How can enough energy be provided to support growing populations and rising standards of living while reducing heat-trapping gases from burning fossil fuels that are driving global heating and the climate crisis?
The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has repeatedly shown the need to substantially reduce global carbon emissions to avoid the worst effects of climate change. The nuclear industry is among the carbon-free electricity generating technologies (along with geothermal, hydro, solar and wind) that are displacing coal-fired power plants. In 2018, the nuclear industry generated half the carbon-free electricity in the United States and about 20 percent of the carbon-free electricity in Canada.
However, the nuclear industry’s potent radioactive wastes that will remain toxic for millennia and disputed options for their permanent storage represent a double-edged sword.
With the projected rapid expansion of wind and solar plus battery storage installations and the retirement of nuclear generating stations in coming decades, the percentage of carbon-free electricity from nuclear is expected to continue to decline in both Canada and the U.S.
Considering the urgent need to decarbonize economies globally, this expected decline in nuclear electricity production has elevated the hotly debated topic of nuclear energy’s role among carbon-free electricity generating technologies.
Beyond this ongoing debate is the quandary of how to deal with the nearly 130,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel (high-level radioactive waste) that has been generated since the 1950s when nuclear electricity generation began in Canada and the United States. Until permanent underground storage facilities open in both countries, spent nuclear fuel is stored aboveground at each of the nuclear generating facilities, including the 14 commercial nuclear generating sites on the shores of the Great Lakes. The current amount of spent nuclear fuel is expected to double by 2050, representing a tremendous challenge of technically feasible storage solutions and their social acceptability.
Any proposed solution has tradeoffs among its environmental, societal and economic factors, which is why the International Joint Commission’s (IJC) Great Lakes Water Quality Board continues its investigation into the water quality implications of decommissioning nuclear generating facilities.
While each site contains different amounts of nuclear waste and may pursue different strategies to decommission the facility, the arduous challenges of social acceptability for storing any level of radioactive waste are evident across the region.
In southwestern Ontario, for instance, Bruce County is home to two communities divided over nuclear waste disposal.
One Proposed Permanent Radioactive Waste Storage Site Advances, Another Restarts
For spent nuclear fuel management, Canada’s plan calls for the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) to identify a single preferred site to host the permanent storage facility in an area with informed and willing hosts by 2023.
In late 2019, the municipality of South Bruce in Bruce County, Ontario, became one of two finalist communities that volunteered to host the deep geologic repository (DGR) for all of Canada’s spent nuclear fuel (high-level radioactive waste). South Bruce lies within Saugeen Ojibway Nation traditional territory near Ontario Power Generation’s (OPG) Bruce Nuclear Site in the Lake Huron watershed. The other finalist is the municipality of Ignace in northern Ontario in the Hudson Bay watershed.
As the NWMO has announced agreements with South Bruce landowners to allow for studies of the potential DGR for high-level radioactive waste, support for the permanent storage facility continues to be debated among the area’s residents and elected officials.
Under a separate process, OPG recently abandoned a proposed permanent underground storage facility for low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste at its Bruce Nuclear Site in the Saugeen Ojibway Nation’s traditional territory after 86 percent of the voters rejected the project.
OPG will restart the 20- to 30-year process of identifying volunteer host communities in Ontario, hosting consultations with the public, First Nations and Métis, completing environmental assessments and applying for licenses through the federal regulator, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.
In the meantime, low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste generated by OPG’s three nuclear generating stations in Ontario – Bruce A&B, Darlington, and Pickering A&B – will continue to be transported to and stored aboveground indefinitely at the Western Waste Management Facility on the Bruce Nuclear Site where OPG’s permanent underground storage facility was proposed.
On the U.S. side of the Great Lakes, the low-level radioactive waste generated at the 11 nuclear generating sites gets transported for permanent disposal to the EnergySolutions Clive Operation in Clive, Utah, or the Waste Control Specialists facility in Andrews, Texas.
Water Quality Board Continues Its Study
In late February, the Water Quality Board’s Legacy Issues Work Group convened a community panel discussion and tour of Consumers Energy’s Big Rock Point site near Petoskey, Michigan, to gain insight from the only nuclear site in the Great Lakes basin to be decommissioned.
This spot is unique because the structures have been dismantled and the majority of the site was released from its license and regulatory oversight more than a decade ago. However, the independent spent fuel storage installation is onsite and remains under license by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission until the spent nuclear fuel is accepted by the federal government for permanent disposal.
The board will host an experts’ workshop this spring to provide further input to be considered in its report and recommendations to the IJC, which is expected fall 2020.