Monitoring emerging technologies
Governments around the world are increasingly looking to nuclear energy as part of climate change initiatives. Here in Canada, the nuclear sector is actively exploring emerging nuclear technologies such as small modular reactors (SMRs), fuel reprocessing (sometimes referred to as recycling) and other types of advanced reactors.
Managing used nuclear fuel
Emerging technologies such as SMRs or used nuclear fuel reprocessing will generate additional used nuclear fuel or other radioactive waste which will have characteristics similar to the used nuclear fuel from Canada’s current nuclear energy reactors.
No matter the source of the fuel, safety will always be our top priority.
To ensure it is safe to manage, fuel waste will need to meet certain criteria:
- The waste must be a stable, unreactive solid material.
- Detailed information about the nature of the waste must be available, including information on physical characteristics, chemical composition, durability and other information that might influence repository design.
- Lastly, the fuel must be transportable to the repository site, and be able to fit into a licensed transportation package.
Adapting to new knowledge
Canada’s plan will contain and isolate all the country’s used nuclear fuel—including that created by new and emerging technologies—in a deep geological repository, using a multiple-barrier system. There is international consensus that deep geological repositories represent the best practice for the long-term management of used nuclear fuel resulting from alternate fuel cycles. Countries that reprocess used nuclear fuel—and others that are examining advanced fuel cycles—all have plans to implement deep geological repositories.
Known as Adaptive Phased Management, Canada’s plan will be implemented over many decades. A fundamental tenet of this approach is incorporating new knowledge and adapting to new technology. We’re building flexibility into repository designs so we can be ready to manage new types of used nuclear fuel.
Host communities for the planned deep geological repository will be part of decision-making for any plans to manage new forms of used nuclear fuel in the repository. For example, through discussions about partnership agreements, the NWMO will work with potential host communities to develop and agree on a process for managing future changes to the type or volume of waste to be managed in the repository.
Small modular reactors
New nuclear technologies, including small modular reactors (SMRs) and very small modular reactors (VSMRs), may result in different types of used fuel. We are monitoring these developments closely and are in dialogue with multiple SMR and VSMR proponents to help us prepare for decisions that could change the volume and type of waste we are responsible for managing.
Interest in SMRs has strongly increased in the past few years, in part with the development of Canada’s Small Modular Reactor Action Plan.
The NWMO has participated in Canada’s SMR Action Plan and has committed to three actions:
- Demonstration and deployment: Early engagement with SMR vendors on technical specifications and costs;
- Capacity, engagement and public confidence: Public and community engagement about used fuel from SMRs; and
- Capacity, engagement and public confidence: Promoting diversity in the future SMR workforce.
As of February 2023, we are currently aware of two SMR projects in the licensing process. We expect these projects to lead to an approximately two per cent increase in volume over our projections for used CANDU fuel. We are also aware of other SMR proposals and as these advance we will make appropriate changes to our plans.
Frequently asked questionsView all FAQs
How does the NWMO plan to address used fuel from Small Modular Reactors (SMRs)?
In Canada there is an active research sector exploring new technologies such as SMRs. We encourage organizations developing new concepts to work with us to identify the types of fuel waste that may result.
Fuel waste will need to meet certain criteria to ensure we can accept it and meet all safety requirements. For example, the waste will need to be a durable, solid material and transportable to the site. We will also need detailed information about characteristics such as composition, radionuclides, handling and the length of time since it was removed from a reactor.
I heard we’ll be able to reprocess used nuclear fuel, so why bury it?
Studies conducted around the world have concluded that high-level waste from reprocessing should also be contained and isolated in a deep geological repository.
If Canada chooses to reprocess nuclear fuel in the future, it would be a joint decision by the nuclear energy producers, the associated provincial governments and the federal government.
If such a decision were made, the NWMO would work with utilities and government to safely manage whatever high-level waste resulted from this process. For example, if some used fuel was identified for reprocessing, it could be diverted for that purpose instead of being placed in the deep geological repository, and be retrieved at a later date.
To help anticipate any changes in fuel cycles used in Canada, we keep an annual watching brief on new developments.
What if nuclear plants with different fuel types are used in the future?
Canada’s plan for the long-term management of used nuclear fuel has sufficient flexibility to manage different types of used fuel if necessary. If power plant operators, governments and regulators made the decision to use different fuel, we would review our design and safety case and update our plans in consultation with interested parties.
The specific amount and type of used fuel to be placed in the repository for long-term management will be agreed with the community using an open and transparent engagement process. This process will use the best information available at the time. It will involve surrounding communities and others who are interested and potentially affected.
Regulatory review processes and approvals will be based on a specific fuel inventory as well. These processes will also involve an open and transparent consultation process.
What happens to the plan if technology changes before it's fully implemented?
Canada's plan, by design, is flexible and adaptive so that it can be responsive to advances in technical learning, international best practices, ongoing input from the public, insight from Indigenous Knowledge, changes in public policy, and evolving societal expectations and values. The implementation of Adaptive Phased Management will span many decades. Because of the timelines involved, it includes numerous opportunities to refine and adjust plans.
The ability of the plan to adjust to change, if appropriate, was a common objective, which emerged from a three-year dialogue with thousands of Canadians about a plan for the long-term management of used nuclear fuel.
Many wanted the plan to provide flexibility for future generations to shape decisions as the plan is implemented over several decades. Many also emphasized the importance of designing the repository in a way that allows for the retrieval of used nuclear fuel in order to take advantage of the development of new technologies.
We are committed to continuous learning to inform decision-making at each step along the way.
What happens to the plan if new nuclear plants are built?
The specific amount of used fuel to be placed in the repository for long-term management will be agreed with the community using the best information available at the time, and through an open and transparent engagement process involving surrounding communities and others who are interested and potentially affected.
Regulatory review processes and approvals, which are required by law before the facility can be constructed and operated, will be based on a specific fuel inventory and will also involve an open and transparent consultation process.