Canadians invited to be part of solution in effective handling of radioactive waste

·6 min read

While Canada has an existing framework to ensure the safety of nuclear energy, a long-term management solution for radioactive waste is lacking. On November 16, Seamus O’Regan, minister of Natural Resources Canada (NRCAN) launched an inclusive engagement process to modernize Canada’s radioactive waste policy. Minister O’Regan has also asked the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) to lead a dialogue to develop an integrated strategy for Canada’s radioactive waste.

The NWMO is a not-for-profit organization that was created under the Nuclear Fuel Waste Act in 2002 and its mandate has been to develop a long-term management plan for used nuclear fuel. In November 2020, NRCAN asked NWMO to lead the development of an integrated strategy for all of Canada’s radioactive waste. “What that means is that we are going to be consulting widely with Canadians, Indigenous peoples, industry, civil society organizations and taking all of those inputs as well as looking at what is being done in other countries to develop long term management plan options for all of Canada’s radioactive waste,” said Karine Glenn, strategic projects director with NWMO. “We won’t be reinventing the wheel. We’re going to focus on where there are gaps.”

There is already a plan for used nuclear fuel, said Ms. Glenn. “We’re going to acknowledge that plan as part of the strategy and not start that process again. The minister was very clear that this is not meant to replace existing solutions or existing facilities. There is other waste in Canada that also has existing disposal facilities and I’ll mention uranium mine and mill waste. That waste is already being disposed of at facilities at or near where it’s being generated. Those solutions are already going to be acknowledged as part of our plan, but the real focus is going to be on all of Canada’s intermediate level waste and some of Canada’s low level waste, which doesn’t have solutions yet.”

NWMO’s scope is the waste, regardless of how that waste is generated, and it will be responsible for the long-term management of that waste, which is all classified as either low level, intermediate level or high level waste. Whether it comes from the production of medical isotopes, the production of nuclear power from traditional nuclear plants or from small modular reactors in the future, waste disposal options will focus on its classification. “What’s important, regardless of whether or not there will be future applications of nuclear, we need to deal with the waste,” she said.

Ms. Glenn said that all the waste is currently being stored in a safe manner that is regulated by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. “All the waste is currently handled in a safe manner but most of that waste doesn’t have a long term plan, by which I mean most of the facilities are temporary or interim storage so they’re not meant to last 500 years or 1,000 years. That’s what this project is about. It’s about coming up with options that will deal with the waste for as long as it remains hazardous to people and the environment. It’s being managed; the low and intermediate level waste from the power plants is being managed at facilities located next to the plants.”

Most radioactive waste that exists in Canada (98 percent of the volume) is classified as low level waste. This mostly consists of gloves, mop heads and personal protective equipment that was generated as part of the day to day operations of facilities. Most of the high-level waste in Canada is spent fuel.

This is engagement rather than consultation under the law, said Ms. Glenn, and NWMO does not have a predetermined engagement plan because they want to work with all the communities. The focus will be on nuclear host communities as well as Indigenous communities that are located near those facilities where the waste is located today, as well as communities that are part of the NWMO siting process for adaptive phase management. “What we want to do is actually work with those communities to find out what would be the best ways to engage with them and create activities and engagement opportunities that will suit the needs of those communities as well as fulfill our purpose of getting that engagement done,” she said. While virtual engagement will be utilized as much as possible due to COVID-19, if there are communities where it is possible to have some in-person meetings then it will be considered as an option. “Our engagement extends into the summer of 2021, so obviously any activity we put forward will respect public health guidelines.” A public symposium in the first quarter of 2021 will kick off the engagement process; this will be followed by individual community session. An online survey is also planned.

“We don’t have a set date for submission of our strategy recommendations to the minister; however, the strategy is a companion piece to the policy review that NRCAN has undertaken, modernizing Canada’s radioactive waste framework policy,” said Ms. Glenn.

NRCAN plans on completing its engagement on that by the end of March 2021 and then submitting its revised policy to the government in the fall of 2021. NWMO cannot complete its work on the strategy piece until the policy is complete as whatever is in the strategy must align with the policy. NWMO hopes to submit its strategy recommendation to the Minister of Natural Resources by the end of 2021. It will be up to the minister to decide on whether or not the strategy will be implemented in full or in part and what recommendations he will move forward.

“It’s really important that we would like to get all voices at the table,” Ms. Glenn said. “This isn’t a debate on whether or not we proceed with nuclear energy. It’s taking charge of the waste and ensuring that we manage that waste in a safe manner over the long term and all voices are really important for that conversation. We don’t have a predetermined outcome. It’s a little bit different from some of the waste projects that have occurred in the past. We’re not coming to people with a solution and asking them for comments on the solution. We’re actually asking them to help build that solution together. I think it’s really important that interested Canadians, Indigenous peoples and communities really participate in this dialogue.”

This is a first step, she said. There will be opportunities later on for further dialogue because they are not siting any of those facilities at this time. “Our engagement will be about what kind of facilities we should be building, how many we should be building and who should be responsible for operating them over the long term rather than where we should be putting them at this point in time.”

Nuclear power is expected to play a significant role in helping Canada meet its commitment of net-zero emissions by 2050, creating jobs and economic opportunity across the country and around the world. “Protecting the health and safety of Canadians is our top priority when it comes to nuclear energy,” said Minister O’Regan. “The views of Canadians and the best science will direct us as we build our net-zero future.”

Canadians can participate in the policy review engagement process by visiting radwastereview.ca.

Lori Thompson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Manitoulin Expositor