Canada’s nuclear waste

Hilary McNaughton at Darma’s Kitchen

After being removed from a reactor, nuclear fuel is both too radioactive and too physically hot to be reprocessed or placed in dry storage. As such, it is kept in cooling pools for a period of five to six years. Given the absence of long-term geologic storage facilities, all of Canada’s high level waste is currently in cooling pools or on-site dry cask storage. On a per-capita basis, Canada produces more high level nuclear waste than any other state – a total of 1,300 tonnes in 2001.

Canada currently has eleven nuclear waste storage facilities. Among these, one is in the process of decommissioning and six contain high level waste. Four sites have waste in dry storage casks: Darlington, Bruce, Pickering, Gentilly, and Point Lepreau. Other facilities include spent fuel pools. According to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), all Canadian wastes are currently in ‘storage’ defined as: “a short-term management technique that requires human intervention for maintenance and security and allows for recovery of the waste.”

In 2002, a major review of waste disposal options was undertaken by the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO). Their final report – released in November 2005 – endorsed a system of “Adaptive Phased Management” employing both interim shallow storage and deep geological storage, with the possibility of future recovery of materials. Such recovery would be motivated either by concerns about leakage potential or a desire to process the fuel into something useful. The NWMO is currently engaged in a process of site selection, intended to lead eventually to a National Nuclear Waste Repository.

The nuclear waste problem

From both an environmental and public support standpoint, the generation of nuclear waste is one of the largest drawbacks of nuclear fission as a power source. Just as the emission of greenhouse gasses threatens future generations with harmful ecological outcomes, the production of nuclear wastes at all stages in the fuel cycle presents risks to those alive in the present and to those who will be alive in the future, across a span of time not generally considered by human beings.

Wastes like Plutonium-239 remain highly dangerous for tens of millennia: a span roughly equivalent to the total historical record of human civilizations. Furthermore, while most states using nuclear power have declared an intention of creating geological repositories for wastes, no state has such a facility in operation. The decades-long story of the planned Yucca Mountain repository in the United States demonstrates some of the practical, political, and legal challenges to establishing such facilities in democratic societies.

Dry cask storage is not an acceptable long-term option, as suggested by its CNSC categorization as “a short-term management technique.” When dealing with wastes dangerous for millennia, it cannot be assumed that regular maintenance and inspection will continue. Storage systems must be ‘passively safe:’ able to contain the wastes they store for the full duration of their dangerous lives, without the need for active intervention from human beings. To date, no such facilities exist.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

37 thoughts on “Canada’s nuclear waste”

  1. We need to (a) build a long term storage facility in the Canadian shield and (b) implement more modern nuclear reactors which use spent fuel as fuel.

  2. “(b) implement more modern nuclear reactors which use spent fuel as fuel.”

    You mean reprocessing? It is fraught with peril and expense. States generally use it as a route to nuclear bombs, not sustainable power.

  3. There’s plenty of scope for argument about the economics of nuclear power generation, because they are so sensitive to assumptions about the cost of power from other sources. As Ed Cummins of Westinghouse insists, “The biggest motivator for nuclear today is $6 [the price per MBtu] natural gas. If gas goes back to $3.50, then nuclear plants aren’t competitive.”

    The other source of uncertainty is the disposal of radioactive waste. That’s what messed up the economics of Britain’s nuclear programme: Britain decided to reprocess its waste, which proved hugely expensive. America, by contrast, just stuck it in swimming pools—literally—at the power plants. The current consensus is that the best solution is geological storage—that is, to bury the waste very deep. The bad news is that nobody is making much progress getting there, or knows how much it will all cost in the end.

    Taking into account the uncertainties, most studies done on nuclear economics (including the most authoritative ones, done by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and by Britain’s Royal Institute of International Affairs) conclude that new plants built by the private sector, with investors bearing the full brunt of risks, are not economic without subsidy.

