Canadian Manufacturing

Fast-neutron reactors a money-making alternative to burying nuclear waste

Canada is sitting on a gold mine of nuclear fuel and rare earths, says researcher

October 30, 2012  by Dan Ilika

Peter Ottensmeyer needs your help.

For the last eight years, the engineer and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto has dedicated his time to research nuclear fuel waste disposal, an issue, he says, he can’t tackle alone.

And really, who could tackle 44,000-tonnes of nuclear fuel waste on their own?

That magic number, he says, is the amount of CANDU nuclear fuel waste currently stored in Canada, destined for proposed deep geological repositories (DGRs); nuclear waste storage sites located hundreds of metres below ground.


But that nuclear fuel waste, according to Ottensmeyer, could all be consumed by using fast-neutron reactors (FNRs).

Aside from reducing the waste’s long-term radioactivity by 100,000 times, Ottensmeyer says FNRs could extract 130 times more nuclear energy than using CANDU reactors alone, creating an estimated $39.3-trillion in electricity and potentially billions of dollars worth of rare earths and metals.

“I would not call this waste at all,” he says. “I think it’s a tremendous asset.”

A longstanding solution for governments around the globe, DGRs have become a hot-button issue in Ontario recently as the province’s publicly-owned power producer, Ontario Power Generation (OPG), has tentative plans in place to build a storage site near its Bruce Nuclear site on the shores of Lake Huron.

But Ottensmeyer contends these DGRs will be costly and potentially hazardous.

Citing a 2005 report from the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), Ottensmeyer says the lifetime cost of discarding used CANDU fuel in the proposed DGR is estimated at more than $24-billion.

The use of FNRs to manage Canada’s nuclear waste is about two times less costly than using DGRs, Ottensmeyer claims.

What’s more, he says that same CANDU ‘waste’ is still more than 99 per cent fuel.

That’s where the FNRs come in.

Using a sodium-cooled or metal-fuelled process, FNRs are able to use heavy atoms created in CANDU reactors to generate more nuclear energy.

And the FNR concept is nothing new.

One example, the EBR-II (experimental breeder reactor), was a sodium-cooled experimental reactor designed, built and operated by the Argonne National Laboratory in Idaho in the 1960s.

A prototype for the Integral Fast Reactor, the EBR-II was operational for 30 years until U.S. Congress cut funding to the project in 1994.

Other experimental FNRs exist—namely in France and Russia—and a commercial unit is available for purchase from the GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy partnership.

So what’s stopping Canada from adopting this technology?

The biggest impediment, Ottensmeyer says, is the division of power between the federal and Ontario governments.

While power generation—including nuclear power—is governed provincially, the handling of nuclear refuse falls under the federally managed Nuclear Fuel Waste Act, which Ottensmeyer says makes it near impossible to get the right people to the table.

“The funds (to build) actually exist, but they exist in the pocket of one government … yet it’s the provincial government that should build these nuclear reactors because they create energy,” he says, noting NWMO trust funds established in 2002 to finance nuclear waste management efforts.

Another hurdle, he says, is the Nuclear Fuel Waste Act itself, which states Canada will only consider waste management methods if other nations are already supporting them.

“We could solve two problems if we can get the two governments together,” he says.

Despite the difficulties involved with finding the right audience, Ottensmeyer is still hopeful that there’s time left to get the message through, not for his own personal gain, but for that of the future.

“I now have granddaughters and so I no longer look at the next pay cheque or the next election, even,” he says. “I look at generational times.

“This approach will help their standard of living in a wonderful way because it also does away with nuclear waste.”

An optimistic view for a guy with the weight of 44,000-tonnes of nuclear waste on his shoulders.

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