Town divided over plan to store nuclear waste near Lake Huron
Emma Jarratt, W5 Producer
Published Saturday, April 1, 2017 7:00AM EDT
KINCARDINE, ONT. - A moment of reckoning has come for Canada’s nuclear industry and millions of people who rely on the power source to keep their lights on.
For over 40 years, nuclear reactors in three provinces have pulsed with energy created by powerful fission reactions and it’s created a complex problem: what do you do with radioactive waste that stays lethal for 100,000 years?
Ontario Power Generation (OPG) is the company responsible for managing waste produced by Ontario’s three nuclear plants – Darlington, Pickering and Bruce.
They say the answer lies in the sleepy community of Kincardine, Ont., where the world’s largest operating nuclear plant, Bruce Nuclear Generating Station, is located.
OPG proposes building a Deep Geologic Repository (DGR): a crypt 680 metres below ground in Canadian Shield limestone that scientists say hasn’t moved in 450 million years and is well below the water table.
It also happens to be 1.2 kilometres from the shores of Lake Huron.
OPG’s DGR would hold all the low and intermediate level nuclear waste in Ontario; roughly 200,000 cubic metres of material.
It’s a plan not without controversy.
“There are two different headsets, totally different headsets,” says Kincardine resident Marti McFadzean, who opposes OPG’s plan. “It’s very hard to come to any kind of a common ground because the thinking is very different.”
McFadzean has deep roots in this part of Canada with family ties stretching back to 1928. She watched the community of Kincardine embrace nuclear energy in its infancy and prosper since.
- Joint Review Panel's report to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency
- Statement from the Saugeen Ojibway Nation
The head spaces she is referring to are those who support the project and those who furiously oppose it. The two sides are locked in a battle that has caught international attention.
DGR proponents say the science is solid, OPG has done their homework and that, given there is already a nuclear plant in the community, it makes sense that Kincardine take on this task.
Critics say the world’s largest surface freshwater system and a nuclear waste tomb have no business being in the same place and that 40 million Americans and Canadians could be affected if something were to go wrong.
But if not in Kincardine, then where?
No one appears to have a viable answer.
As part of environmental requirements set by the government, in 2016 OPG was required to undertake studies of other “actual locations” where the waste could be stored.
Their conclusion is that nowhere would be as safe as Kincardine.
Other suggestions for alternate locations W5 encountered ranged from burial in remote northern Ontario to leaving the waste where it is currently (stored above ground beside two of the five Great Lakes) to moving it to another province.
The latter recommendation comes from career scientist Charles Rhodes who, in a 2013 report, proposed the Canadian government purchase an abandoned mine 10 kilometres outside of Salmo, B.C., and ship Ontario’s nuclear waste 3,700 kilometres for burial there.
“We don’t have any other alternatives,” says Rhodes on whether or not using a DGR is even necessary, but he doesn’t believe OPG is going about it the right way by trying to store the waste in a low-lying area.
“Sooner or later there is going to be a water connection out of the DGR to the outside. I can’t tell you if we are talking one year or 100 years or 1000 years, but in terms of the life of these isotopes, which is typically 80,000 years, they are going to get out.”
Notwithstanding that transporting radioactive waste across the continent presents its own array of safety concerns, the biggest problem would be encountered upon arrival in B.C.
While Ontario has embraced nuclear energy with gusto, it’s an outlier in the country.
Quebec decommissioned its last nuclear complex in 2012. New Brunswick’s lone nuclear reactor has been plagued with a series of shutdowns with the future of the plant up for debate in May 2017.
Nuclear interest in other provinces has been tepid, at best, but none has been as opposed as BC.
“British Columbia maintains a strict no nuclear policy as part of our Clean Energy Act,” writes B.C. Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett in a statement to W5. “As such, we do not use nuclear power for electricity generation [and] B.C. does not allow the storage of nuclear waste.”
For now the debate is at a standstill.
In March, 2017, the last round of public commentary on the Ontario DGR closed. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency has until early fall to submit their final project recommendation to Environment Minister Catherine McKenna.
While a green light from the minister would mean OPG has governmental clearance to put shovels in the ground, they maintain they won’t begin construction until they get approval for the plan from the Saugeen Ojibway Nation in whose territory the DGR would reside.
It’s unclear when that decision will come.