NWMO's options for storing nuclear waste


Mike Sterling for Canadian Community News

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Recently we wrote a summary of options for the care and storage of low, intermediate and high level waste.  It's an interesting and complex problem. 

In this article we will try to detail the process of determining the options as seen by Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO)

There has been a number of emails circulating in the community of Saugeen Shores that bring up issues and concerns.  Some of them are answered by NWMO documents and research has been completed in other countries.

Reading NWMO documents carefully, we see that they have considered many of the voiced concerns over a long period of time.  If you would like to read a base level NWMO document, Click Here.  Also, their main web site is here  Keeping in mind that this is an plan in progress, there is still a lot of information available.  It may take 7 to 10 years to select a site.

This article concentrates on what NWMO says officially.  They detail the options that they have come up with and they do not differ materially from the options that were exposed  a few weeks ago.  See

 'Possible Nuclear Waste Options':

Technology Possible Nuclear Waste Options  Read More

We will take key parts of their document and expand them to highlight some of the concerns that have been raised by emails and deputation before Council.  We have used quotes and italics, but it should be clear where our comments and their statements start and end.

The first thing to note is that the NWMO has a charter.  Here it is:

"The purpose of the NWMO is to develop collaboratively with Canadians a management approach for the long-term care of Canada’s used nuclear fuel that is socially acceptable, technically sound, environmentally responsible and economically feasible."

One of the arguments brought forward was that the NWMO is run by the companies that run the Nuclear Power Plants. (See videos in the Saugeen Times coverage of the Council Meeting)

Town Council/Video Chambers filled with opponents to DGR   Read More

"The Government of Canada passed legislation in 2002 that set a decision-making framework. Under the Nuclear Fuel Waste Act, the Government requires the owners of this waste to create an organization that will study the options and recommend a long-term management approach."

So one of the objections raised at Council is true.  The companies producing the waste are chartered to come up with a long term plan to care for it and NWMO is the key organization that to come up with the plan. 

NWMO is monitored by the nuclear regulatory agency, however.  The difference between perception and actuality is that the Government of Canada has the final say.  This is not unlike the day to day monitoring that goes on at nuclear power plants.  Eventually for-profit organizations will do some of the work and they will be  monitored.

The reason for the charter was to put the responsibility for recommendations where the operational expertise exists.

What is laid out below are the preliminary findings of NWMO.  These are the distilled options that they have come up with over time.  There are more that have not been included due to their not passing the original mandate.

"At Reactor Storage

Advantages: No transportation of used nuclear fuel would be required as the used fuel would remain next to where it is generated. Each of these sites  already houses nuclear installations, so there is nuclear expertise on site and in the existing communities.

These communities are familiar with the presence of nuclear facilities, including storage of used nuclear fuel.

 (M.S. Based upon talking to people in Saugeen Shores, it is doubtful that most  residents, who do not work at the Bruce have significant knowledge about what is stored and where, nor its risks)

Further, the ability to monitor the performance and the flexibility to adapt to changing conditions should be facilitated. The science and technology required are well in hand.

Limitations: The key disadvantage, shared with centralized storage, is the need for continuing administrative controls and operations, including the necessary funding, for the thousands of years the used nuclear fuel remains hazardous. Unlike centralized storage, at-reactor storage means continued management at a number of sites, each of which has, as its primary focus, the production of power, not the long-term management of used nuclear fuel.

These reactor sites were selected for their suitability for reactor operation, not for nuclear  fuel that will remain hazardous well beyond the almost certain shutdown and ultimate abandonment of the nuclear reactor sites. At-reactor storage would result in very long-term used nuclear fuel management at a number of sites located next to important bodies of water. This raises security, environmental and safety issues and adds significant uncertainty given the potential for changes in institutions and governance and the likelihood of extreme natural and human induced events over such an extended time."

"Centralized Storage

Advantages: Centralized storage, either aboveground or shallow below-ground, would allow for the site selection solely on the basis of used nuclear fuel management. If done well, siting can be achieved with community participation. These are both key potential advantages compared to at-reactor storage and apply to the siting of a deep-geological repository as well. Such a site could be either at an already existing nuclear site, if suitable, or at a different site should that prove more advantageous. With the option of shallow below-ground storage, some of the security concerns can likely be abated. As with at-reactor storage, the required science and technology are well in hand.

