One of the most common concerns with nuclear power is the safe disposal of radioactive waste. Radioactive waste is primarily divided into two categories: low-level and high-level.
Low-level waste includes things like shoe covers, mops or medical equipment that has been exposed to or contaminated by radioactive material. Low-level waste is about 90% of all radioactive waste by volume and can be stored in near-surface storage facilities while the radiation decays.
High-level waste primarily comprises the spent fuel from nuclear power generation. Though the level of radioactivity will decline over time, the potential health risks from exposure will remain for hundreds or thousands of years. To ensure spent nuclear fuel is managed safely over the long-term, the federal government created the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO).
Today, Ontario stores spent nuclear fuel in facilities at nuclear generating stations. First, the spent fuel spends seven to 10 years in wet storage as the most intense levels of radioactivity decay. Then that waste is transferred to dry storage, where the radioactive material is contained in concrete and steel. The dry storage containers have a life of 50 years, after which the container can have its life extended or the waste can be transferred to a new container.
The future of high-level nuclear waste storage is in deep geologic repositories (DGR). DGRs are built 500-800 metres below ground and use both engineered and natural barriers to contain radioactive fuel in a manner that protects both humans and the environment. Finland is currently completing construction of the world’s first DGR.
The NWMO is currently exploring options for a site to host a DGR project in Ontario. NWMO will only place the site in an area with an informed and willing host community, and with acceptance from First Nation and Métis communities in the area.
The storage of high-level nuclear waste is not without risk but these risks are manageable. The alternative to nuclear waste is greater reliance on fossil fuels, the byproduct of which is increased carbon emissions. Manageable nuclear waste is far less risky than the real and irreversible threat to the planet posed by catastrophic climate change.