Dry storage containers for nuclear waste are a key part of Canada’s Adaptive Phased Management Plan. Image courtesy of Nuclear Waste Management Organization.

Final countdown to site selection for Canada’s nuclear waste geologic repository

By Zoe Braden, Allison Macfarlane, January 16, 2023

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Dry storage containers for nuclear waste are a key part of Canada’s Adaptive Phased Management Plan. Image courtesy of Nuclear Waste Management Organization.

After 15 years of planning, public engagement, and scientific and engineering studies, Canada stands on the brink of a momentous decision: selecting a final resting spot for its spent nuclear fuel waste.

Repositories are notoriously difficult to site, but that is not only due to technical issues. Siting a geologic repository is also difficult because of the challenge of finding a socially acceptable location. Should Canada successfully select a single preferred site in the next two years (and obtain licensing approval in the years to come), it will be one of only a handful of countries to overcome this challenge. As protracted as its effort may seem, Canada, and the organization in charge of its repository plan—the Nuclear Waste Management Organization—have progressed further along the path to permanent nuclear waste disposal than many other countries.

As the US Energy Department embarks on a new consent-based process to find interim storage sites for the country’s stockpile of spent nuclear fuel, we examine what such a process has looked like in Canada. When it comes to finding a location for a deep geologic repository, consent, the process to reach it, and how to express it, the United States has the opportunity to design a process based on the experience of countries that have already walked this path.

Globally: Four frontrunners on a long road

Only four countries have managed to successfully site a repository for spent nuclear fuel: Finland, Sweden, France, and Switzerland. In 2021, Finland started the construction of its geologic repository—the world’s first such repository—located in the municipality of Eurajoki and, in January 2022, Sweden obtained licensing approval for the construction of its repository in the municipality of Östhammar (Posiva 2021; SKB 2022). For its part, France has chosen a site at Bure and plans to have its repository operational by 2035 (ANDRA n.d.). Switzerland’s nuclear waste management organization, Nagra, announced in September of 2022 that it has chosen Nördlich Lägern as its preferred repository site for nuclear fuel waste, however, the government has yet to issue final approval of the site (Nagra 2022).

Aside from these four countries, global progress toward the disposal of high-level nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel remains sluggish. Site selection is still in the early stages in South Korea, with a target selection date of 2030 and operations not planned until 2053 (Chung, 2016). China has selected a site for a repository after 33 years of site investigations and construction is slated to be finished in 2050 (Wang et al. 2018). Germany amended its Repository Site Selection Act in 2017 and aims to select a repository site by 2031 (Bundesgesellschaft für Endlagerung 2020). Britain has started over and initiated a new,  consent-based site selection process after an earlier attempt was deemed unsuccessful (Nuclear Waste Services 2018).

In the United States, progress on a repository has been stuck at a complete impasse for over a decade. This happened despite the country’s having spearheaded much of the original research into repositories for nuclear waste since the 1950s. The United States also operates the world’s only existing deep geologic repository, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) for intermediate-level waste from the US nuclear weapons complex, in southeastern New Mexico. The passage of the 1987 amended Nuclear Waste Policy Act directed the Energy Department to consider only Yucca Mountain in Nevada for suitability as a repository, which the state of Nevada strongly opposes. The management of the US program as run by the Energy Department became subject to the whims of the administration in power and saw a revolving door of program administrators.

Additionally, the congressionally mandated Nuclear Waste Fund, collected from electricity ratepayers, was treated as taxpayer money by Congress and subject to yearly appropriations rules. Without Congress’ approval of its budget, the US disposal program could not move forward. As a result of both Congress’ management of the Nuclear Waste Fund (now estimated at over $45 billion) and political challenges by Nevada’s congressional delegation, Congress has not provided funds for Yucca Mountain since 2010 (Office of Inspector General 2021).

