NWMO Speaks to CNA - Canada’s Strategy for Long-Term Waste Management
Notes for Remarks by Ken Nash, Chair, Nuclear Waste Management Organization
Canadian Nuclear Association Seminar
Canada’s Strategy for Long-Term Waste Management
Thank you very much, Murray. Good afternoon everyone. It’s a pleasure to be here participating in this seminar, and I want to thank the organizers for inviting me to talk about the key issue of nuclear waste. I’d like to start off by putting some context around this issue as a preface to the rest of my remarks.
Back in the 1970s when commercial reactors were being introduced, Canada, like several other countries, was considering a deep geologic repository for permanently storing used fuel. Although progress has clearly been made on repository technology, like all other countries, a used fuel repository has not been built. There are several permanent storage facilities for low-level waste in different parts of the world, but those were largely built over 15 years ago when social and political conditions were different.
Comparing the social and political conditions today with those in the 1970s, the climate for establishing permanent repositories has not become any easier.
- Research shows that public trust in governments and major institutions has eroded.
- Major company failures and frauds have shaken faith in corporate motivation and honesty.
- There is a demand for transparency and accountability.
- Society’s involvement in decision-making has become more intense and sophisticated.
- The public’s trust in nuclear technology was shaken by Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.
- And the mere topic of nuclear waste creates apprehension in most people.
My remarks today will be as the Chairman of the Nuclear Waste Management Organization and as the person responsible for nuclear waste in OPG. I will primarily focus on the waste arising from Canada’s 22 commercial reactors and explain why a comprehensive strategy is much more than a view of what the end point looks like.
A nuclear waste strategy comprises several building blocks essential to long-term success and involves communities, three levels of government, regulators, suppliers, researchers, and waste owners. The good news is that the key elements of a strategy are already in place here in Canada. I believe we are close to having the right conditions to create long-term success, even given the challenging social and political environment.
Facts and Figures
As background, let me provide a few facts. We have about 35,000 Te of used fuel in Canada, 90 per cent belonging to OPG and most of the rest owned by Hydro-Québec and New Brunswick Power. OPG owns all the waste produced by Bruce Power by virtue of the Lease Agreement between the two companies. Ownership of low- and intermediate-level waste has about the same proportions. It is worth noting that on a volume basis, our used fuel inventory is comparable to that in the whole of the U.S. civil program. This is mainly as a consequence of using natural uranium in CANDU reactors.
Perhaps the most fundamental element of a strategy for long-term management of nuclear waste is a national policy that assigns appropriate accountabilities. Here in Canada, that was done in 1996 when the Minister of Natural Resource established a policy framework for radioactive waste management. This clearly states the federal government will be responsible for policy, oversight, and regulation, and the waste owners responsible for funding and management of wastes, including permanent disposal. This policy was reinforced by the 2002 Nuclear Fuel Waste Act requiring the waste owners to create and govern the Nuclear Waste Management Organization for the long-term management of used fuel.
Looking internationally, the two countries making the best progress are Finland and Sweden. With the almost unanimous support of their parliament, Finland has started excavation leading to a used fuel repository in a willing host community, and Sweden is soon expected to follow suit. Both countries have well-engineered, cost-effective systems, and in both cases, the waste owners are responsible for advancing these projects under a similar policy framework to Canada.
Looking at the other examples where the government is responsible for repository programs, the track record is not so successful.
This confirms that the Government of Canada made the right choice in its 1996 policy framework, and we must be careful not to dilute these accountabilities as we move forward.
A second element is to have a track record of successful interim storage as measured by safety, cost and community acceptance. This is critical to building the trust and confidence necessary to establish permanent long-term facilities.
Ninety-nine percent of the radionuclides produced in reactors are in used fuel, and in OPG’s case, they are locked away in the dry storage containers. These containers have zero emissions and are licensed for future transportation and will require very little maintenance for many decades. In the past 10 years, over 500 containers have been loaded without a lost-time accident. On a volume basis, costs are a quarter of those for dry storage of light water reactor fuel.
At OPG’s Western Waste Management Facility on the Bruce site, there are now 150 of these containers in storage, together with all OPG’s low- and intermediate-level waste. During our last survey, this facility enjoyed a 93 per cent approval from the surrounding community.
Other methods of dry storage have proven equally successful at other locations. Looking across Canada’s five commercial reactor sites, we are very fortunate to have the flexibility to expand at relatively low cost.
Demonstrating a track record of safe and cost-effective interim management is critical to building confidence about the future. Continuous improvement and focus on safety of interim storage must remain an important part of our long-term strategy.
The third element is to have an effective regulatory system which protects the public interest and is seen to be doing so. This is also essential to build trust and confidence. Several waste management facilities have been successfully licensed through the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the Nuclear Safety and Control Act. As an example, the OPG Darlington Waste Management Facility received a CNSC construction licence in 2004 after a total of four public hearings, backed up with numerous open houses, newsletters and briefing sessions.