    Though nuclear vendors are promising that their new designs will cost only $1,500 per kW of installed capacity, that assumes ideal conditions and no delays. A more realistic assessment (indeed, the consensus view among experts not aligned with the nuclear industry) is that new plants will probably cost close to $2,000 per kW. That may be less in real terms than the capital cost of previous generations of nuclear plants, but it is still about double the capital cost of a conventional coal plant today. The upshot of all this is that even today’s cheaper, safer nuclear designs are still more expensive than coal or gas.

  4. Not on my doorstep, thanks

    Sep 1st 2003
    While the West fears that Iran and North Korea are diverting their nuclear-power programmes to nefarious ends, it has a growing worry about its own nuclear stations: what to do with their radioactive waste

    “Whereas most countries with nuclear generators simply store their used fuel rods—at the power station, if no longer-term repository has been agreed—Britain and France recycle, or “reprocess”, their rods, thereby reducing the amount of high-level waste produced. Reprocessing plants such as Britain’s, at Sellafield in Cumbria, extract the remaining uranium, and the plutonium that is a useable product of the nuclear reactions in the rods, to make fresh fuel. When the nuclear industry first got going, reprocessing seemed sensible because natural uranium was thought to be scarce. But it has turned out to be so abundant that the economic case for reprocessing is now in doubt. Last month, the Guardian revealed plans to wind down the Thorp reprocessing plant at Sellafield, which recycles fuel sent from as far away as Japan. Its state-owned operator, BNFL, issued a half-hearted rebuttal.

    With reprocessing looking like being wound down in Britain, the amount of high-level waste in need of a safe, permanent store is likely to rise faster than it is now. The decommissioning of Britain’s first generation of nuclear-power stations, which were built in the 1950s and 1960s, has begun, creating large amounts of intermediate- and low-level waste. Britain already has a national dump for most of its low-level nuclear waste, at Drigg near Sellafield. But it is filling up faster than expected and the government’s advisory body on radioactive waste recently called for a start to be made on alternative means of disposal.”

  5. Dr Filippone has designed a novel type of nuclear reactor, called a nuclear-powered turbo-reciprocating engine (NPTRE)…

    It works like this. A conventional reactor, packed with a ring of fresh fuel rods, sits on top of a secondary reactor that contains a ring of spent fuel rods. A piston containing a fresh fuel rod moves up and down between the two. When the piston is in the “up” position, the top reactor achieves critical mass and a cascade of neutrons ensues. The piston then moves to the “down” position, where the spent fuel rods are bombarded with the neutrons still being emitted by the fuel rod inside the piston, and produce heat. The piston then moves back up to sustain the reaction in the upper reactor, and so on.

    The amount of energy produced by the lower reactor is comparable to that produced by the upper reactor. What is more, Dr Filippone’s results suggest that the spent fuel rods will continue to generate energy for 10-14 years. Over this period, they will release as much as nine times more energy than they did during their brief lifespans inside a conventional reactor. The efficiency of his design is further improved by using the moving piston to drive water through a special steam nozzle, which increases the effectiveness of the heat transfer between the inside and outside of the reactor.

    The result is that, by using a small amount of fresh nuclear fuel as “kindling”, it becomes possible to extract energy from the millions of spent fuel rods that are currently regarded, in America at least, as useless waste products. (In Europe, spent fuel rods are sometimes rejuvenated by replenishing them with uranium-235, but such reprocessing is banned in America.)

  6. A chance for nuclear industry to clean up its act

    Jan 14, 2008 04:30 AM
    Tyler Hamilton
    Energy Reporter

    Defining what is and isn’t “clean technology” can sometimes be a challenging exercise, particularly when talking about nuclear energy.

    As a form of power generation, nuclear reactors generate virtually no greenhouse gas emissions and, for that reason, are pitched by many as crucial in our battle against climate change. But nuclear, which produces highly radioactive fuel waste that remains dangerous for thousands of years, could hardly be called a friend to the environment.

