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KINCARDINE, Ontario — In nearly every way, this 2-acre clearing dotted with wild purple asters is the ideal place, relatively speaking, to dig a third of a mile into the earth, blast a space the size of a Walmart, load it with radioactive nuclear waste and then seal it. The power plant that produces most of that waste, after all, looms within walking distance. Legions of geologists and nuclear physicists insist it would be entombed safely in layers of rock that haven’t shifted in 50,000 millennia.
There’s just one big problem. The “future home of the planned deep geological repository project for low & intermediate level waste,” as the sign on the site announces, is about a mile from the shores of Lake Huron. And the prospect of burying something so toxic in such proximity to the vast and essential Great Lakes has sparked international outrage and is turning the matter into a wedge issue in Canada’s federal elections this fall. The nation’s next minister of the environment —who that will be depends on who controls Ottawa after vote, Oct. 19 — will decide whether to endorse the project, as a government-appointed independent joint review panel did in a 450-page report in May, or kill it.
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that burying radioactive nuclear waste that will remain lethal for 100,000 years right beside the drinking water for 40 million people defies common sense,” said Beverly Fernandez, a spokeswoman for Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump, who lives in Southampton, Ontario, about 30 miles north of Kincardine. “The last place to abandon radioactive nuclear waste is right beside the largest supply of freshwater on the planet.”
That line of attack has been stunningly potent in ginning up political opposition. Legislative bodies and boards in more than 160 cities, counties and states around the Great Lakes have passed resolutions opposing the construction of the repository, including Toronto, Detroit, Milwaukee and Chicago. The Michigan Senate unanimously passed a resolution urging the White House and Congress to intervene under the Boundary Waters Treaty to demand its neighbor “evaluate the proposed underground nuclear waste repository in Ontario, Canada, and similar facilities.”
Yet the matter is not quite as simple or scary as the objections make it seem, according to Ontario Power Generation (OPG), the province’s electric company, and Bruce Energy, which operates the power plants at Kincardine. “Our current plans are to build the DGR [deep geological repository] on our site in rock that is 450 million years old, 680 meters deep in the ground,” said Neal Kelly, OPG’s spokesman, during a tour of the property last week. “You can safely store low- and intermediate-level waste there forever.”
That notion has been backed up not just by the company’s litany of experts but also by two prominent agencies across the border, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Both issued statements in 2012 saying they do not object to the project, diminishing the prospects that Barack Obama’s administration, which has not commented on the matter, will try to intervene. OPG aims to have the DGR built by the mid-2020s, at a cost of about $760 million. The State Department and EPA did not respond to a request for comment.
Yet it is Kelly’s certainty that rattles the naysayers most. What is “forever”? How can anything be that certain? And didn’t emissaries for the nuclear industry offer such reassurances before the disasters at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima?
“As citizens, we trusted companies and governments in the past,” said Marti McFadzean, a 66-year-old retiree who lives in Inverhuron, a hamlet of 400 homes about a mile from the Bruce Energy power plant, and has rallied some local opposition to the repository plan. “Now the general population has a different mindset because we’ve seen things that happened that shouldn’t have happened and it’s made us realize we need to pay more attention.”
Kincardine is an area of about 11,000 residents about 170 miles north of Detroit known for its beaches, an ancient white and red lighthouse-turned-museum at the mouth of the Penetangore River, quaint artisanal ice cream shops and, perhaps most of all, its 2,300-acre nuclear power plant complex. The Bruce Energy facility is the world’s largest nuclear power generation site, home to eight of Ontario’s 20 nuclear reactors. Those reactors provide the region with about half its electricity; the proportion was somewhat less before Canada banned coal-burning power plants in 2003.
Since it began producing power in the 1970s, the Bruce site has stored all the low- and intermediate-level waste for the province’s reactors. Low-level waste includes mops, brooms and clothing that are expected to diminish to safe radioactive levels in about a century; intermediate-level waste includes hardware like pumps, filters and other machinery that was in contact with nuclear fuel and won’t return to safe levels for at least 10,000 years. High-level waste includes spent uranium fuel rods, material so toxic, it is stored at the sites where it is produced.
For the past few decades, the Bruce site has stored the low- and intermediate-level waste in in-ground bunkers and vaults that are evidenced only by the dozens of cement caps of various shapes that lie in neat rows across a concrete plain near the reactor buildings. OPG and Bruce officials have long assured the public that such storage is safe — and they’re not backing off that contention.
