Why Bruce County could become home to all of Canada’s nuclear waste

The federal agency responsible for finding a long-term storage site for spent nuclear fuel has been scouting out possible locations for a Deep Geological Repository. Two of them are in Bruce County
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jul 23, 2019
Part of the western waste facility at Bruce Nuclear Generating Station. (John Michael McGrath)



BRUCE COUNTY — If you own land in Bruce County, an agency of the federal government may want to talk to you.

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization, created by the Canadian government in 2002 to find a long-term storage solution for spent nuclear fuel, began notifying municipalities in Bruce County this week that it’s reaching out to private landowners in the area to negotiate access to their land. For now, the NWMO is looking to drill boreholes around the county to determine whether the geology is suitable for building what’s called a Deep Geological Repository.

The NWMO is currently evaluating five potential sites, all in Ontario: a location is expected to be chosen by 2023. Two are in Bruce County (the towns of South Bruce and Huron-Kinloss), and the other three are in Northern Ontario (Ignace, Hornepayne, and Manitouwadge). The agency has already gone drilling on Crown land at one of the sites in northern Ontario, but in southern Ontario, the process isn’t so straightforward: the land the NWMO is looking at is owned by private landowners, not the government of Ontario. The agency will need to negotiate access with those landowners and potentially buy land to complete the necessary technical work.

“This land-access process is a natural step in our process,” says Ben Belfadhel, the vice-president of site selection for the NWMO. “Our approach since the beginning has been to seek an informed and willing host, so we’re going to work with municipalities, communities, and the grassroots to implement this project.”

Currently, Canada’s spent nuclear-fuel bundles (which comes mostly from Ontario’s reactors at Pickering, Darlington, and Bruce nuclear stations, although smaller amounts are produced by reactors in Quebec and New Brunswick) sit in steel “dry cask storage” containers above ground at reactor sites — as of June 2018, Canada had roughly 2.9 million such bundles, each one containing about 20 kilograms of uranium.

The concrete-and-steel boxes are rated for decades of safe storage. There is a hitch, though: the fuel will constitute a danger to human health for much, much longer than that — it will still be 10 times more radioactive than naturally occurring uranium 40,000 years from now.

The NWMO’s solution is to bury the spent fuel deep underground: the DGR is expected eventually to hold 5.4 million bundles. The bundles will be moved from the steel boxes into copper-clad containers. Those containers will then be packed into clay “buffer boxes” before being moved into tunnels 500 metres below ground — for reference: the CN Tower is 553 metres tall — and the tunnels themselves filled with clay to keep water and air out.

The multiple barriers (rock, clay, copper, steel) between the spent fuel and the rest of the world are intended to keep the fuel safely contained for more than 1 million years. The timelines the NWMO needs to think about are daunting: while the rest of the world is worrying about a warming planet due to climate change on the scale of decades or centuries, the DGR needs to be designed to remain safe in an ice age — and the kilometre-thick glaciers that may come with it — tens of millennia from now.

But for now, the NWMO is focused on a more immediate task: simply finding a community where the geology and the politics both support a DGR — or, in the case of Bruce County, a second one. All five of the municipalities the NWMO is looking at have welcomed the prospect of a DGR and the decades of work it would bring: 16 other communities expressed interest but didn’t make it this far. Bruce County’s local government has been friendly with the nuclear industry (and its jobs) for decades, and the provincially owned Ontario Power Generation is already in the process of getting environmental approvals for an entirely separate project that’s designed to store low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste (stuff that’s still dangerous, but not as long-lived as spent fuel rods). In theory, Bruce County could end up being home to two long-term nuclear-waste sites.

The federal Liberals paused the approvals process in 2017, saying that OPG had to get consent from the Saugeen Ojibway Nation before it could proceed with construction. SON’s environmental office is currently conducting consultations with its membership both in its territory and in cities across the province.

“Our People did not choose to bring nuclear development to our Territory. Rather, those decisions were thrust upon us, and we are now working to reconcile the issues that development has brought,” Kurt Kivell told TVO.org via email on behalf of SON. “The work that we must do to reconcile these issues is still ongoing through our Community Process, and we have secured commitments from the nuclear industry to respect the outcomes of that process.”

The DGR for spent fuel is not as far along in the approvals process — a final site may not even end up being in SON’s territory — but the NWMO is legally required to consult First Nations and has committed to gaining informed and prior consent from SON before moving forward with a site in Bruce County. It will have to close a deal with both municipal and Indigenous partners to secure any eventual storage site. But first, it needs to dig some really deep holes.

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