The underground Exploratory Studies Facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada
The US Energy Department dug this 25-foot diameter tunnel under Yucca Mountain in Nevada to explore its potential as a nuclear waste repository. Image courtesy of US Department of Energy

Canada: An impending decision despite roadblocks

Canada generates around 15 percent of its electricity generation from 19 nuclear reactors at four power plants—all of which are of the CANDU (Canada Deuterium Uranium) design, a heavy-water reactor that uses natural (unenriched) uranium fuel (National Energy Board 2018). Canada’s four nuclear power plants, three of which are located in Ontario and one in New Brunswick, have produced a stockpile of approximately 3.1 million spent nuclear fuel bundles that increases at a rate of about 90,000 bundles per year (Gobien and Ion 2021). If all the currently operating plants live out their licensed lifetimes, Canada estimates that it will have to dispose of 5.5 million bundles.

The path to site selection has not been smooth north of the US border, as Canada has had its own share of setbacks. In 1978, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited was directed by federal government and the government of Ontario to create a plan for a repository under the new Nuclear Fuel Waste Management Program. In 1989, a federal environmental assessment review panel, known as the Seaborn Panel, was put together to evaluate Atomic Energy of Canada Limited’s plan. The plan for geologic disposal was developed based on research at Canada’s underground research laboratory in Whiteshell, Manitoba, and an environmental impact assessment that outlined the plan, submitted in 1994 to the Seaborn Panel, did not identify a specific repository site. After public consultations in five provinces (Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick), the Seaborn Panel concluded in 1998 that while the proposed plan was technically sound, it did not have enough public support to be considered feasible (Seaborn 1998). The Seaborn Panel made many recommendations, but the panel emphasized that any future plan for nuclear waste disposal in Canada was likely to fail if it did not include “early and thorough public participation in all aspects of managing nuclear fuel wastes” (Seaborn 1998). And so, Canada went back to the drawing board.

In 2002, the Nuclear Fuel Waste Act was approved. This new legislation created the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) to develop a plan for Canada’s high-level nuclear waste. (Low- and intermediate-level waste do not fall under this same mandate.) Canada does not have a nuclear weapons program; therefore all high-level waste is spent reactor fuel, with the exception of small quantities of historic and legacy research waste. NWMO is run—and funded—by the main nuclear waste producers in Canada, including the utilities (Ontario Power Generation, Hydro Quebec, and New Brunswick Power) and Atomic Energy Canada Limited, a federal crown corporation. It is responsible for designing, constructing, and operating a repository, as well as designing and implementing a site selection process. Construction, operation, decommissioning, and monitoring of the proposed repository will be subject to oversight by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, Canada’s nuclear regulator.

Site selection is arguably the most challenging stage on the pathway to the permanent disposal of spent nuclear fuel. During this process, NWMO has had to balance two different priorities: locating a technically sound site for a repository and finding a community that is willing to host a repository. NWMO calls its site selection plan “Adaptive Phased Management” and it was approved by the Canadian government in 2007 (NWMO n.d.). Over the last 10 years, communities have volunteered to undergo an initial assessment of the suitability of their geological location as part of this new consent-based site selection process. Communities then had to opt in at each stage of the Adaptive Phased Management plan as more and more detailed technical site assessments were carried out. Between 2010 and 2022, NWMO whittled the number of potential sites (and host communities) from 22 to two. One community elected to opt out because there wasn’t enough local support for the project, and the others were eliminated based on less suitable geology or environmental factors. NWMO set out to find an informed and willing host, which they advertised from the start did not necessarily mean the best technical site, but rather a technically adequate site with local support.

Two potential repository sites remain

Both potential repository sites are in the province of Ontario, where 18 of the 19 operational nuclear reactors in Canada are located and where most of the country’s spent fuel waste is stored. The first site is north of the town of Ignace and near Wabigoon Lake Ojibway First Nation in the classic Canadian Shield landscape of northwestern Ontario. (The Canadian Shield is the bedrock beneath most of central and eastern Canada and comprises the ancient roots of a mountain belt that existed billions of years ago.) The proposed site is in a large body of granitic rock known as the Revell Batholith. Granite is generally considered to be a good target for building repositories due to its strength (which makes keeping the shaft open during construction and operation easier), low porosity, and low permeability.

