Nuclear Fuel Waste in Canada

by Anna Tilman

Nuclear waste, especially nuclear fuel wastes from reactors, also called high-level radioactive wastes, is the greatest danger caused by the nuclear industry.  This fuel, otherwise known as irradiated fuel or “spent” fuel, contains hundreds of radioactive elements that are the products of fission in a reactor. Many of them are not found in nature. This fuel is lethal in seconds to anyone nearby. It will leave an indelible mark on the planet for eons.

Determined to allay long-standing public concerns about this waste, the

nuclear industry  and  their  supportive  governments worldwide  have  advocated Deep Geological Repositories (DGRs) as the “final  solution”  to safely contain these wastes. To date, no DGR for spent fuel has been built or is operating anywhere in the world.

There is no assurance that this waste could be safely and permanently contained in DGRs. No computer models can accurately take into account all the complexities that could be encountered from burying this deadly waste deep underground or provide assurance that, over a million or more years, radioactivity would not be released. Natural systems are far too complicated and ever-changing for a complete, accurate model to be valid, or even possible.  
Nothing is immutable, not even rocks. Containers will eventually corrode. Cracks and fissures will develop in the rock formations, and widen over time. Groundwater will seep in. Water and gas contaminated with radionuclides will penetrate the barriers in the repository. Chemical and microbial processes and interactions will occur, with unpredictable results. Climate change, glaciations, and earthquakes could severely destabilise the repository. And then, there is the possibility of accidental and even intentional intrusion into the repository by future generations.
DGRs really only serve as a construct to hide the waste – out of sight, out of mind.
Arguably, there is no safe place on the planet to store this waste. No “final solution” may even exist. But as long as we continue to produce this waste, the problem escalates.  

Concept of the DGR

In the mid 1970s, in the wake of rising public concern over nuclear waste, a number of commissions and studies were established on the future of nuclear power. Notably, the 1996 UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution report (known as the Flowers Report) stated that “… it would be morally wrong to commit future generations to the consequences of fission power on a massive scale unless it has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that at least one method exists for the safe isolation of these wastes for the indefinite future.”
The 1978 Porter Commission’s interim report on Electric Power Planning in Ontario recommended a moratorium on additional nuclear power stations if there was no satisfactory progress on radioactive waste management by 1985.

The pressure was on to deal with this waste – otherwise nuclear power was doomed, or so it seemed. And this was prior to Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima.  
During this same period, the Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), along with its industry and government partners, worked on developing a concept for the ultimate disposal of Canada’s nuclear fuel waste.
In a nutshell, the concept was to bury all of this waste in the Canadian Shield 500 to 1,000 metres deep, where it would be safe essentially “forever.” That concept was and still is the theory behind a Deep Geological Repository.

In 1988, the AECL concept was put through a lengthy federal environmental assessment public review process. The Seaborn Panel Report, issued ten years later, concluded that while technically feasible, neither the safety nor acceptability of the DGR disposal concept had been demonstrated.
In November 2002, the federal government established the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) under the Nuclear Fuel Waste Act (NFWA), but, contrary to the recommendation of the Seaborn Panel, they placed the nuclear industry (Ontario Power Generation, Hydro Québec, New Brunswick Power, and AECL) in charge. To no one’s surprise, the approach recommended by NWMO and endorsed by the federal government on June 14, 2007, was a multi-year process called “Adaptive Phase Management” that would lead to a DGR being located in an “informed and willing host community.”
In May 2010, the NWMO began  the search for such a community focussing on sites in “nuclear” provinces.
As of August 2012, twenty-one communities have expressed interest as a potential site, three in Saskatchewan, twelve in Northern Ontario and six in central Ontario.

The NWMO suspended the call for expressions of interest September 30, 2012, and over the next few years, will focus on feasibility studies in these communities. However, it reserves the option to reopen the site selection process.  