    Hence the problem: Do we consider nuclear energy a clean technology in an age determined to halt global warming, or do we ignore it because of its other – quite significant – environmental shortcomings?

    Can it be ignored? Sure, one can protest the construction of a new nuclear plant in southern Ontario, only to look at China’s plan to build 30 reactors by 2020. If you’re hardcore anti-nuclear, it’s a depressing thought.

    Personally, I’m not a fan of either nuclear or coal, but forced to take the lesser of both evils I’d likely choose nuclear. And since many of these decisions are happening outside of our province and country, I do see room for clean-technology innovation within the nuclear industry as a way to keep waste and proliferation issues in check.

  7. “Last Friday, federally owned Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. announced it had signed an agreement with the Nuclear Power Institute of China to collaborate on the “design, research, development and demonstration” of what was termed “low uranium consumption Candu technologies.”

    Within this, they specifically referred to “recycling recovered uranium from spent Pressurized Water Reactors fuel.”

    Reading between the lines, this is a potentially important development. Last February I wrote a story about the ability of AECL’s Candu reactors to use the spent fuel from rival light-water reactors as fuel. The process is called DUPIC (direct use of spent pressurized water reactor fuel in Candus).

    Canada, in partnership with South Korea, has been working on the process for 15 years, and has made some significant progress. If it ever does prove commercially viable, it could solve many problems.

    Jerry Hopwood, AECL’s vice-president of reactor development, calls the agreement with China a “step towards DUPIC.””

  8. Nuclear power gets green light from UK government

    The UK government is endorsing the construction of nuclear power plants to help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. In a white paper released on 10 January, the government promised to streamline licensing procedures, citing global warming and energy security as the driving factors.

  9. Two Evils
    On nuclear vs. coal
    By Umbra Fisk
    16 Jan 2008

    “Cursorily, nuclear power is a potential Xtreme disaster waiting to happen both in terms of operation and of “homeland security,” cannot save us from our immediate crisis, and is a completely unresolved toxic-waste issue that we are handing down to the next hundred generations. Coal is and will increasingly be a major contributor to air pollution and climate change, not to mention what its extraction does to the ground and nearby residents. Neither industry has sufficient government oversight, and both have too much government support. Right now nuclear gets some low-greenhouse-gas positive traction; maybe back in the ’80s when nukes were non grata, coal looked all bright and shiny. But neither is good, neither is better. Neither, despite your protestation, is the only answer I can give…”

  10. Low carbon price could trigger meltdown of Britain’s nuclear power plan


    January 17, 2008

    LONDON — It was the best news for decades. Areva, the French nuclear firm, Canada’s Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL), America’s General Electric and Westinghouse, the British designer of nuclear plants now owned by Toshiba, were told to go forth and multiply Britain’s nuclear fleet, or at least to replace a few clapped-out reactors in their dotage.

    Britain has kicked off Europe’s second nuclear age, vowing to replace many, if not all, of the reactors that currently supply 19 per cent of Britain’s power but must be decommissioned over the next 12 years. Of course, Finland was ahead of the British by several years, acting as a guinea pig for Areva’s new design, the EPR, a pressurized water reactor with improved safety features. Embarrassingly, the Olkiluoto reactor project is behind schedule and costs have ballooned. Undeterred, Électricité de France is now building an EPR in Flamandville, which will, it is hoped, avoid the Finnish problems.

  11. Totally different

    Jan 10th 2008
    From The Economist print edition
    Christophe de Margerie, the boss of Total, thinks that the world’s oil production may be nearing its peak

    Mr de Margerie’s opinions also stand out, at least within the ranks of senior oilmen. Last year he declared that the world would never be able to increase its output of oil from the current level of 85m barrels per day (b/d) to 100m b/d, let alone the 120m b/d that energy analysts predict will be needed by 2030. That is in stark contrast with the view of Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of Total’s larger American rival, Exxon Mobil, who argues that the world is neither short of oil, nor likely to be any time soon. It also contradicts the line of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which claims that the only thing that prevents its members from producing more oil is the fear that no one will buy it…

    Perhaps the best measure of Mr de Margerie’s gloomy outlook for the oil industry is his eagerness to get Total into nuclear power. Though he says he is not about to increase Total’s token 1% stake in Areva, France’s nuclear-engineering giant, he clearly sees nuclear energy as part of Total’s future. Why would an oil firm want to enter such a controversial field, unless it feels that it is already out on a limb?

