisation identified copper corrosion on their samples and the cause of this corrosion is being analysed. Among the organisations reviewing the study results is Sweden’s Non-governmental Environmental Office for Nuclear Waste Review or “nuclear watchdog”. They have significant concerns about copper as a suitable cannister material.

The Swedish Office for Nuclear Waste Review is funded by the Swedish nuclear waste fund. It is independent of the nuclear industry and actively participates in the nuclear waste consultation process. Canada does not have such an organisation.

A safe DGR may be an impossible task from both technical and societal acceptance perspectives. A facility must isolate the waste from the surrounding environment for at least 200,000 years. Affected communities must consider this risk of inconceivable length. There is no precedent for making these types of decisions.

Governments have permitted the nuclear industry to continue producing waste for decades without a solution for the long-lived toxic waste. Research on alternative ways to handle the waste is ongoing, including the possibility of transforming the waste into a much less radioactive form - hundreds of years rather than hundreds of thousands of years.

What is the best legacy to leave for future generations? Dr. Gordon Edwards, the president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, believes that “rolling stewardship” which entails carefully managing the waste on site, is best the decision until a better solution is found. Dr. Edwards has been a nuclear consultant for many years. In 2006 he won the Nuclear-Free Future award. He has been to Northwestern Ontario several times and Environment North is pleased welcome him back as the guest speaker at a virtual public presentation on Earth Day, Thursday April 22. The Environment North Annual General Meeting will begin at 6:15 pm and Dr. Edwards’ presentation “Canada’s Radioactive Waste: Abandonment versus Stewardship” will begin 7:00 pm. To register send Environment North an email (environmentnorth(at)gmail(dot)com