Viewpoint: It's time to let the world know we can safely manage nuclear waste

19 January 2023

While many agree the benefits of using nuclear energy to fight climate change and build energy security are clear, there is still a major hurdle to overcome before it is widely accepted as a safe and clean part of the energy mix: the perception that the nuclear industry has a waste "problem", writes Laurie Swami, president and CEO of Canada's Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO).

Laurie Swami (Image: NWMO)

The climate crisis had already intensified the need to reduce the use of fossil fuels. Now, the war in Ukraine has added to the urgency, particularly in Europe, of finding alternative energy sources to replace oil and gas imports from Russia. A growing number of countries around the world - many of which had previously abstained from nuclear power generation - now agree with the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that nuclear energy is critical to any plans to reach net-zero emissions and lessen dependence on fossil fuels.

It's time to change the perception that the nuclear industry has a waste "problem".

Even within the industry, we continue to see the issue of used nuclear fuel treated like a dirty secret that should not be discussed in case it derails plans for new nuclear investment. But the truth is used nuclear fuel has been and continues to be safely and responsibly managed in interim storage facilities around the world. What’s more, in countries like Canada that are developing deep geological repositories to store their used nuclear fuel for the long term, we are embarking on a new era of nuclear waste management that will serve as a global model for responsible stewardship. The nuclear industry needs to stop being shy about letting everybody know that.

According to a 2018 IPCC report, to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5°C by 2050 will require a nearly three-fold increase in global nuclear electricity generation, from 400 gigawatts to 1160 gigawatts. The report concludes that this target can only be met with the construction of more nuclear reactors over the next 30 years, with a corresponding increase in the amount of used nuclear fuel that must be safely stored.

But regardless of what the future holds for new nuclear investment, today there is approximately 400,000 tonnes of used nuclear fuel worldwide that must be safeguarded for millennia. It would be irresponsible to pass that burden on to future generations, especially when we have a globally accepted approach in hand.

There is scientific consensus that deep geological disposal is the best way we know to provide safe management of used nuclear fuel over the hundreds of thousands of years it must be contained and isolated. And, it’s not just theoretical solution:

  • At Finland’s Onkalo repository on Olkiluoto Island, which the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi has called a game changer for the long-term sustainability of nuclear energy, construction is well under way by nuclear waste management firm Posiva Oy. Final disposal is scheduled to start in the mid-2020's.
  • In early 2022, the Swedish government gave its approval for the nuclear fuel and waste management company Svensk Kärnbränslehantering AB (SKB) to build an encapsulation plant and repository for used nuclear fuel at Forsmark, in the municipality of Östhammar. Construction is expected to take about 10 years once all the necessary permits have been issued.
  • In September, the National Cooperative for the Disposal of Radioactive Waste (Nagra) selected Nördlich Lägern, as the site for a repository for Switzerland’s used nuclear fuel.
  • In France, the National Agency for Radioactive Waste Management (ANDRA) has applied for a construction licence for its Cigéo deep geological repository in Meuse/Haute-Marne.

In Canada, we are also among the leading nations moving forward with a long-term disposal plan. Canada’s plan to safely manage used nuclear fuel over the long term emerged through dialogue with Canadians and Indigenous peoples and is based on the values and priorities they identified. It 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.

In 2010, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) launched a multi-phased, community-driven process to identify a site where Canada’s used nuclear fuel can be safely contained and isolated.

A key part of the process of building consent in Canada is respecting the rights of Indigenous peoples. We’re working closely with Indigenous communities and Knowledge Keepers to align Indigenous Knowledge throughout our work. This includes hosting Indigenous Knowledge and western science workshops, where we seek to bring these ways of knowing into dialogue on subjects such as the importance of protecting water.

The NWMO has been working with communities and Indigenous peoples (Image: NWMO)

We’ve worked closely with the 22 municipalities and Indigenous communities that expressed an interest in learning about the project and exploring their potential to host it. Based on increasingly detailed technical studies and engagement, the NWMO gradually narrowed the list of potential siting areas to two: the Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation-Ignace area in northwestern Ontario and the Saugeen Ojibway Nation-South Bruce area in southern Ontario.

Today, we’re on track to select a preferred site in 2024, before advancing the project into the regulatory and licensing phase. These next steps will be rigorous and challenging - as they should be - to provide Canadians and Indigenous peoples with the assurances they need and deserve.

The NWMO has come a long way over the past twenty years, demonstrating together with our international sister organisations that deep geological repositories are a safe, long-term approach for the management of used nuclear fuel. As governments here at home and around the world look to nuclear energy in the context of their clean energy strategies, we cannot slow down and ask the next generation to pick up where we left off to manage the used nuclear fuel that results.

A 3D rendering of Canada's proposed deep geological repository (Image: NWMO)

As Sweden’s Minister of Climate and Environment Annika Strandhäll said when announcing approval of Sweden’s deep geological repository in January: “It is irresponsible to leave nuclear waste in water basins year after year without a decision. We must not hand over responsibility to our children and grandchildren. Our generation must take responsibility for our waste.”

Beyond the need for energy security, the ongoing war in the Ukraine has also reinforced our collective responsibility to safely manage our used fuel in deep geological repositories to protect people and the environment, regardless of what occurs at the surface. We can’t predict what will happen to human institutions and we certainly cannot take lasting peace for granted over the many thousands of years that used nuclear fuel needs to be contained and isolated.

That’s why it is so critical that we take action now. It is incumbent on all of us in the nuclear industry to get out and spread the word.

Whether in formal channels with governments, by correcting misinformation on social or mainstream media, or through informal discussions with family and friends, we must all play a part in telling the world: We don’t have a nuclear waste problem. We have a nuclear waste solution.