Tag Archives: spent fuel

CNA2015

How OPG Stores Nuclear Waste Today

When people visit nuclear power plants, they’re often amazed to see nuclear workers standing right beside containers of used nuclear fuel.

“You can safely stand next to them, knowing the radiation is safely contained,” says Val Bevacqua. He is in charge of used-fuel storage for Ontario Power Generation (OPG), which owns all the Ontario reactors that generate electricity.

What makes them safe? They’re made of concrete more than half a metre thick and lined with steel plate. Each of these large, white bins stands about four metres high and weighs 60 tonnes – empty.

Once the spent fuel goes in, skilled workers weld the container shut, vacuum-dry the interior, pump it full with inert helium, and test rigorously for leaks.

Used fuel is very hot and radioactive. A robot removes the fuel bundles from the reactor and places them in bays that look like swimming pools. Despite the strong radiation, Val says, “just a few metres of water can provide a remarkable protective shield for workers and environment from the radiation.”

After about 10 years, the fuel bundles cool and lose most of their radioactivity. Then, nuclear workers use remote tools to place the fuel in the dry storage containers, which are kept on-site.

Darlington

OPG employees are the operation’s core strength. They are all highly trained, and kept safe by radiation-protection equipment and dosimeters.

OPG’s used-fuel storage faces regular inspections by regulators, and the inspectors also make surprise visits. The inspectors track every fuel bundle. And they ensure that the storage containers haven’t been tampered with.

Onsite storage has worked well. The containers are safe and secure. But the sites have to be managed and guarded, and the containers won’t last forever. Eventually, Canada intends to store all used fuel underground, at a site with the right geology and a willing host.

Communities that have shown interest in hosting the permanent site are learning more through OPG. “We’re part of the community, and we host a lot of tours,” says Val.

“Tours are an opportunity for communities to see for themselves what is involved in the safe handling of nuclear fuel and how these hazards can be safely handled without risk to the workers, the public, or the environment.”

CNA2015

Where Will Canada’s Spent Fuel Go?

The plan to store nuclear waste underground at a site near Kincardine, Ontario is only for Canada’s low- and intermediate-level waste. It does not include spent fuel – the uranium that has been used in nuclear reactors.

Spent fuel is much more radioactive, and has to be handled with greater care. So, a separate plan is underway to store all of Canada’s spent fuel permanently underground, in a deep geological repository, or DGR.

Science and the community

Spent fuel storage containers at Bruce Nuclear Generating Station
Spent fuel storage containers at Bruce Nuclear Generating Station

Up to 10,000 years will pass before the radioactivity of spent fuel drops below the radioactivity of natural uranium in the ground. So, storage needs careful planning. Fortunately, Canada has many rock formations that have not moved for millions of years. Many parts of Canada also have types of rock, such as granite, that stop radioactive material from seeping through.

Those are scientific reasons for choosing a DGR location. But people will also live and work around the site. It’s essential for those people to understand and accept what is involved. In 2002, the federal government created the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) to find a DGR site and build it.

Under the laws governing the NWMO, getting approval for the site means proving that the DGR project is scientifically sound and accepted by the host community.

Selection

The process for selecting a spent-fuel storage site started in 2010. It will take about 10 years to finish. It began with the NWMO providing public information about the process. Then, 21 communities came forward to express interest. The NWMO is assessing those communities, but not all of them have the right geology or enough community support. So, the list has been narrowed to nine communities, all in Ontario.

CNA-118-Ontario-Map-v4

The NMWO will also consult with nearby communities, and study possible effects of the DGR. The NMWO will then ask communities still on the list to formally decide on whether they agree to host a DGR. The preferred community will then sign an agreement with the NWMO. The agreement will need approval from the federal government.

After the agreement

With a host site selected, the NWMO will first build a “demonstration facility,” then build the DGR itself. Canada will have a place to store its spent fuel permanently. The NWMO will continue to talk with Canadians about the DGR and keep local communities involved.