The proposed site near Ignace holds similar geological and geochemical properties as the repository sites in Finland and Sweden, and as such, there is plenty of international experience to tap into when it comes to building a repository in granite. All of Ontario’s nuclear power plants are located in the south of the province; therefore there is no history with the nuclear industry in the north of the province and familiarizing the local community with a geologic repository for nuclear fuel waste remains a challenge. Historically, local industry has revolved around mining and forestry—and those opportunities have often been “boom-and-bust” depending on the economy. Hosting a repository would generate more stable economic activity for decades to come.

The second site is in southern Ontario in the heart of agricultural land in the town of Teeswater, in the municipality of South Bruce, and near Saugeen Ojibway First Nation. In contrast to the igneous rocks found at Ignace, the municipality of South Bruce is situated on top of sedimentary rocks that are hundreds of millions of years old. The repository would be in a clay-rich limestone, which is appealing due to its strength and low permeability. There is also a tight shale layer directly above the limestone that acts as an added barrier to further delay the migration of any escaped radioactive material toward the surface. It is an unusual choice for a repository, with no comparable rock formation under investigation anywhere else in the world.

In contrast to the Ignace site, the area around South Bruce has a long history with the nuclear industry: Not too far from the proposed repository, Bruce Power operates the largest nuclear power plant in Canada, which employs many local residents. There has been one previous attempt to site a repository here (albeit closer to the shore of Lake Huron, directly at the Bruce Power nuclear site). The local municipality approached Ontario Power Generation to develop a plan to manage the company’s non-fuel nuclear waste (low- and intermediate-level waste) and signed a memorandum of understanding in 2002 to study several different options. In 2004, a deep repository was chosen as the preferred plan and Ontario Power Generation submitted a proposal to prepare the site to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission in 2005. Ontario Power Generation guaranteed in 2013 that the repository would not move forward without support of local First Nations and in 2020, Saugeen Ojibway First Nation voted against hosting a repository. Ontario Power Generation then terminated the project (Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission 2020).

map of interim nuclear waste storage in Canada
Canada’s used nuclear fuel is currently managed in interim storage facilities located at nuclear reactor sites in Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick, and at Atomic Energy of Canada Limited’s sites in Manitoba and Chalk River Laboratories in Ontario. Image courtesy of Image courtesy of Nuclear Waste Management Organization.

The Bruce nuclear site—as well as Ontario Power Generation’s previously proposed low-level waste repository—is located only about 50 kilometers (31 miles) to the northwest and in the same geological formation as NWMO’s current repository proposal for South Bruce. NWMO’s target rock has therefore been studied in detail and there is extensive technical documentation available from this previous effort.

At this stage in repository design planning, the same disposal concept—including the same fuel canister (steel coated in copper)—is proposed for both sites. The only major difference is the canister spacing: Canisters would be closer together in the granitic site (northern Ontario) and further apart in the sedimentary site (southern Ontario), to maintain the lower repository temperature required by the presence of clay minerals.

How will site selection be decided?

The next step in the current process is to decide on a single preferred site and to characterize it in substantive detail. NWMO wanted to have this decision made in 2023 but has recently updated its target site selection date to the fall of 2024—a delay justified by the COVID-19 pandemic (NWMO 2022b). The organization is looking for communities located near the two potential sites to demonstrate a willingness to host a deep geologic repository. It was decided that communities will be left with choosing how they will express willingness, whereas NWMO will determine who gets to demonstrate willingness.

The township of Ignace has decided that it will demonstrate willingness through a council decision informed by public input. An external consultant will be hired to collect perspectives from the community, including seasonal residents and youth, and draw up a report to the council outlining the township’s willingness to host the repository, with a final council decision expected sometime in the fall of 2023.After community consultations, the municipality of South Bruce decided to hold a referendum once a host agreement with NWMO has been negotiated (Municipality of South Bruce 2021). The agreement will presumably lay out in explicit terms what compensation the community would receive for hosting the repository and the subsequent referendum will take place sometime in the next year and a half.