As someone who has participated extensively in this process and with some international knowledge, I can assure you we have a first-rate, open, transparent and effective system that works. If there is one thing I could ask for, it would be to have more public awareness of this process and of the existence of a strong, independent regulator.
The fourth element is to have a financial strategy which firstly avoids passing financial burdens to future taxpayers and secondly does not require trade-offs between maintaining reactors and managing wastes. OPG owns 90 per cent of the waste and decommissioning liabilities arising from Canada’s power reactors. The estimated cost of managing these liabilities is $23 billion. In present value terms, this is about $8.5 billion. This means that OPG would need to have $8.5 billion in the bank today to manage all the waste and decommissioning from its 20 reactors. The good news is that under agreement with the Province of Ontario, OPG has now accumulated $7.3 billion in the Ontario Nuclear Funds dedicated solely to waste and decommissioning, and continues to contribute $450 million per year.
What this means, of course, is that today’s electricity consumers are paying for the waste produced, and financial burdens are not being passed to a future generation of taxpayers.
The fifth element is to have the best technology available for long-term management. Canada was recognized as an early leader in this area when AECL led the Canadian nuclear fuel waste management program. Looking internationally, over $10 billion has been spent worldwide on repository research, and numerous safety reviews have concluded that geologic repositories can be built to provide a high level of long-term safety. Over the past 10 years, OPG has maintained key aspects of the technology and expanded the resource bases by contracting with many Canadian universities and nuclear consultants. Access has also been gained to the latest developments through a series of international agreements with the current leaders in this field.
Continued investment in these technologies and collaboration internationally is an important part of a long-term strategy.
Industry Risk Sharing
The sixth element is to have industrial capacity to build cost-effective waste management facilities. The three power reactor owners are primarily in business to produce electricity, but we do own the resulting waste and we do take our responsibilities very seriously.
In doing so, we rely on a model of contracting with qualified suppliers for developing and building our waste facilities, and this has proven very successful. OPG is in the process of expanding dry storage at Bruce, Pickering and Darlington and ramping up the loading of DSCs to 240 per year. This is a picture of Niagara Energy Product’s dry storage container production shop. This facility has a proven track record of quality and reliability and a production capacity for 200 containers per year. As far as I know, this is the largest such production facility anywhere in the world.
As we do expand interim storage and construct permanent facilities, we will rely extensively on the nuclear industry to build this infrastructure.
Low- and Intermediate-Level Waste Repository (Community Consultation)
The seventh, and perhaps most important element, is a culture of open and transparent public engagement. This is best illustrated by describing how long-term plans have been developed for both low and intermediate waste and for used fuel.
Last year, with the leadership and courage of the Municipal Councils of Kincardine and four surrounding communities, OPG was able to make a breakthrough towards establishing Canada’s first permanent facility for nuclear waste.
After a three-year joint study between OPG and Kincardine Council, the residents of Kincardine voted to support a deep geologic repository for low- and intermediate-level waste at OPG’s Western Waste Management Facility on the Bruce site.
There were a number of factors which led to the community supporting this proposal:
- OPG and Kincardine Council jointly studied the various options over a two-year period and widely shared our information with the community every step of the way. It was the Council that actually selected the geologic repository from a range of alternatives.
- Having been host to the nuclear facilities for 45 years, the Bruce community is knowledgeable about nuclear matters and understands the regulatory process.
- The existing storage facility has a proven track record of safety and enjoys a high level of community approval.
- Third-party endorsement of the safety of a repository was made available.
- Long-term financing of the repository was assured through the Ontario Nuclear Funds.
- And finally, we benefited from the freedom offered by the 1996 policy framework allowing OPG to work with the community to develop a mutually beneficial solution.
Low- and Intermediate-Level Waste Repository
This is a picture of the planned facility 660 metres below the Bruce site in a limestone formation ideally suited for containing radionuclides. In layman’s terms, nothing moves down there.
In December, OPG submitted a project description to the CNSC to start the licensing process. This year, we will be hiring several major contractors to carry out intensive geotechnical investigations, pull together the Environmental Assessment and safety cases, and further develop the project. We are a long way from the finish line and anticipate several challenges along the way before the facility is in-service in about 10 years time. We have confidence, however, that those same factors that made the breakthrough possible will lead to success.
Before leaving this topic, I would like to recognize Mayor Glen Sutton of Kincardine and Mayor Mitch Twolan of Huron-Kinloss, an adjacent municipality, who are in the audience today for their leadership and courage in supporting this proposal with their constituents.
This brings us to the final part of this strategy, which is the recommendation or road map provided by the Nuclear Waste Management Organization for the long-term management of used fuel.
As I mentioned earlier, society’s involvement in decision-making has changed significantly over the years, and a good example occurred in 1998 when the Seaborn Panel, appointed by the Federal Government, reported that a geologic repository for used fuel was safe at a conceptual level, but the required public support had not been demonstrated. This was a wake-up call.
The Seaborn report led to the Nuclear Fuel Waste Act and the formation of the NWMO in 2002 by the waste owners – OPG, Hydro-Québec and New Brunswick Power.
