May 30, 2005

Nuclear industry proposes adaptive phased approach to managing used reactor fuel

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) is proposing what it calls an adaptive phased approach to the long-term care of used fuel from Canada's nuclear reactors. Its strategy, whose implementation is projected to cost $24.4 billion, comprises both a management system and technical methods for containment of this waste material. The NWMO, which represents Canada's nuclear energy companies, presented its proposals last week in a draft report titled Choosing a Way Forward.

"Safety for people and the environment, and fairness for this and future generations, are the primary objectives of our recommendation," said NWMO president Elizabeth Dowdeswell. "Adaptive Phased Management acknowledges that Canadians will take responsibility now for waste we've produced, while leaving options open for future generations to make decisions in their own best interests," she added.

The Nuclear Fuel Waste Act, whose passage in 2002 mandated the NWMO's creation, requires the organization to review at least three technical methods for managing nuclear fuel waste: deep geological disposal in the Canadian Shield; centralized storage (above or below ground); and storage at nuclear reactor sites. As required by the legislation, the NWMO compared the risks, benefits and costs of each management approach, in sustained and continuing dialogue with a full range of interests, people and communities.

Whatever the approach, the NWMO's report cites the two leading priorities that emerged from the studies and consultations. First, it says, the approach must ensure the safety and security of people, the environment, communities and workers. Secondly and as far as possible, the approach must be fair to both current and future generations, across regions, people and cultures.

While all three technical methods specified in the Act were deemed to be technically credible and capable of being designed to be safe in the near term, the report notes that none of them, taken individually, perfectly addresses the values and objectives ranked most important by those consulted. Each, however, offers distinct advantages and limitations.

The storage options-at nuclear reactor sites or at a centralized site-could be expected to perform well over the near term, i.e.175 years. Existing reactor sites, however, were not chosen for their suitability as storage sites, and communities hosting reactors reasonably expect the waste nuclear fuel to be removed eventually, the report points out.

Accordingly, the NWMO considers the risks and uncertainties associated with these two technical options to be considerable. In contrast, deep geological disposal in the Canadian Shield would perform well in the very long term because of the combination of natural and engineered barriers which would isolate the used fuel. Still, notes the report, there remains a measure of uncertainty about the very long term performance because advanced proof is not obtainable.

Another key weakness of this option, says the NWMO, is its lack of adaptability to changing knowledge or circumstances in the short term. In the longer term, it also provides relatively little opportunity for future generations to influence the way the used fuel is managed.

The adaptive phased management approach is intended to build on the advantages of these technical options. It would allow options would be evaluated at every stage and would engage the participation of interested and affected citizens in making decisions about whether to proceed, stop, or reverse the process.

"We don't have all the answers, either about technology or about the future of society," Dowdeswell observed. "Adaptive Phased Management is a commitment to continuous learning today to assist decision-making tomorrow."

Ultimately, the technical method proposed is centralized containment and isolation of used nuclear fuel deep underground in suitable rock formations, possibly in the crystalline rock of the Canadian Shield, or in other formations like sedimentary rock. Through an extended period-as long as 300 years or more-the waste would be monitored and would remain retrievable until such time as a future society makes a final determination of the final closure and the appropriate nature and duration of post-closure monitoring.

The NWMO recommends an interim step in the implementation of the adaptive phased management approach, in the form of shallow underground storage of used fuel at a central site prior to placement in a deep repository.

Flexibility in the pace and manner of implementation would be ensured through a phased decision-making process, supported by a program of continuous learning, research and development.

At every point throughout the process, the NWMO emphasizes that all regulatory standards and licensing requirements of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, and other national and international oversight bodies, would be met or surpassed to ensure safety and security.

In an illustrative timeline of the adaptive phased management approach, the NWMO suggests a period of approximately 30 years when used fuel would remain safely managed at nuclear reactor sites. During this initial phase, the NWMO would work collaboratively with interested citizens with the aim of finding a site for a centralized facility and building an underground research laboratory to confirm the suitability of the site and the technology for a deep repository. A decision would also be made on whether to build an interim shallow underground storage facility at the same site.

Depending on societal direction, used fuel could be moved to the central site for interim storage during the second 30-year phase. Throughout this period, research and demonstration would continue.

In phase three, likely around year 60, used fuel would be placed in the repository. During this phase, future generations would decide whether and when to close the repository, and what kind of post-closure monitoring would be required.

The NWMO intends to seek a willing community to host the central facilities. Site selection will focus on those provinces that are directly involved in the nuclear fuel cycle, i.e. Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, although willing communities in other regions would not be denied the opportunity to be considered. The site must meet the scientific and technical criteria chosen to ensure that the natural and engineered barriers will protect the environment as well as humans and other life forms.

The NWMO developed its recommendation on the basis of input from technical specialists and a wide-ranging dialogue with more than 15,000 interested Canadians, including 2,000 Aboriginal people. These discussions addressed the values, principles and objectives they believe must underpin a nuclear waste management approach which is socially acceptable, environmentally responsible, technically sound and economically feasible.

The NWMO would be financially responsible for implementing the adaptive phased management approach. Under the "polluter pays" principle of the Nuclear Fuel Waste Act, Canada's nuclear energy producers (Ontario Power Generation, Hydro-Quebec and New Brunswick Power Nuclear), along with Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, have begun contributing to trust funds to ensure that money will be available for the long-term nuclear waste management approach chosen.

The NWMO is inviting comments on its proposal by August 31, 2005. It is due to present its final report and recommendations to the Minister of Natural Resources Canada by November 15, 2005. The federal government will make a decision on which of the four approaches studied will be adopted for managing used nuclear fuel over the long term. The NWMO will then be responsible for implementation.

The full report, Choosing a Way Forward, may be viewed on the NWMO Web site, Comments may be submitted on the Web site or directly to the NWMO at 49 Jackes Ave, Toronto M4T 1E2, 416/934-9814, toll-free 1-866-249-6966.

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