Protecting ecosystems around two proposed nuclear waste storage sites in Ontario is the goal of a pioneering environmental research project involving University of Guelph biologists.
Along with environmental scientists from the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), the researchers will use environmental DNA technology developed at U of G to sample aquatic life around South Bruce near Lake Huron and around Ignace, located between Thunder Bay and Kenora.
The biodiversity project is ultimately intended to help scientists monitor long-term effects of containing spent nuclear fuel from Ontario power plants deep in the rock beneath either site, said Dr. Robert Hanner, a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology.
It’s the largest eDNA project yet for his lab, which uses DNA barcoding to identify numerous organisms in water and soil samples. Learning what species currently live at both locations will help NWMO scientists monitor future changes in biodiversity, said Hanner.
The team plans to take water samples throughout the year to monitor for seasonal changes. They have begun sampling at Ignace and expect to begin collecting around South Bruce in 2022.
“The data we collect through our partnership with the University of Guelph will build on all of our existing knowledge of the current local environments in South Bruce and Ignace,” said Melissa Mayhew, senior environmental scientist at the NWMO.
“Environmental protection begins with collecting and interpreting data so we can understand what biodiversity is present at potential repository sites and the health of those species. Using eDNA technology will complement our traditional research programs and will help us identify species that are harder to detect.”
She said the project will help the organization conduct a planned impact assessment after a single, preferred location for a deep geological repository has been selected. NWMO plans to choose a site in 2023.
The monitoring program includes environmental features such as surface water, shallow groundwater, air, soil, farm products, plants and animals, and their habitats around the potential repository site and the surrounding region.
The team designed the sampling program along with local communities, conservation authorities and experts to incorporate residents’ priorities and to ensure compliance with best and emerging practices. Results of the project will be shared with the communities to help with informed decision-making.
“We heard very clearly from communities that trustworthy and transparent data collection, interpretation and reporting was critical to the success of the NWMO’s environmental baseline monitoring program,” said Mayhew. “Establishing partnerships with respected institutions like the University of Guelph is one way we’re delivering on this.”
Hanner said the project will also have wider benefits.
“The data we collect will be shared with global databases so that future projects can benefit from our learnings,” he said. “Environmental DNA is an emerging technology that has the potential to advance biodiversity surveys and contribute to the conservation of aquatic species.”
Dr. Robert Hanner