As the Municipality of Ear Falls considers continuing through a process that may eventually establish a permanent used nuclear fuel disposal site a short distance from the community and the Red Lake District becomes a stakeholder in the process career politicians say the concept of storing used nuclear fuel in Northwestern Ontario is not new.
In the late 1970s Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd (AECL), the government organization tasked to deal with the growing number of used nuclear fuel bundles, held an open process by which Canadian communities could self identify as potential sites for waste disposal and according to former resident Pat Sayeau leaders of the day were eager for Red Lake to be one of those communities.
“[AECL] went around Canada and had communities nominate themselves as candidates,” says Sayeau. “Early in that process we managed to get the Township of Red Lake and remember we weren’t amalgamated at that time, so we nominated ourselves into the process and we became a candidate site.”
Sayeau, a Councillor of the Township of Red Lake at the time, says the process involved setting up a community committee to work with residents on their understanding of the issues and host monthly meetings with speakers on both sides of the issue. The former area resident recalls the proposal was to store 45 gallon drum-sized containers in holes drilled into solid rock for storage without further monitoring or study once the site was established.
“Their concept was to drill these holes and just drop this stuff in and we weren’t going to buy in to that process,” says Sayeau. “We had nominated ourselves as a candidate community but our concept was different than theirs. Our concept at the time was Madsen Mine is closed and our concept was ‘you can go underground at a place like Madsen Mine but we want this stuff stored in caverns. You can store it in 45 gallon containers if that is the size you are thinking about but those containers go underground. They have to be constantly monitored and we want nuclear scientists or the monitoring committee – we want them domiciled in the community… we said to the [community] committee if you can get the process to the point where we can negotiate we are going to negotiate big things for the community. We are not going to accept Atomic Energy for what they want to do. We are going to dictate the terms of what we want to get out of it.”
Sayeau says 30 years after the process failed to gather the support of district residents the challenges to establishing a storage site remain and that is garnering community support for the large scale project. “Here we are 30 years later, they still don’t have a solution and now they have to be getting desperate and a community that opts into the process now I am thinking if they can get their people beyond that first step, they are going to be able to negotiate their own conditions and their own terms.”
Throughout 1978 AECL information sessions populated the front page of the local publication “The District News” discussing a government proposal to meld nuclear fuel bundles with glass. In July 1978 researcher Egon Frech told community members the vault to be used for nuclear fuel bundle disposal would be contained 500-1,000 metres into solid rock and “in the planned disposal vault, the glassified wastes would be further enclosed in a corrosion proof container and emplaced far below the ground-water table in solid rock”.
Nuclear Waste Management Organization representative Michael Krizanc says through extensive study over the last 20 years the repository concept has evolved including materials being proposed for the multi-barrier system which will isolate and contain the used fuel.
“Used nuclear fuel containment systems have evolved over the years,” reports Krizanc. “Early on, Canada’s waste management research program considered reprocessing, a method which produces liquid wastes. The standard manner of dealing with these liquids, then and now, is to convert them into a glass product through a process called vitrification. For a number of reasons, reprocessing is not considered a viable option for Canada at this time.”
The NWMO rep says research has evolved from glass, to titanium and currently the Canadian reference container is copper-clad for crystalline rock due to its natural evidence of durability underground. Krizanc also notes clay buffers are an important buffer in a multi-barrier system with current research focused on bentonite clay due to its low permeability and self-sealing qualities.
The Township of Red Lake’s participation in the process ended shortly before AECL postponed their national site selection search in favour of putting further study into the issue.