Introduction to the NWMO
Canada has been using nuclear energy as a reliable, low-carbon power source for our homes and businesses for nearly 60 years. Now, as worldwide energy demand grows and the need to address climate change intensifies, nuclear power has become an increasingly important part of the conversation.
The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) plays a vital role by closing the fuel cycle. We are entrusted with implementing Canada’s plan for the safe, long-term management of used nuclear fuel inside a deep geological repository, in a manner that protects people and the environment for generations to come.
In 2002, the Government of Canada mandated the establishment of the NWMO through the Nuclear Fuel Waste Act. We are an independent, non-profit organization that is funded by the waste owners in Canada: Ontario Power Generation, New Brunswick Power, Hydro-Québec, and Atomic Energy of Canada Limited.
Currently, Canada’s used nuclear fuel is stored at licensed, above-ground facilities. While this approach is safe, it is widely recognized as inappropriate over the long term. Canadians and Indigenous peoples have clearly told us they recognize the importance of taking action on a long-term solution today and not leaving it for future generations.
We know any long-term approach must be developed collaboratively with Canadians and Indigenous peoples. Canada’s plan for used nuclear fuel, known as Adaptive Phased Management (APM), emerged through a three-year dialogue with specialists and the public. It is based on the values and objectives they identified. In 2007, the Government of Canada selected APM as the country’s plan and directed the NWMO to implement it.
A significant milestone is now on the horizon for the NWMO, as we expect to select the site for the deep geological repository in 2023. Initially, 22 communities expressed interest in learning more about the project and exploring their potential to host it. Over the course of the past decade, we have narrowed down the potential siting areas to just two, both located in Ontario – the Wabigoon-Ignace area in the northwest and the SON-South Bruce area in the south.
Getting to site selection will require building on all the work we have done for nearly 20 years. With a project of such complexity and generational scope, we must always stay focused on reaching our upcoming milestones, while also keeping an eye on the long view. Our annual report is an opportunity to reflect on the progress of the past year, while looking to that future where Canada’s used nuclear fuel will be safely contained and isolated for the very long term.
Adaptive Phased Management
It is both a technical method (what we plan to build) and a management system (how we will work with people to get it done). The technological approach involves developing a deep geological repository in a suitable rock formation to safely contain and isolate used nuclear fuel. The management system involves phased and adaptive decision-making, supported by public engagement and continuous learning.
The project will only proceed in an area with informed and willing hosts. Together with the potential siting areas, we continue to explore the potential for partnership and look at how the project could enhance community well-being.
Canada’s plan is adaptive by design. This aspect became vital this past year. As the COVID-19 pandemic continued to evolve in 2021, we found ways to further adapt our work – from how we engage with communities and provide training to our staff, to how we conduct engineering work at our proof test facility in Oakville, Ont. We are proud to have maintained momentum in delivering on our mandate.
The work we are conducting today is laying the foundation for a transition to a new series of activities once a preferred site is selected. We will then initiate regulatory processes, construct a Centre of Expertise and begin to transition our operations to the site.
The next phase of our work is fast-approaching, and we will be ready.
Informing and guiding our work
Six fundamental values guide our work.
We place all aspects of public and employee safety – including environmental, conventional, nuclear and radiological safety – first and foremost in everything we do.
We act with openness, honesty and respect.
We use the best knowledge, understanding and innovative thinking, and seek continuous improvement in all that we do in our pursuit of excellence.
We engage in a manner that is inclusive and responsive, and that supports trust, constructive dialogue and meaningful partnership.
We take responsibility for our actions, including wise, prudent and efficient management of resources.
We communicate openly and responsibly, providing information about our approach, processes and decision-making.
An Ethical and Social Framework
We are guided by an Ethical and Social Framework (www.nwmo.ca/ethicalandsocial) that was first published in 2004. It was developed with the involvement of leading Canadian ethicists and Indigenous thought leaders during the study phase of our work. We continue to build on this framework as the project moves forward.
The Ethical and Social Framework incorporates the following principles:
- Respect for life in all its forms, including minimization of harm to human beings and other sentient creatures;
- Respect for future generations of human beings, other species, and the biosphere as a whole;
- Respect for peoples and cultures;
- Justice across groups, regions and generations;
- Fairness to everyone affected, particularly minorities and marginalized groups; and
- Sensitivity to the differences in values and interpretation that different individuals and groups bring to the dialogue.
The deep geological repository
This diagram shows a conceptual layout for the surface facilities, as well as an approximate area of 1,500 acres (600 hectares) for the underground services area and placement rooms in the deep geological repository, at the proposed site with crystalline rock. This design will continue to evolve as the project progresses.
The deep geological repository uses a multiple-barrier system designed to safely contain and isolate used nuclear fuel over the very long term. Constructed more than 500 metres below ground, the repository will consist of a network of placement rooms that will store the used nuclear fuel.
At the surface, there will be facilities where the used fuel is received, inspected and repackaged into purpose-built containers encased in a buffer box, before being transferred to the main shaft for underground placement. There will also be facilities for administration, quality, security, processing of sealing materials, and ongoing operation of the site.
The repository will include a centralized services area that will allow for underground ventilation through three shafts located within a single, secure area. The layout also includes multiple access tunnel arms that will let our technical specialists situate the placement rooms in areas with the most suitable rock. The buffer boxes will be arranged in the horizontal placement rooms, and any spaces left over will be backfilled with bentonite pellets.
To prepare for the regulatory decision-making process and construction, the NWMO has begun work on site-specific conceptual designs of the repository layout based on information from geoscience assessments and initial borehole drilling in the potential siting areas. This is an iterative process – as the NWMO develops additional site-specific information, we will continue to evolve the design of the repository. The proposed site in the Wabigoon-Ignace area would be located in crystalline rock, and in the SON-South Bruce area, it would be in sedimentary rock.
Rigorous safety standards govern the project. We have committed to meet or exceed all applicable federal and provincial regulatory requirements to protect the health, safety and security of people and the environment for generations to come.
The engineered-barrier system
This diagram shows the multiple-barrier system that will contain and isolate the used nuclear fuel.
3 The third barrier is a copper-coated steel container. These containers are engineered to resist corrosion and are strong enough to keep the used nuclear fuel completely contained until its radioactivity decreases to safe levels. They are designed to survive underneath 3,000 metres of snow, ice and meltwater, 800 metres of rock and dirt, groundwater, and surrounding clay pressure.
4 The fourth barrier is a buffer box made of highly compacted bentonite clay that encases each container. Bentonite clay is a natural material proven to be a powerful barrier to water flow. It is very stable, as observed in natural formations that are hundreds of millions of years old. It also naturally prevents microbial growth, which will help maintain the integrity of the container over a long time.
5 The fifth barrier is the rock itself, which will protect the repository from disruptive natural events, water flow and human intrusion.
By strategically adapting our work plans over the course of the year, we remained on track to select a preferred site in 2023. This will mark an important milestone for the project, as the decision will bring to an end the siting process we initiated in 2010. Timelines for construction and moving our operations to the selected site also remain unchanged.
We are committed to moving forward with Canada’s plan. The following graphic provides a snapshot of historic and future milestones for the project.