A Radioactive Policy: What to Do with High-level Nuclear Waste

Ian T. D. Thomson

The world of nuclear energy generation presents an interesting paradox. With the USSR connecting the first nuclear power plant to the electricity grid in 1954, many applaud nuclear for being a clean, cheap, abundant and non-C02 emitting source of energy generation. Yet there remains a fear of nuclear meltdowns and of safety outside of its main operation. Catastrophes in Chernobyl and Fukushima, near misses like Three Mile Island and negative pop culture portrayals such as on The Simpsons have skewed the view of the utility of nuclear energy.

Arguably, the most pressing issue in this area is high-level nuclear spent fuel management. This energy explainer looks to explore the high-level nuclear spent fuel issue and the current policies surrounding this problem.

What is used fuel and why does it matter?

“Used fuel” or spent fuel is the by-product of nuclear energy generation. In this state, the uranium fuel is no longer efficient enough to produce electricity, yet remains radioactive and harmful to the public and the environment. By emitting nuclear radiation even after losing its energy use, nuclear waste radiation emits radiation into the environment and damages and mutates human cells, leading to cancer, chronic diseases and death. Used fuel falls into two categories: low- and intermediate-level waste, and high-level waste. Low and intermediate spent fuels often decay faster, and generally come from hospital or industrial use. Additionally, these types of spent fuels can be more easily recycled and become radioactively dormant faster with the most short-lived low-level waste decaying within hours or days. Most are placed in above-surface temporary storage until they become dormant. From here, it is either thrown away like regular garbage or shipped to a low-level waste disposal site.

In comparison, high-level spent fuel is waste from burning uranium in a nuclear reactor for energy generation. While some high-level waste decays within hours or even minutes, other types of nuclear waste emit harmful radioactivity for decades, centuries or millennia after being spent and thus must be segregated from the environment and the public before it becomes fully stable. Currently, nuclear generation plants store their waste in temporary “spent fuel pools”, which are buried and often reinforced with concrete approximately 12 metres underground. However, a more long-term solution is needed to deal with the highly radioactive waste.

There is a conventional understanding that each of the 31 countries that operate nuclear power plants and accumulate high-level spent fuel are responsible for their own permanent disposal of spent uranium. So how can a country dispose of this dangerous, radioactive fuel?

Down in the ground

The most accepted international approach to permanent high-level used fuel waste disposal is the development of a deep geological repository (DGR). A DGR lies roughly 500 meters below the surface in a suitable geological formation. This process involves several years of research studying a potential site’s geological composition to determine if it qualifies as an appropriate location. According to the World Nuclear Association, high-level waste accounts for 95% of the radioactivity in all nuclear waste, yet only accounts for 3% of the volume of radioactive waste. Given the small volume the waste occupies and the sizeable volume of proposed DGR’s, countries have opted to develop only one DGR for now.  Additionally, while Canada has 20 approved radioactive waste management facilities to accommodate the larger volume yet lower level nuclear waste, the country does not yet have a DGR nor a selected site for its high-level used fuel. But then again, no country currently has an operational DGR.

The advantages of DGRs lie in their design:  they limit accessibility and increase the fuel’s isolation from the general public due to the depth and geological barriers; provide long-term stability given the long half-life of the waste; and remove the responsibility from nuclear-generating plants which are not as well-equipped to hold the waste permanently.

This solution, while sound from an engineering perspective, presents awful optics from a political perspective, with localities proclaiming quite literally “not in my backyard”. Subsequent to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis, when a tsunami disabled three nuclear reactors causing meltdowns in the area, there is now a heightened public fear of nuclear energy; a study by Kim et al. (2013) found that this disaster negatively changed the public’s attitude towards nuclear energy generation in 42 different countries.

In Canada, disposal of high-level used fuel falls under federal jurisdiction. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) was established by Canada’s nuclear generating facilities to oversee the long-term management of used fuel and thus, to research, select and develop the country’s DGR. The DGR will be within Ontario as the majority of the country’s nuclear reactors are within its borders and as it also has the strong geological foundation needed for a repository with the Canadian Shield. Currently, there are six sites being reviewed: Blind River; Elliot Lake and Area; Hornepayne and Area; Huron-Kinloss; Ignace and Area; Manitouwade and Area; and South Bruce. The NWMO expects to have selected one of these sites for the DGR by 2023. This puts Canada alongside other countries like China, Switzerland and the United Kingdom who are also in the DGR site-selection process.

Who should we look to?

Developing a DGR is an extremely slow-moving process and many countries are still in the process of selecting a site. As such, no operational DGR currently exists in the world. However, Finland, Sweden, and France have already selected the sites for their DGR and are obtaining construction and assessment licenses from regulatory agencies.

Finland is leading the charge on positive policy enactment. Signing off on the first contracts for the excavation of the first tunnels at the site, commercial operation is set to begin soon after 2020. This timeline is significantly ahead of all other nuclear-energy producing nations. Consequently, Posiva, the Finnish organization in charge of developing the DGR, has created a subsidiary company to provide consultation to other countries (like the Czech Republic ) with their own DGR development processes.

Countries off the map

Many countries that want to build a DGR are still in an ambiguous policy situation driven by politics and the events of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear spillover, with distant timelines of when their DGR will be selected, constructed or become operational.  The fallout of the Fukushima nuclear disaster led to a public uproar against nuclear policy in South Korea. As such, the country adopted a “wait-and-see” approach to storing its spent fuel in a DGR, indicating a passive approach to the problem. Countries like China, Romania and even Germany have set their expected operational timelines around 2050 and beyond.

Additionally, our neighbors to the south are in quite the predicament with their spent fuel management. While Yucca Mountain, Nevada, was once selected, the lack of a proper regulatory process for its selection led Barack Obama to cancel the site’s DGR license review. The new Trump administration has stated it wishes to revisit Yucca Mountain but the Senate Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development has shot down any funds that could be used to revive the licensing of the site for a DGR.

The biggest issue with this is the cost of the US’s current storage of waste. Currently, private generators store the waste and are compensated; the cost will run up to $29 billion for the U.S. government by 2022  if the DGR is not built by then.

The issues of where to place high-level spent nuclear fuel is not limited to environmental safety concerns but also will cause a larger budgetary issue. Long term nuclear energy maintenance requires that countries be proactive in the research and development of their DGR infrastructure for the safety of generations to come. The problem of high level nuclear waste will not solve itself – at least not for decades.


Ian T. D. Thomson is a 2018 MPP Candidate at the School of Public Policy & Governance.  Originally from Winnipeg, Ian holds both a Bachelor of Science Honours degree in Psychology and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy from the University of Manitoba. His policy interests include cultural and media policy, natural resources policy, and fisheries policy. Outside of the realm of policy, Ian writes, records and performs indie rock songs under the name “T. Nautilus”, having released two albums in 2015 and 2016 respectively.