As required by the Act, the NWMO carried out a three-year study of the alternatives of perpetual storage at the reactor sites, centralized storage, and permanent storage in a geologic repository. In doing so, it consulted over 50,000 Canadians from Halifax to Vancouver and from Toronto to Yellowknife. Traditional and innovative techniques were used, and over 2,500 Aboriginal people were consulted. The NWMO developed research papers, established an ethics panel, an international assessment panel, and was guided by its own Advisory Council led by the Honourable David Crombie. Several people have commented this was the most extensive and thoughtful policy development process undertaken in Canada. This process has also received recognition internationally, especially in the U.K. and in France where similar policy option studies are being carried out. I know I speak for many people when I say that Liz Dowdeswell did a magnificent job in masterminding and leading the NWMO in this process.
Among the many findings of the NWMO was that:
- In technical terms, all three options were feasible, would ensure long-term safety and security, and were financially viable.
- On the other hand, many people were concerned that such hazardous material had been produced in the first place without a complete and agreed solution.
- There was no one right answer that everyone could agree upon.
- There was concern regarding the institutions that would protect the public interest.
- Many people had faith that technology would eventually advance and provide an elegant solution.
- And there was an overwhelming view that we must proceed towards a solution now and not leave the problem for a future generation.
Based on these and many other findings, the NWMO developed its recommendation for Adaptive Phased Management, which included the following elements:
- Centralized containment and isolation in a deep geologic repository in a willing host community.
- Flexibility in the pace and manner of implementation allowing for continued learning and research.
- Provision for the optional step of central storage.
- Continuous monitoring.
- Potential for retrievability.
- And finally, continuous engagement of Canadians.
The NWMO recommendation is fundamentally sound. Many international reviews have concluded geologic repositories are safe, and several countries have already adopted a similar step-wise approach to a repository. It is consistent with the overwhelming public expectation that action be taken now. It is within the financial plan established by the waste owners, and it provides flexibility to incorporate new technological developments and to adapt to changing circumstances in the future.
The next step is for the government of Canada to make a decision. I know the officials in Natural Resources have prepared the ground very well to help the government in its deliberations.
Before I wrap up my remarks, I want to make two points regarding the connection between nuclear waste and the future of nuclear power. Firstly, I strongly suggest we be very careful in linking policy, regulatory and management decisions on nuclear waste to decisions about the future of nuclear power. Cost-effective and safe interim storage systems, segregated funds, openness and transparency, a regulatory system for protecting the public interest, the proposed repository for low- and intermediate-level waste at Bruce, and the Nuclear Waste Management Organization recommendation were all developed because the waste exists today and because they were the responsible things to do.
We must carry on down a responsible path irrespective of decisions on new nuclear reactors.
The second point is to recognize that for some people, a policy decision on nuclear power is partly dependent on the nuclear waste issue, or in some people’s view, the Achilles Heel.
One observation I would offer on this question is to look at other countries with mature nuclear programs. The U.S., France, Japan and Finland have already decided to build more nuclear reactors. With the exception of Finland, I suggest that the status of the Canadian nuclear waste program and our overall strategy is in at least as good a shape as those countries.
I would like to conclude by saying that I believe we have a well-developed strategy for the long-term management of nuclear waste here in Canada.
Our policy on accountabilities is consistent with best international practice and has allowed progress to be made since it was established in 1996. We must be careful not to dilute these accountabilities.
Our interim storage systems are cost-effective, have an excellent safety record, capacity to expand and with very little maintenance will be safe for many decades. As with all things nuclear, we must maintain our focus on safety.
In Ontario we have accumulated $7.3 billion in segregated funds, and we are clearly not passing financial burdens to future taxpayers.
Canada has an effective, open, transparent, and independent regulation process protecting the public interest. An increased public awareness of this would be helpful.
We have access to the best repository technologies through our diversified research base and strong co-operation with international research programs.
We have a strong industrial base to develop and build the facilities we need.
We are moving ahead with a deep geologic repository for low- and intermediate-level waste in a willing host community. There is a recommendation in front of the government for long-term used fuel management which is based on extensive consultation across Canada, is consistent with international developments, and meets the public need for action now to avoid passing the burden to a future generation.
The plans developed in the 1970s may not have progressed as expected, but we made significant progress, and we have built the basis for long-term success.
The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) is a not-for-profit organization tasked with the safe, long-term management of Canada’s used nuclear fuel inside a deep geological repository, in a manner that protects people and the environment for generations to come.
Founded in 2002, the NWMO has been guided for more than 20 years by a dedicated team of world-class scientists, engineers and Indigenous Knowledge Holders that are developing innovative and collaborative solutions for nuclear waste management. Canada’s plan will only proceed in an area with informed and willing hosts, where the municipality, First Nation and Métis communities, and others in the area are working together to implement it. The NWMO plans to select a site in 2024, and two areas remain in our site selection process: the Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation-Ignace area in northwestern Ontario and the Saugeen Ojibway Nation-South Bruce area in southern Ontario.