There are several strikes against the NWMO approach.
First, the AECL concept was premised on the Canadian Shield as a suitable rock formation for the DGR. The NWMO included Ordovician sedimentary rock (i.e., limestone) as a suitable rock formation in addition to the crystalline rock of the Shield. This widened the search to communities not on the Shield.
Secondly, the NWMO’s approach to public consultation is seriously flawed.  The NWMO, that is the industry, sets the rules of engagement, controls the purse, hires consultants, decides who qualifies as a third-party expert and ultimately determines the outcome. It has all the funding it needs to hold community meetings, hire consultants, produce countless reports, pamphlets, backgrounders, etc., all nuanced toward DGRs and the economic benefits that would be derived by the host community.

This illustrates the enormous democratic imbalance and accountability gap of the whole process. Yet the many billions of dollars (estimated anywhere from $16-24 billion) for the DGR project ultimately is from the public purse.
Clearly, the siting of a DGR can easily cause animosity and divisions within the community that could last for a very long time and perhaps never heal. The burden on these communities to make decisions for not only the present but far-into-the future generations is severely onerous.
Not all of the “interested communities” are welcoming the NWMO and DGR with open arms. For example, the town of Saugeen Shores on Lake Huron unanimously passed a resolution to advance to the next phase in the site selection process, despite a petition drawn up by a community group (Save Our Saugeen Shores (SOS)) that included over 800 signatures and 500 written submissions opposed.  (Note: The most recent SOS petition signature count, which was last made public in a deputation to Saugeen Shores Council on Nov. 12, 2012 had over 2200 signatures -ed.)   

Furthermore, Great Lakes United, an international citizens’ coalition dedicated to protecting the Great Lakes, has recently adopted a resolution brought forward by this group opposing the siting of any DGR in the Great Lakes Basin.

Status of Nuclear Fuel Waste

As is the practice in the world today, nuclear fuel wastes are stored in pools and/or dry storage containers in waste management facilities at each of the reactor sites. Because this waste is so deadly that exposure to it can cause skin burns, radiation sickness, and instant death, it must be kept in water-filled pools for about 10 years to cool it and block its radiation. After this period, the fuel is transferred to dry storage sites, where it remains  until or if a centralized storage site (DGR) is found.

To date, in Canada approximately 50,000 tonnes of nuclear fuel waste is in storage at reactor sites, with another 1,700 tonnes or so generated each year. When these reactors reach the end of their life, the total used fuel produced is projected to range anywhere from about 56,000 to 102,000 tonnes, depending upon whether current reactors are refurbished.
When these reactors are eventually dismantled and decommissioned, a very lengthy process, there will be even more radioactive waste to contend with. Each reactor site will become a radioactive-contaminated site for centuries, whether this waste is centrally stored or not.  

The Nuclearization of Ontario

Ontario, home to 18 out of 20 operating nuclear reactors in Canada, has put itself on a path of nuclear expansion, with plans to build new reactors and refurbish old ones. Nuclear power already accounts for about 58% of electricity generated in Ontario. On a per-capita basis, with a population of just over 13 million, it has one of the world’s highest per capita dependency on nuclear power. The financial costs of these nuclear projects are in the multi-billions.  

Given that the case for a centralized DGR as a long-term solution has not been convincingly made, and this waste continues to be generated, several organizations and individuals would rather see this waste stored on or near surface on site, where it can be monitored, and retrieved if needed, and guarded generation after generation.
Seventy years after the first cupful of radioactive waste was generated, the world is confronted with the proliferation of nuclear weapons and a mountain of nuclear waste of more than 270,000 tonnes of irradiated nuclear fuel from atomic reactors alone.


Anna Tilman is an activist and researcher who has written the Yellowcake Trail series for the Watershed Sentinel.

Selected Sources
Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution Sixth Report (1976); Chairman Sir Brian (now Lord) Flowers:

Race Against Time: The Ontario Royal Commission on Electric Power Planning Interim Report on Nuclear Power in Ontario, Chairman Arthur Porter (1978)
AECL concept:

Report of the Nuclear Fuel Waste Management And Disposal Concept Environmental Assessment (Seaborn Panel Report) February 1998:

SOS DGR Backgrounder-August 2012

Moving Forward Together: Process for Selecting a Site for Canada’s Deep Geological Repository for Used Nuclear Fuel, Nuclear Waste Management Organization, May 2010

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