Adaptive approach to handling used nuclear fuel provides flexible management and technical system
The final report of the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), released on November 3, reaffirms its recommendation of Adaptive Phased Management for the long-term care of used nuclear fuel. The concept, which embodies both a technical method and a management system, was introduced and outlined this past May in the NWMO's draft report (ELW May 30, 2005). Both reports share the same title, Choosing a Way Forward.
The final report and recommendation are the culmination of a comprehensive three-year study to which more than 18,000 people contributed, including 500 specialists. Some 2,500 people participated in NWMO-supported dialogues designed and delivered by national, regional and local Aboriginal organizations.
"Our recommendation is firmly rooted in values that Canadians hold dear," said NWMO president Elizabeth Dowdeswell. "It commits this generation to take first steps now to manage used nuclear fuel we have created. And it is flexible, allowing for the ongoing involvement of citizens in decision-making about how it is implemented," she added.
The Adaptive Phased Management technical method is intended to be implemented in stages, with the end goal of centralizing all of Canada's used nuclear fuel in one location and isolating and containing it deep underground in a suitable rock formation.
The management system is phased and adaptive, setting out explicit decision points to incorporate new social learning and technological innovation as it is implemented. At each stage, options - including a contingency plan for temporary shallow underground storage - can be evaluated and the plan modified before proceeding. A future society will decide whether and when there is sufficient confidence in the safety of the approach to seal and backfill the repository.
The NWMO was required by the Nuclear Fuel Waste Act (NFWA) to consider three technical methods: deep geological disposal in the Canadian Shield; centralized storage either above or below ground; and storage at nuclear reactor sites. In assessing the three, each was found to have distinct advantages but none perfectly met all of the objectives citizens said were important. This led the NWMO to develop a fourth approach, Adaptive Phased Management, which builds on the strengths of the others.
Briefly summarized, the NWMO's recommendation for Adaptive Phased Management states that:
* Canada should proceed in a deliberate and collaborative way to isolate the used fuel in a deep underground repository.
* The waste would be safely and securely contained by engineered barriers and the surrounding geology.
* It would be monitored and remain retrievable over time.
* How the technical method is implemented is crucial.
* NWMO intends to seek an informed, willing host community.
* The process is phased and transparent, incorporating explicit decision points where citizens will be given real opportunities to influence progress and outcomes.
The cost of this approach is estimated at $24-billion (in 2002 dollars) over the life of the project, with the present value calculated $6.1 billion (in 2004 dollars). This works out to approximately 1/10th of a cent per kilowatt-hour of nuclear-generated electricity. The full report includes detailed cost comparisons for the other three management options as well.
As required by the NFWA, used fuel producers have established and are making annual contributions to trust funds to pay for the long-term management of used fuel; current deposits total $770 million. Contributors to the fund include the NWMO's main shareholders, Ontario Power Generation, Hydro QuÈbec and New Brunswick Power.
The final report details the rationale underlying the recommendation. Adaptive Phased Management:
* commits the current generation to take the first steps now to manage existing stockpiles of used nuclear fuel.
* recognizes that over the long term, it would be imprudent to rely on a human management system alone with its changing forms of institutions and governance.
* will meet rigorous safety and security standards through its design and process.
* allows sequential decision-making, providing flexibility to adapt to experience and social change.
* takes a financially conservative approach that provides for capacity to be transferred from one generation to the next.
* promotes continuous learning so that improvements in operations and design can be incorporated to enhance performance and reduce uncertainties.
* builds confidence in the technology and supporting systems before the final phase is implemented.
* provides a viable, safe and secure long-term storage capability, with the potential for retrievability of used fuel which can be exercised until future generations have confidence to close the facility.
* provides for continuous monitoring and contingency against unforeseen events, either natural or man-made.
Finally, says the report, this approach is rooted in values and ethics, and engages citizens allowing for societal judgements as to whether there is sufficient certainty to proceed with each step.
The next step will be for the federal government to decide on a long-term nuclear waste management approach. Once the government does so, the NWMO will become the implementing agency, subject to all of the necessary regulatory approvals.
The NWMO will focus its siting efforts in those provinces directly involved in the nuclear fuel cycle, namely Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan. If communities in other regions express an interest, they will be considered.
How any technical method is implemented will be of great importance to Canadians, says the report. In addition to acting as the implementing agency and seeking a willing host community, the NWMO is committed to designing implementation plans in collaboration with communities of interest.
The NWMO will respect Aboriginal rights, treaties and land claims, and all potentially affected parties will be afforded fair and equitable treatment in assessing and managing potential significant socio-economic effects. The report further notes that continuous learning and adaptive management will require a vibrant and robust research and development effort.
Figures from the Canadian Nuclear Association for 2004 indicate that 15% of Canada's electricity supply is derived from nuclear energy, with Ontario producing 50% of the total, New Brunswick 30% and Quebec 3%. Since the beginning of its nuclear energy program, Canada has accumulated almost two million used fuel bundles containing approximately 36,000 tonnes of uranium. Stacked tightly, all of it could fit in five hockey rinks, filling from the ice surface to the top of the boards. If all of Canada's existing CANDU reactors operate for an average of 40 years, they will together produce approximately 3.6 million used fuel bundles.
Its highly radioactive nature means this waste must be contained and isolated from humans and the environment, essentially indefinitely. Canada's used fuel is now safely stored on a temporary basis at facilities where the waste is produced. Like most other nuclear energy producing countries, Canada has not yet adopted a long-term nuclear waste management plan.