Much ado about nuclear waste

Dan Meyers/Unsplash

With Saskatchewan’s zero-emission transition commencing, we need to talk nuclear waste management.

Perhaps no line of Shakespeare summarizes society’s wary attitude toward nuclear energy better than Hamlet’s statement that “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Our cautious and even fearful apprehension of nuclear power has been justified by past accidents at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima. Unfortunately, threats to use nuclear weapons from despots like Vladimir Putin, and Russia’s alarming, illegal attack on the biggest atomic plant in Europe have also made us prisoners of our own thinking.

Beyond meltdowns and war, no other aspect of this otherwise clean form of energy is as contentious as nuclear waste management. Despite misconceptions around its safety, nuclear power and its waste have been used and
stored in Canada for over 60 years.

It is also surprising that even with Saskatchewan’s Athabasca Basin possessing the world’s largest high-grade uranium deposits and being home to all of Canada’s operating uranium mines there are no nuclear power or waste storage facilities in the province.

Currently, there are only four nuclear power plants operating in Canada. Used fuel is stored at interim storage facilities located near the reactors in Ontario, Manitoba, Quebec, and New Brunswick, which has been the Nuclear Waste Management Organization’s (NWMO) responsibility since 2002.

The NWMO has also been in a rigorous site selection process for the long-term management of nuclear fuel through a deep geological repository for the past 12 years. Although Creighton, Pinehouse, and the English River First Nation, Sask. were considered, all three were rejected by 2015, with the NWMO continuing its field studies and community engagement in Ignace and South Bruce, Ont.

While the NWMO’s goal is to have a deep geological repository built at the chosen site by 2040, the volumes of nuclear waste that have been generated by Canada over the past 60 years are relatively small.

For example, according to the NWMO, if the 3.1 million used nuclear fuel bundles currently stored at the interim facilities were “stacked like cordwood, these used fuel bundles would fill eight hockey rinks from the ice surface to the top of the boards.”

For these reasons, Christopher Hawkes, an associate professor of civil, geological, and environmental engineering at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) believes “there hasn’t been an urgent need to accelerate the process.”

However, with the recent release of the Government of Saskatchewan’s interprovincial strategic plan for the deployment of small modular reactors and the Federal Government’s 2030 emissions targets, Hawkes says “we are now reaching a point where deployment is imminent.”

“I think with the widespread recognition that generating nuclear power is going to work well in terms of mitigating climate change people will be more likely to accept that we have to put these reactors in place, and we have to do something with the waste,” Hawkes says. “With the fuel source being right here in the province, it only makes sense that we should be looking to build some kind of nuclear power generation capacity in the province and if we’re doing that, we should also be looking at how to store the waste.”

Hawkes has spent nearly 20 years in the U of S researching the behaviour of rocks when subjected to subsurface stress, and prior to that, he worked as a consultant in the oil and gas sector for over six years. Now he wants to use this expertise relevant to the design of subsurface infrastructure for nuclear waste storage “to conduct research that will help lay the groundwork for this.”

“Anytime you extract rock from the ground or push fluid into the ground, you change the stresses, the pressures, and even the temperatures … so you need to build a toolkit that allows you to analyze how the crown and how the rock will respond to what you’re doing to it,” Hawkes says.

“And it turns out, conveniently, for those of us that work in this area it doesn’t matter a lot of what industry we started applying or toolkit in [because] a lot of it is portable.”

In addition to wanting to participate in the low-emission energy transition, as a Saskatchewan resident, Hawkes is also “motivated by the fact that our province is blessed with severable viable geological options for storage.”

But to begin, Hawkes needs funding, so he has submitted research proposals to the International Minerals Innovation Institute, the Sylvia Fedoruk Canadian Centre for Nuclear Innovation, and Mitacs.

Acknowledging that all high-level waste will most likely be transported to the NWMO’s upcoming deep geological repository, Hawkes argues that Saskatchewan’s “niche” could be handling intermediate-level waste that’s more difficult to transport.

For example, the NWMO does not measure intermediate-level waste in “hockey rinks” like high-level waste but uses metaphorical Olympic-sized swimming pools as a unit of measurement for this kind of nuclear waste instead.
“As the volumes become larger it is less practical to move around the materials … we have lots of options geologically in Saskatchewan that would be appropriate for doing that,” Hawkes says.