  12. Why Chalk River’s ‘1957 Chevy’ still has no backup reactor

    The MAPLEs’ troubles became public in 2001, when the Ottawa regulators said its safety systems – which shut down the reactor if there’s a trouble – weren’t working right.

    The safety regulators said problems ran through the design, installation and supervision of these shut-off systems. These systems on the MAPLE-1 reactor jammed repeatedly during testing.

    In fact, one of the subcontractors on the job had cut corners with a shoddy machining job on equipment called shutdown rods.

    These rods are made of material that absorbs neutrons. If the reaction runs out of control, they are designed to drop into the reactor and stop radiation flying around, ending the nuclear fission reaction. But the contractor allowed metal shavings to get inside the safety system where they jammed the rods that are supposed to drop down. Like a piston stuck in a cylinder, the rods jammed.

  13. Not in My Back Yucca
    What are our alternatives for storing radioactive waste?
    By Brendan I. Koerner
    Posted Tuesday, April 15, 2008, at 8:11 AM ET

    It seems like the good citizens of Nevada would sooner elect an orangutan as governor than let the federal government fill Yucca Mountain with radioactive waste. Can’t blame them, I guess, but that spent nuclear fuel has to go somewhere. What, then, are the alternatives to stashing it beneath Yucca Mountain?

  14. “… if we’d use common sense and recycle the fuel, as many other nuclear nations already do. The whole terrorist argument against this was bogus from the start. Recycle the damn fuel, and you can reuse 93 percent of it.”

    Not in any existing reactor you can’t. The fissile content (U235+Pu) going into a reactor in fresh fuel is about 4%, the rest is unusable U-238. Burning the fuel fissions about 4% of the actinide nuclei present, and leaves a fissile content of something slightly under 1% (due to plutonium breeding) at the end. Recycling this spent fuel would extend existing fuel supplies by only 25%.

    The fundamental problem with doing this is that it is extremely expensive. The cost of plutonium extracted from spent fuel is equivalent to natural uranium costing $700/kg or so. The actual market price of natural uranium is about $100/kg and for $300/kg you could extract natural uranium from seawater and have a 1000 year supply. Even if the extracted plutonium were free (instead of being far more expensive than the uranium) the cost of fabricating and handling plutonium-bearing fuel is so high that it would still be more expensive that uranium-only fuel. In fact the DOE has to pay utilities to use the mixed plutonium/uranium MOX fuel it makes from ex-Soviet weapons.

    France has conclusively proven that a nuclear fuel cycle with recycling is more expensive than one without it. See: [].

    Reprocessed plutonium is that rarest of industrial products: one that it worth less than nothing (even if the extravagant production cost is completely written off).

    Now a breeder reactor fuel cycle could use the U-238 to produce power in principle, but the cost would be much more than conventional nuclear power, and it is hampered by the fact that every breeder reactor project thus built has failed. It may be possible to build a workable breeder pwer reactor, but no one has yet succeeded in doing it.

  15. “Since that time, “deep geological disposal” has replaced shallow trenches as our preferred nuclear-waste-storage technique. But another, more abstract problem—raised by the Hanford message in a bottle—remains unsolved: not how to store waste but how to label it. Not what container to use or where to bury it but how to explain the long-term dangers of what’s inside to a trespasser. This seemingly simple conundrum (just use a radiation hazard symbol!) is complicated by the fact that such a trespass would prove lethal if it took place not only in 60 years but in 10,000 or 100,000. China, the planet’s oldest continuous civilization, stretches back, at most, 5,000 years. And the world’s oldest inscribed clay tablets—the earliest examples of written communication—date only from 3,000 or 3,500 B.C. It’s impossible to say what apocalyptic event might separate 21st-century Americans from our 210th-century successors. Successors, mind you, who could live in a vastly more sophisticated society than we do or a vastly more primitive one.”

