With a new $3.3-million research grant, Western is solidifying its role as a global, interdisciplinary powerhouse in understanding how to store nuclear fuel waste as safely as possible.
The investment – $2 million from the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC ), and a $1.3-million research grant from Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization – will build on more than two decades of Western’s specialized research in the field, said chemistry professor and corrosion researcher Jamie Noël.
“We’re already recognized as experts in this research. This collaboration makes us a powerhouse and it solidifies our international reach.,” said Noël, an electrochemist and member of the Surface Science Western research group.
The grant includes partnerships with Western chemistry professor emeritus David Shoesmith, a pioneer in Western’s work with the NWMO; and with physics professor Lyudmila Goncharova and earth sciences professor Des Moser.
It also includes partner nuclear waste management organizations in Sweden, Switzerland, Japan and Canada.
“This makes a lot of sense because this work is an international issue; it’s not proprietary to Canada. There’s a very good incentive for collaboration among countries because everyone wants this done in the safest and best way possible,” Noël said.
Including Canada, 32 countries worldwide generate some power from nuclear sources. Unlike using fossil fuels, nuclear energy doesn’t contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. But it does leave a problem of how to manage the still-radioactive fuel pellets, rods or bundles.
Canada’s innovative plan includes a multiple barrier system of loading fuel bundles into steel canisters, electrochemically coated with copper three millimetres thick – about the thickness of two stacked pennies – and then encasing them in a buffer of compacted bentonite clay in a deep vault in bedrock 500 metres below the surface.
Noël’s work focuses on testing ways to make the canisters corrosion-proof, and his team’s expertise includes metallurgy, electrochemistry, corrosion science, thermodynamics, hydrogeology, mineralogy, microbiology, synthetic chemistry and computer modeling.
The addition of Moser and Goncharova to the team provides an even more comprehensive scope, Noël said.
Moser’s research, for example, is investigating corrosion-proof analogs that already exist. “Nature put copper out there a billion years ago and it’s still good today, so we know it can be done. Des’s work can help show us how,” Noël said.
He said the team is also working with Indigenous Peoples to integrate into research their long-time traditional relationship with the land, to understand where copper deposits are and how they historically interact with Indigenous culture as well as with surrounding geology and hydrology.
Getting it right
The five-year grant “is a huge investment” of money and public trust, Noël said.
“We want to make sure, really sure, that if we’re going to have a nuclear waste repository that it is safe, and safe the first time around – because there will be no second time.” ~ Western electrochemist Jamie Noël
Some of the joint research includes validating the efficacy of a three-millimetre copper coating, which is unique to Canada, and understanding fuel chemistry and to ensure different forms of nuclear-fuel waste are made both stable and insoluble before long-term storage.
Faculty of Science dean Matt Davison said the long-term international relationships and collaborations Noël continues to build are invaluable in this research.
Laurie Swami, president and CEO of the NWMO, highlighted that the research funding from the organization has been leveraged into additional support from NSERC and other organizations, here and around the world. “It’s important that that work is supported not only in Canada, but internationally.”