It is, however, a cumbersome, expensive long-term solution that relies on hundreds of future generations to maintain and defend. “In 200 years, in 300 years, in 500 years, would those temporary storage facilities continue to be secure?” asked Kincardine Public Works Director Murray Clarke. “What’s the world going to be like in 500 years or 1,000 years? Priorities might shift, interests might change, and meanwhile the material is still stored in a temporary situation on the surface.”
With those concerns in mind, OPG, a public utility owned by the Ontario provincial government, began searching for alternatives in 2001, with an eye on finding a permanent answer before the 20 reactors stop operating by about 2060. More than a decade and $130 million spent on research later, OPG announced its intention to build a DGR beneath 34 layers of bedrock. The repository, which would be more than twice the height of the Empire State Building, would sit in limestone that dates to the Paleozoic era, 500 million years ago. It would be, at its closest, three-quarters of a mile from the bottom of Lake Huron.
In 2012, when the long public-comment period for the approval of the project began, people like Fernandez and McFadzean were alarmed by the DGR’s proximity to the lake and began coalescing to fight it. The province appointed the joint review panel to conduct an environmental assessment that involved 12,500 pages of scientific evidence from OPG and more than 300 hours of public hearings over 33 days.
Amid that process, news in February 2014 of a radiation leak and closure of North America’s only other DGR for nuclear waste, the Waste Isolation Pilot Project, near Carlsbad, New Mexico, exacerbated the anxieties of the opponents. In hearings and other public statements, Fernandez pressed the point that the Carlsbad site, which handled high-level radioactive waste, is joined in its troubles by two leaking DGRs in Germany. All three projects were built with similar safety assurances.
On May 6, however, the panel concluded, according to the executive summary of its report, “that the [Kincardine] project is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects, taking into account the implementation of the mitigation measures committed to by Ontario Power Generation together with the mitigation measures recommended by the panel … The panel agrees with OPG that the DGR is the preferred solution for the long-term management of low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste.”
The report dictated hundreds of engineering modifications OPG should be required to meet to obtain a license to build the repository. The utility has vowed to comply.
Not surprisingly, that outcome did little to quell the opposition. Fernandez and McFadzean have questioned the independence of the experts, the extent of the rock testing and the unwillingness of OPG to even explore other locations for the DGR.
“To site a garbage dump in Canada, it is required that several sites be looked at and the best site be chosen, so for the most dangerous and lethal material that humans have ever created, why is it acceptable for only one site be looked at and selected and that site just happens to be right next to the drinking water for 40 million people?” said Fernandez. “The province of Ontario is as big as Spain and France combined, and the only place that OPG wants to bury this stuff is right next to the Great Lakes?”
Pressed on this question, Kelly reiterated the OPG position with little variation, saying, “The rock here at the Bruce site is ideal for this type of repository. The rock where we propose to put the DGR is 450 million years old. We own this site. Half of the waste is on this site already. In theory, you could look for another site. But at this point, we have the site, we have the science behind it, we have the community behind it.”
By most standards, OPG has been transparent with its science. “Anybody who has an interest in this project, if they want to come in and learn more about it, we’ll bring them to the site and sit down with them,” he said.
Yet in a reflection of some opponents’ unmovable distrust, even that openness is seen as a failing. “It’s not an exchange with them,” McFadzean said. “They want us to come and be educated. It’s a bit scary to me that somebody would want me to come to a meeting to be educated.”
Several hurdles remain that can block the Kincardine project. The new minister of the environment can single-handedly kill it, which is why the Canadian media are trying to press national candidates in the October elections on their positions, albeit with little luck thus far.
And OPG has vowed not to build the DGR without support from the indigenous Saugeen Ojibway Nation, whose ancestral lands host the power plant. “Of course we are opposed to it,” Saugeen First Nation Chief Vernon Roote told The Owen Sound Sun Times in May. Still, Kelly said, OPG is in talks with the Ojibway, and the tribe has yet to come to a firm conclusion. The tribe did not respond to a request for comment.
Outside experts fear politics could trump science in this decision. The issue of nuclear waste storage is an ongoing conundrum for nations all over the world, including the U.S., so the failure to build a site with this much support from scientific experts would be a terrible precedent, said Emily Holland, a nuclear energy law expert at George Washington University and a scholar at the Center for Progressive Reform in Washington.
“This is the challenge for nuclear energy — that merely telling people about the safety numbers and scientific calculations are not convincing when people perceive the risk is really great,” said Hammond, who has read the panel’s report. “What happens in one part of the world has ramifications for the rest of the world. The world is watching what’s happening in Kincardine.”