NWMO, University of Guelph launch research partnership

SOUTH BRUCE – The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) and the University of Guelph have partnered to launch a joint environmental DNA (eDNA) research program to further understand biodiversity conditions around potential repository sites in the South Bruce and Ignace areas.

As part of this program, the University of Guelph’s Hanner Lab, alongside the NWMO’s environmental scientists, will be collecting and analyzing water samples to learn about aquatic species from surrounding areas. A news release from the NWMO explains that eDNA is a non-invasive technology to detect what species are present by looking at DNA that is naturally shed by animals. The data collected will inform the NWMO’s ongoing environmental baseline monitoring program and establish the baseline conditions of the ecosystems.

“The data we collect through our partnership with the University of Guelph will build on all our existing knowledge of the current local environments in the Ignace area and South Bruce,” 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.”

To monitor for seasonal changes, eDNA sampling will take place at different times of the year when different species are most active. Work has started in the Ignace area and is expected to begin in South Bruce in 2022. This is the largest eDNA project to date for the University of Guelph’s Hanner Lab.

“This is an exciting research partnership because it doesn’t just benefit the NWMO or the University of Guelph – it will benefit the broader scientific community,” said Dr. Robert Hanner, professor of integrative biology at the University of Guelph. “The data we collect will be shared with global databases so that future projects can benefit from our learnings. Environmental DNA is an emerging technology that has the potential to advance biodiversity surveys and contribute to the conservation of aquatic species.”

The research program was co-designed with local communities, conservation authorities and experts through a series of workshops to ensure that the NWMO is monitoring what local residents consider important, and is consistent with best and emerging practices.

Once data collection is completed, the results will be released to the respective communities to guide informed decision-making.

“We heard very clearly from communities that trustworthy and transparent data collection, interpretation and reporting were 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 are delivering on this.”

The environmental baseline monitoring program encompasses 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. This work will contribute to the organization’s eventual impact assessment process, which the NWMO will enter once a single, preferred location for a deep geological repository is selected.