The NWMO and University of Guelph launch innovative eDNA research partnership

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) and the University of Guelph have partnered to launch a joint environmental DNA (eDNA) research program to further understand biodiversity conditions around potential repository sites in the Ignace area and South Bruce.

As part of this program, the University of Guelph’s Hanner Lab, alongside the NWMO’s environmental scientists, will be collecting and analyzing water samples to learn about aquatic species from surrounding areas. eDNA is a non-invasive technology to detect what species are present by looking at DNA that is naturally shed by animals. The data collected will inform the NWMO’s ongoing environmental baseline monitoring program and establish the baseline conditions of the ecosystems.

“The data we collect through our partnership with the University of Guelph will build on all our existing knowledge of the current local environments in the Ignace area and South Bruce,” says Melissa Mayhew, Senior Environmental Scientist at the NWMO. “Environmental protection begins with collecting and interpreting data so we can understand what biodiversity is present at potential repository sites and the health of those species. Using eDNA technology will complement our traditional research programs and will help us identify species that are harder to detect.”

To monitor for seasonal changes, eDNA sampling will take place at different times of the year when different species are most active. Work has started in the Ignace area and is expected to begin in South Bruce in 2022. This is the largest eDNA project to date for the University of Guelph’s Hanner Lab.

“This is an exciting research partnership because it doesn’t just benefit the NWMO or the University of Guelph – it will benefit the broader scientific community,” says Dr. Robert Hanner, Professor of Integrative Biology at the University of Guelph. “The data we collect will be shared with global databases so that future projects can benefit from our learnings. Environmental DNA is an emerging technology that has the potential to advance biodiversity surveys and contribute to the conservation of aquatic species.”

The research program was co-designed with local communities, conservation authorities and experts through a series of workshops to ensure that the NWMO is monitoring what local residents consider important, and is consistent with best and emerging practices. Once data collection is completed, the results will be released to the respective communities to guide informed decision-making.

“We heard very clearly from communities that trustworthy and transparent data collection, interpretation and reporting were critical to the success of the NWMO’s environmental baseline monitoring program,” says Mayhew. “Establishing partnerships with respected institutions like the University of Guelph is one way we are delivering on this.”

The environmental baseline monitoring program encompasses environmental features such as surface water, shallow groundwater, air, soil, farm products, plants and animals, and their habitats around the potential repository site and the surrounding region. This work will contribute to the organization’s eventual impact assessment process, which we will enter once a single, preferred location for a deep geological repository is selected.

About the University of Guelph’s Hanner Lab: The Hanner Lab is located at the University of Guelph in the College of Biological Sciences, housed in the Department of Integrative Biology. The University of Guelph is a research-intensive, learner-centred university. Its core value is the pursuit of truth. Its aim is to serve society and to enhance the quality of life through scholarship. Both in its research and in its teaching programs, the University is committed to a global perspective. The Hanner Lab prides itself on its research, mentorship, and training of highly qualified personnel. Central to this work is the translation and transfer of scientific knowledge through partnerships across faculties, institutions, and among government, industry, and academia.

About the NWMO: The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) is a not-for-profit organization tasked with the safe, long-term storage of Canada’s used nuclear fuel in a manner that protects people and the environment for generations to come. We are implementing Canada’s plan to safely contain and isolate used nuclear fuel inside a deep geological repository. The plan is based on years of public input, Indigenous Knowledge, international scientific consensus, and best practices from around the world. Canada’s plan will only proceed in an area with informed and willing hosts, where the municipality, First Nation and Métis communities, and others in the area are working together to implement it. The NWMO plans to select a site in 2023, and two areas remain in our site selection process: the Ignace area and South Bruce, both in Ontario. Transparent and accountable, the NWMO works in close co-operation with communities, all levels of government, national and international regulators, Indigenous peoples, industry, academia, and civil society organizations.