OTTAWA, ON – For north of Superior communities involved in the Nuclear Waste Management Organization’s “Learn More” program, revisions to the design and layout of the NWMO’s nuclear waste burial plans might mean it’s more a case of “learn again” as the NWMO rolls out a substantially revised version of their “reference plan” for nuclear waste burial.

Edited [There are 6 Northern Ontario municipalities, in the
vicinity of areas being considered by the NWMO’s site selection
process, at various stages of the NWMO’s “Learn More” program.
As part of the “Learn More” program.]
Participating municipalities were invited by the NWMO to send three delegates to the Canadian Nuclear Society’s conference on nuclear waste management and decommissioning this week (Sept.11-14) in Ottawa.

Members of municipal councils and Community Liaison Committees were among the approximately 300 people attending the national conference, including several delegates from White River, Hornepayne and Manitouwadge. There were also a number of delegates from communities no longer in, or not having participated in, the site selection “Learn More” process including city councilors from North Bay, Dryden and Kincardine as well as representatives from a few First Nation communities.

Though Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Mike Mantha had been scheduled to speak a conflict was said to make that impossible, subsequently, Mr.Mantha provided taped answers to questions from the NWMO. Photo B.Lloyd
Though Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Mike Mantha had been scheduled to speak a conflict was said to make that impossible, subsequently, Mr.Mantha provided taped answers to questions from the NWMO. Photo B.Lloyd
A series of presentations by NWMO staff or consultants outlined some fundamental changes to the NWMO project design, including significantly different radioactive waste containers and underground layout.

The “Adaptive Phased Management” plan, crafted to meet a 2005 reporting deadline to the federal government, was detailed in a 594 page report in 2012 describing a “reference plan” for a deep geological repository in the crystalline rock of the Canadian shield (this was followed by a report in 2013 covering the same subjects for a hypothetical repository in the sedimentary rocks found in the area surrounding the Bruce nuclear generating station in southwestern Ontario).

Project descriptions from 2005 to 2015 for a potential repository in the Canadian Shield depicted a flat-topped cylindrically shaped used fuel container that would be placed either vertically in the floor of a room carved out of rock deep underground or horizontally in the room itself. In late 2015, project descriptions began to replace the images of the waste container with one of a sphere-topped container placed in a large box filled with buffering materials. Dubbed “Mark II” by the NWMO technical staff, the revised fuel container design features a steel vessel that is copper coated and welded shut.

Northwatch spokesperson Kathleen Brosemer acknowledges that project evolution is not unexpected, given both the thirty year timeline between the 2005 plan’s release and the earliest possible construction dates, plus the very conceptual nature of the NWMO’s “Adaptive Phased Management Plan”.

“We’ve no problem with continued research on ways to isolate nuclear waste over very long periods of time, given all the uncertainties associated with geological disposal concepts. And at first introduction the revised fuel container designer looks like it might have some actual advantages over the 2005 version of the NWMO’s used fuel container,” commented Brosemer from her office in Sault Ste. Marie.

“What we do take issue with is the way the NWMO presents their ideas. For the last ten years the NWMO has been touting the safety of their plan, with project descriptions that depicted a fuel container of a certain design and a message that said ‘we know how to do this’. Now they say they know how to do it, but it’s different than the way they knew how to do it a few years ago. Especially for people living with the prospect of a nuclear waste burial facility, this makes the story harder to follow than it needs to be”.

A second and potentially even more significant shift in the NWMO plan is in the potential layout of the underground repository. For ten years, all NWMO project descriptions have been based on a single “compact” block layout, estimated to result in an underground footprint that is two kilometres by three kilometers. The NWMO’s predecessor plan by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited had a similar layout.

In the last day of technical sessions at the Ottawa conference, a new approach was outlined, generically titled by the consultant who developed it for the Nuclear Waste Management Organization as “Adaptive Deep Geologic Repository Layout”.

It signifies a huge shift: instead of situating the underground repository in a single rock formation, the notion of “adaptive layout” introduces the idea that a repository design could “bridge across fractures”.

As the workshop abstract explains, “Canadian layouts to date have assumed that a large enough homogeneous and isotropic domain (block) of rock will be available to host the repository”, but decades of research has yet to identify such a rock formation.

Perhaps in light of the NWMO’s current geological research or possibly just hedging their bets against an ongoing failure to find that elusive rock formation, the NWMO now appears to be on the brink of giving up the fundamental concept of geological repositories, i.e. that a single rock formation can be engineered to provide a barrier to the release of radioactive waste.

Asked about the changed designs for both the containers and underground layout, and how such major project design shifts get communicated through the NWMO’s “Learn More” program to residents in North Shore communities, Hornepayne Mayor Morley Forster responded that “the communication we have is that it’s a multi-discipline and international program and there’s a lot of peer review.”

Mayor Forster sees the value in his attending conferences like the one in Ottawa this week is in being able to report to his constituents that “Canada is not doing this alone”. Forester elaborated “If we were to say that we were doing it all by ourselves and nobody else was looking at it we wouldn’t be able to say with confidence that we were doing it right”.

September 16, 2016, as posted at