When it comes to Indigenous consent, the situation is more complicated. NWMO has said that it will not proceed without the consent of local First Nations—even if the local municipalities or townships are in favor—and has engaged directly with local First Nations from the outset of the Adaptive Phased Management Plan. In northern Ontario, this means the Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation. And in southern Ontario, the proposed repository lies within Saugeen Ojibway Nation territory, which includes the Saugeen First Nation and Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation, who rejected Ontario Power Generation’s previously proposed low-level waste repository on their land. The Saugeen Ojibway Nation finds itself in a particularly difficult situation because if a repository site is not chosen, it is de facto still left with most of Canada’s high-level nuclear waste, which is already stored on its traditional territory at the Bruce Power nuclear site.

In Canada, the rights of Indigenous peoples are enshrined in the constitution. The Government of Canada has a constitutional duty to consult with Indigenous people over any action that might impact their traditional or treaty rights and therefore formal consultation plays an important role in all regulatory processes (Government of Canada n.d.). The duty to consult has been affirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada in several landmark cases.

Should a site be selected, a repository for spent fuel will be subject to an integrated assessment under the new Impact Assessment Act of 2019, which is essentially a joint review between the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and the new Impact Assessment Agency. The Impact Assessment Act of 2019 requires that project reviews include an examination of the social and economic impacts, rather than just an environmental impact assessment. Thus, though the government is responsible for formal consultation, during the impact assessment process NWMO will have to prove that they know how a deep geologic repository will affect local First Nations and that they have engaged with the affected Nations to address concerns. In Canada there is clear legal recourse and potentially large financial penalties for inadequate consultation with indigenous peoples. This distinct process for indigenous consultation contributes to a more complex definition of a consent-based process for repository site selection compared to many other countries. However, it also means that there is a clear process and thresholds in place to ensure engagement with First Nations is not simply a box-checking exercise. Rather than an obstacle to progress or an increased regulatory burden, this is an opportunity to continue reconciliation work and increase the involvement of indigenous peoples in industrial projects.

Unsurprisingly, the search for a repository has not been without controversy and opposition. Several local grassroots organizations have expressed concerns that range from general anti-nuclear views to the ethics of the site selection process and technical aspects of the plan. The Nishnawbe Aski Nation’s chiefs-in-assembly, which represents a group of 49 First Nations in northern Ontario, has recently released a statement of opposition to NWMO’s repository project despite its territory being located outside of the proposed repository site (Mcleod 2022).

Another key tenet of NWMO’s site selection process is that a host community shall be informed prior to expressing consent. Defining whether a community is adequately informed about a technically complex proposal is no easy task and is subject to debate that extends beyond nuclear waste projects. What does “being informed” mean in deciding whether to host a geologic repository? Does it mean having a sufficient technical understanding? Social scientists would argue that people don’t need to have a deep technical understanding to competently, and confidently, express priorities for their own community. Instead, “informed” might also mean awareness of the project. Surveys carried out by NWMO and Ontario Power Generation indicate that only 60 percent of residents are aware of the site selection process in South Bruce and surrounding areas (NWMO 2022a). A low turnout for a referendum, for example, could indicate a lack of willingness or a lack of information, or both. Once the township of Ignace, Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation, the municipality of South Bruce, and Saugeen Ojibway Nation have formally expressed their willingness (or lack of willingness) to host the repository, NWMO will decide between the two sites and submit an application to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission to prepare the chosen site for construction.

There are still hurdles ahead

Despite a relatively short timeline, many aspects of the site selection process—and what happens after a decision is made—are not clear. For instance, there is no plan for what will happen if no community consents to be the project host. Perhaps equally interesting, it is also not defined what would happen should both communities demonstrate willingness.

No matter what happens next with the site selection process, this will not just be a decision about building a repository, it will be also a test of a new process for handling nuclear waste management issues in Canada, and of consent-based siting in general. Social license is increasingly hard to obtain in Canada and assessing the outcomes of this site selection process will be challenging. Is the process going to be considered a failure if neither community is willing to host the repository? Whose values will matter most in judging the outcome? The question of competing values is not unique to Canada, and it is one the United States can empathize with as it attempts to balance tribal, public, industry, and government interests in the management of high-level nuclear waste.

Funding

This work is funded by a MacArthur Foundation grant to Allison Macfarlane.

References

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