Risky or not, Ontario’s plan to bury nuclear waste near Lake Huron continues
Critics of Ontario Power Generation’s plan to build an underground nuclear waste dump on the shores of Lake Huron have always considered it absurd.
But now, things are really getting silly, detractors say.
Canada’s environment minister requested that OPG, which is the electrical utility that operates one of Canada’s largest nuclear power plants provide further information on the plan and less risky alternatives than near the Great Lakes, last February. The OPG responded recently with alternate sites not only by freshwater lakes and streams but people, sidewalks, and businesses.
“When we looked at the GPS coordinates, one of them was in a densely populated area of downtown Toronto,” said Beverly Fernandez, spokesperson for Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump, a nonprofit citizen’s group in Ontario that has led the charge against the plan. “And probably the most bizarre choice, a spit of land right under the Burlington Skyway Bridge.”
“This is the fifth time that OPG has side-stepped a specific government request to study alternative sites,” said Rod McLeod, director of SOS Great Lakes in a report by the Canadian Press. “At what point is the federal government going to stand up and do its job?”
The report also pointed out that hauling the waste by trucks to another location would affect air quality, even though it’s less than what residents in Ontario contribute with their own cars, and has never been an issue before.
OPG also claims that moving the location would set them back decades and cost billions more than anticipated. It’s currently estimated to cost $2.4 billion and set to start in 2026.
“I’m not sure you can put a value on the Great Lakes,” said Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden, who sent a bipartisan letter signed by 12 of his House colleagues, asking the Trump administration to urge Canada to halt the proposed facility.
“The Great Lakes make up one fifth of the world’s fresh surface-water supply and are a source of drinking water for 40 million people. This plan poses a danger to a crucial water source and a failure at the site would disrupt both Michigan and Canadian tourism and commerce,” said Mitchell, who represents much of northern Macomb County
The fiercely debated plan to build what is called a Deep Geological Repository (DGR) has been going on for 14 years. So long many of the Michigan lawmakers who came out in opposition of it have completed their terms and passed the baton of opposition on to their successors. Mitchell took over U.S. House of Representatives 10th District seat for Candice Miller.
Newly elected Rep. Kevin Hertel (D-St. Clair Shores) recently penned an editorial in The Macomb Daily in support of the argument posed by his predecessor. “Our state’s greatest natural treasure is its water,” Hertel said. “While many states in the western half of the country face frequent droughts and must constantly work to keep necessary vegetation alive, Michigan is surrounded by the world’s largest source of fresh water. There is pride in this: we rely on our water for tourism as well as agriculture purposes. Yet a proposal by OPG would store nuclear waste less than a mile from the Canadian shores of Lake Huron. My predecessor, state Rep. Sarah Roberts, and state Sen. Hoon-Yung Hopgood (D-Taylor) both testified in Canada against the proposal (2013) and I am asking the people of this state to continue to prevent this potential catastrophe from happening.
In addition to Michigan lawmakers, more than 150,000 people have signed petitions, and 187 communities representing 22 million people have passed resolutions opposing the plan.
What has been in the works for decades is the construction of an underground permanent burial facility for all of Ontario’s low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste at the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station in Kincardine, Ont.
That’s less than a mile inland from the shores of Lake Huron and about 440 yards below the lake level. Kincardine, a small community about 114 miles upstream from Port Huron agreed to have the facility in their town but will be financially compensated.
If and when the DGR is in place, an estimated 52 million tons of nuclear waste will be shipped to the site from other nuclear plants around Canada. Some of those discarded materials will remain toxic for more than 100,000 years as they are stored in limestone caverns. Once full, the shafts are to be sealed with sand, clay and concrete.
OPG has assured the residents and the public, “Years of scientific research have shown that the geology under the Bruce nuclear site is ideal for a DGR; it is some of the tightest rock in the world, impermeable limestone that has remained intact through 450 million years, multiple ice ages and glaciers.”
However great limestone might be to say it can hold up to nuclear waste seems presumptuous considering the current reputation of the world’s other DGRs.
“There are only three deep nuclear waste dumps on our entire planet to have held nuclear waste,” Fernandez said. “They have all failed and leaked.”
The three sites include the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) in New Mexico and two German sites, Asse II and Morslenben, both former salt mines.
The WIPP nuclear waste dump was supposed to contain its deadly waste for 10,000 years. Despite scientific assurance to the contrary, a mere 15 years into WIPP’s operational phase, a container exploded, spewing its deadly contents up to the surface, contaminating 22 workers and traveling into the biosphere and down to the next town, said Fernandez.
That means DGRs have a 100 percent failure rate. Even if this new location appears safe, why risk the largest source of fresh water on the planet?
Dr. Frank Greening would be considered a whistle blower in the U.S.
Not so in Canada.
As part of an environmental assessment of the plan, a panel appointed by the federal government heard testimony by individuals and experts on both sides of the debate. Among the speakers to present evidence (in a well-documented report) that OPG was misleading the public including what they planned to store in the facility was Greening. His report was thought to put an end to the plan.
Greening is a scientist, who worked for more than 20 years in the nuclear division of OPG. He was one of their most senior men, a chemist in charge of overseeing the degradation of structural materials, especially the crucially important pipes in the primary cooling systems of CANDU reactors.
Now retired and one of the most knowledgeable critics of the proposed nuclear waste dump, Greening submitted a report disclosing important factors that OPG failed to share among them being the radioactive inventory for the proposed repository. Using words like dirty rags and mops, which is how they described some of the waste to be stored, does not sound as alarming as old reactors or ion exchange resins that bear a significant amount of Carbon-14, a radionuclide that has a half-life of more than 5,700 years.
“They’ve done a very sloppy job in looking at the hazards of the waste. You cannot just look at the radioactive properties but also its chemical properties,” Greening said. The chemical properties of the waste can lead to fires and explosions underground, which as critics fear, could cause a leak.
Building the DGR also requires a mining company to dynamite the rock formations. What about the potential risk to the nuclear plant itself, during construction of the DGR?
“I could go on and on about the scenarios and this is what they’re not talking about,” Greening said.
Another point of concern that Greening feels everyone is overlooking is OPG’s degraded safety culture and its lackadaisical response to concerns about unforeseen accidents. As an example of its history, Greening cited several incidents at OPG that allowed workers (many of them local tradesmen) to be exposed to radioactive materials including plutonium dust.
Greening’s report stopped the process, briefly. The panel requested the OPG to provide further information, which they did, but that was the end of it.
“I loved my job and I was proud of what I did,” said Greening, who walked away from his top-paying position as senior research scientist when he was told to silence his concerns. His colleagues (other OPG scientists and geologists) truly think the plan can work and they might be right said Greening. “But I believe one should always look for the least risky solution and that would be to build it inland, in the Canadian Shield (granite), in Manitoba, like they originally planned to do in the 1980s.”