President & CEO, Nuclear Waste Management Organization
Managing highly radioactive nuclear waste presents a unique challenge. Canada is up to the task and is moving forward to protect people and the environment for the long term.
Canada has been one of the great pioneers and early adopters of nuclear power. That history has left us with a legacy of clean energy to power our homes and businesses, it has driven incredible innovation in the medical sciences, and it has employed thousands in a rich ecosystem of scientific, industrial, and extractive research and insight that continues to provide vast economic benefit to this country. But it has also thrust upon us the necessity of becoming pioneers once again, this time in tackling nuclear power’s greatest challenge: the safe management and storage of highly radioactive waste products.
Canada’s used nuclear fuel is a stable solid material in the form of a fuel bundle. The current inventory of used nuclear fuel from six decades of using nuclear power is approximately 3 million fuel bundles – about enough to fill eight hockey rinks from the ice surface to the top of the boards. It is presently stored at secure facilities in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Manitoba. An additional 90,000 fuel bundles are added to that count each year. Though our existing approach is safe and effective, it has always been understood that it is not a permanent solution.
Planning today for the good of tomorrow
In 2002, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) was created as a national not-for-profit organization tasked with the safe, long-term management of Canada’s used nuclear fuel in a manner that protects people and the environment for generations to come. “When the NWMO was created, we started by talking to Canadians and Indigenous Peoples, about how they wanted to see used nuclear fuel managed,” says Laurie Swami, President and CEO of NWMO. “Overwhelmingly, we heard that we must take responsibility for nuclear waste now, in this generation, rather than passing that burden on to our children and grandchildren. Decades of international research have provided a scientific consensus that deep geological repositories are the best way to do that.”
A deep geological repository — in which used nuclear fuel is stored more than half a kilometre underground, beneath a natural shield of solid rock, augmented by five layers of engineered barriers — has long been hailed as a theoretically ideal solution to nuclear waste. Today, it’s no longer theoretical, with projects moving forward in many countries with commercial nuclear energy programs. Canada is building upon decades of international co-operation, research, and development to pioneer the benchmark example of responsible nuclear waste management. Swami notes, “This is a multi-generational project implemented over 175 years and will be one of the largest national environmental infrastructure projects in Canada’s history. We’re going to get it right.”
Choosing a home for a legacy of proactive responsibility
Getting it right means securing support from the stewards of the land where such a project might be located. “Canada’s plan can only proceed in an area where the municipality, First Nations, and Métis communities, and others in the area, are working together to implement it. In fact, the NWMO has only worked in regions where a community has voluntarily expressed interest in exploring their potential to host the project,” says Swami.
Progressive rounds of detailed social and technical studies have narrowed the potential sites from 22 to two locations: the Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation-Ignace area in northwestern Ontario and the Saugeen Ojibway Nation-South Bruce area in southern Ontario. Final site selection is expected to take place in 2024. The selected site will become home to a Centre of Expertise, a world-class destination for knowledge-sharing, technical and social research and a technology demonstration program, involving scientists and experts from a wide variety of disciplines.
Throughout this process and in the years of construction to come, the project will continue to combine cutting-edge science with Indigenous knowledge to ensure that used nuclear fuel is safely contained and isolated for the very long term, completing the circle in Canada’s journey as an innovator in clean and safe nuclear energy.