Limitations: Centralized storage shares with the at reactor storage option the key disadvantage of requiring effective and continuing administrative controls and operations, including the required funding, for thousands of years. It also would require the identification and development of a site with potentially contentious community involvement. Transportation of the used nuclear fuel to the site would be required with its attendant risks and costs."

"Deep Geological Repository

Advantages: The deep geological repository option results in the eventual permanent emplacement of the used nuclear fuel which reduces or may eliminate the necessity for long-term institutional and operational continuity and financial surety. As a consequence, after emplacement and closure, provision of long-term resources and funding are not required, although further actions are not precluded. The site is chosen with specific features as a requisite and, if done well, can be achieved with community participation. The intrinsic geologic, hydrologic and other features of the site, in combination with engineered features such as long-lived waste packages and material buffers, isolate the used nuclear fuel from the accessible environment for the very long time periods that they remain hazardous. Deep emplacement reduces security concerns, both before and after closure.

Limitations: Advance “proof ” that such a system works is not scientifically possible because performance is required over thousands of years. Detailed scientific studies, models and codes form the foundation of the assurances of performance provided to regulatory authorities and interested organizations and individuals.

Monitoring becomes more difficult as the used nuclear fuel is emplaced deep underground and as the site is backfilled and closed. At this stage adaptability and flexibility are also reduced as retrieval of the used fuel, for example, becomes much more difficult, costly, and hazardous. Siting must pay particular attention to intrinsic geologic features, perhaps limiting options more than for storage alternatives. As with centralized storage, community participation in regard to siting could be contentious and transportation of the used nuclear fuel will be required."

One of the objections raised in the community revolves around the idea that DGR is a new thing and has not been tried before.  We see in the above analysis that this is true because they cannot predict with surety over thousands of years via experiments in our time scale.  That is, they cannot do a 1000 or more year experiment, but they can insure safety within key guidelines.

Also, many in the community have not followed closely the DGR for low and intermediate waste.  Years of design and testing has gone into this project.

Although they cannot achieve thousands of years of experience with a deep geologic repository before it is built, it is clear that science can tell them what are the preferred options.   The data comes from geologic core samples and risk management models.  The former will give them site location and the latter the weight of the risks involved.

Further, it is worthy of note that the United States Yucca Mountain site failed primarily because of lack of community support.  Whether or not this was due to lack of substance or for political reasons remains to be determined.  The US spent some $30 Billion to construct the site.

NWMO is well aware of the importance of community support.  With these issues the word  'community' is extended because of the reach of radiation.  Whether storage is 'next door' or hundreds of kilometers away, everyone should be aware.  This was the reason for the 2002 charter for NWMO.  In a divided government that exists now in the United States is is not possible to press this issue at this time.

NWMO asks what is the preferred option and can it be explained and understood, when one considers all possible plans and sites?  As you can see from the NWMO analysis, continuing on as we have been is not without risks.  Deep understanding of the risks and options is hard to achieve and convey to a skeptical audience.  Risks become limitations in the NWMO explanations and vocabulary.

One thing is sure.  The government and the nuclear industry desire an informed public.  They feel that outreach and education are very important.

Many local residents have a vision for the community that is based upon family traditions and 5 year strategic plans for understandable issues such as taxes, water purity, beach grass, green space, parks, education and traffic control.

It appears that NWMO has chosen deep geologic repository as the best option for high level waste.  It may take 8 to 10 years to select a site.

For a further look at selection and process in another nearby community, please refer to:

Huron-Kinloss council Township meets with NWMO  Read More

Also, you can get a look at a community information forums in Southampton.

Feature DGR Open House draws lots of attention  Read More

Communities are not used to considering a plan that has to last thousands of years, where geographic dangers are measured in hundreds and thousands of miles. They are not used to considering dangers due to terrorism in Canada.  They are not used to having the world champion SWAT team  working in their behalf.

Next Time:

Another area to investigate is the new science of risk management and how it applies to nuclear waste storage.  NWMO uses models that show risk.  How do they form the individual distributions of risk.

Survey Participate in our latest Kincardine Times survey Read More Survey Participate in our latest Saugeen Times survey Read More Survey Participate in our latest Walkerton News survey Read More

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012