Two small communities are competing to receive Canada’s inventory of nuclear waste. They can’t be sure what they’ll get

By Matthew McClearn

Two Ontario municipalities are vying to become hosts for an underground disposal facility for Canada’s nuclear waste. Both must formally announce in the coming months whether they’ll accept the facility – but they cannot know exactly what wastes they’d be agreeing to receive.

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) designed its $26-billion facility, known as a deep geological repository, to receive spent fuel from Candu reactors located in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick. This year, it plans to choose between the last two sites still in the running: the Municipality of South Bruce, Ont., located more than 120 kilometres north of London; or near Ignace, Ont., a town of 1,200 more than 200 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay.

But since the project was conceived, two of NWMO’s three members (Ontario Power Generation and New Brunswick Power) proposed to build new reactors that would burn different fuels and produce novel wastes. The organization guarantees reactor developers that it will dispose of these wastes, even though their nature might not be understood for decades. And in the past few months, both candidate municipalities signed agreements that spell out how the project could be modified to receive such wastes, while limiting their ability to refuse.

These provisions help reduce uncertainty for the nuclear industry. A roadmap produced last year by the Nuclear Energy Institute, a U.S. lobby group, noted that because most small modular reactors (SMRs) being developed would burn different fuels from those of existing reactors, “technology neutral” criteria for accepting spent fuel into repositories was needed as soon as this year in both Canada and the United States.

But the provisions could make it harder to find willing hosts.

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