  16. keep your spent nuclear fuel, we dont want your fking shit up here in canada you american ass.

  17. Ontario Power Generation (OPG) has formally informed the Canadian government that it will complete further studies on its proposed deep geologic repository (DGR) for low- and intermediate-level nuclear wastes by the end of the year.

    A federally appointed panel last year approved OPG’s environmental assessment for the proposed repository at its Bruce site, which will be used for the disposal of low- and intermediate-level waste from the Bruce, Pickering and Darlington nuclear power plants. In February, the Canadian Minister of Environment and Climate Change requested that OPG carry out three further studies before making a decision on the environmental assessment for the proposed repository. A final ministerial decision had originally been expected in September 2015.

    The first of the three studies requested by the ministry requires OPG to assess the environmental effects of two technical and economically feasible locations in Ontario for a new nuclear waste disposal facility. Similar DGRs will be considered in a sedimentary rock formation in southern Ontario and in a granite rock formation in central to northern Ontario, but the specific locations will not be identified.

    The second study is an updated analysis of the cumulative environmental effects of the project, and the third study is a review of OPG’s mitigation commitments and actions.

  18. First borehole drilled in Canadian repository site search

    Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organisation (NWMO) has completed drilling the first borehole near Ignace to a depth of about one kilometre. It is one of five sites in Ontario to be investigated for the siting of a deep repository for the long-term management of the country’s used nuclear fuel.

  19. OPG to explore alternatives to deep geologic repository

    Ontario Power Generation (OPG) said it remains committed to seeking safe and permanent disposal of nuclear waste after the members of Saugeen Ojibway Nation (SON) voted not to support plans for a deep geologic repository (DGR) for low and intermediate-level waste at the Bruce nuclear site. OPG said in 2013 that it would not build the DGR without the support of the First Nation.

  20. Canada’s NWMO outlines repository plans

    Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organisation (NWMO) says it remains on track to select a single, preferred site by 2023 for a deep geological repository for used nuclear fuel. The organisation has released its latest Triennial Report, including for the first time a strategic plan beyond site selection.

  21. Swedish municipality gives approval for fuel repository

    In what Svensk Kärnbränslehantering AB (SKB) describes as a “historic decision”, the municipal council of Östhammar yesterday voted in favour of its planned repository for used nuclear fuel at Forsmark. The final decision to authorise the project will now be made by the Swedish government.

  22. Spent nuclear fuel storage: What are the relationships between size and cost of the alternatives?

    Irradiated or Spent Nuclear Fuel (SNF, where it could be “used nuclear fuel” if reprocessing facilities are available) is periodically removed from nuclear power reactors and allowed to decay in suitable storage facilities. This paper attempts to calculate the relationships between sizes and costs of wet/dry and onsite/offsite SNF storage. The methodology is (1) to propose cost models based on publicly available data and (2) to estimate cost equations to compare the various storage costs. When the fuel pool nears capacity, the cheapest alternative is to transfer SNF to onsite dry storage. Once a nuclear power plant has been decommissioned, and only the onsite dry storage facility remains, there appears to be little economic reason (from the nuclear power plant owner/operator’s viewpoint) to move the SNF to consolidated facilities because of extra monetary and non-monetary costs. Unless there are explicit national policies and funded programs to manage SNF, there are likely to be legacy sites with stranded SNF. On the other hand, there is a consensus that consolidated facilities (1) would be more safe and secure than dispersed onsite storage locations, (2) would facilitate final disposal, and (3) might reduce the risks perceived by local communities of storing SNF.

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