July 17, 2012

‘Caution tape’ needed, Northwatch says

By: Heidi Ulrichsen – Sudbury Northern Life Staff

When the Municipality of Wawa first decided to explore the possibility of hosting the country’s nuclear waste, a group of citizens had what Mayor Linda Nowicki calls an “immediate knee-jerk response.”

“I think they had an 800-signature petition,” she said. “But a lot of the signatures were from people out of town and from children. It wasn’t really an appropriate petition, but we’re taking it into consideration.”

Wawa, located about seven hours away from Greater Sudbury, on the shores of Lake Superior, is one of several communities being courted by the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) as a potential site for its project deep beneath the earth.

In 2010, the NWMO began searching for a community where it can build what’s known as a “deep geological repository,”
where nuclear waste can be buried deep beneath the ground.

The organization only works with communities interested in potentially hosting the facility ” it doesn’t approach any communities itself. The process to find a suitable project site is expected to take about eight years.

The NWMO is planning to suspend the expressions of interest phase of the project on Sept. 30 of this year, meaning new communities would no longer be eligible to participate in the project.

Wawa isn’t the only northern Ontario community which has expressed interest.

Elliot Lake, Blind River, Spanish and the North Shore, along with Nipigon and White River in northwestern Ontario, are at step two of the site selection process, meaning they’re learning more and undergoing initial screenings.

Saugeen Shores, Brockton, Huron-Kinloss and South Bruce are also at step two.

Wawa is one step ahead – at step three – of the site selection process, meaning it’s undergoing preliminary assessments.

Ear Falls, Ignace, Schreiber and Hornepayne in northwestern Ontario, along with English River First Nation, Pinehouse and Creighton in Saskatchewan, are also at this step.

The potential environmental concerns associated with the project don’t phase Nowicki.

“For the long term, the way they plan to store it, it would supposedly withstand the next ice age,” she said.

In terms of the transportation of the material, Nowicki said she’s satisfied the containers are robust and there’s very little chance of environmental contamination.

The idea to sign up the North Shore region communities for the NWMO process originally came from the area’s economic development agency, according to Brent St. Denis, CAO of the Town of Spanish.

While Nowicki and St. Denis seem comfortable with the idea of a nuclear waste repository – at least at this early stage – Brennain Lloyd’s concerns are many and varied.

Last month, the project co-ordinator for Northwatch, a northern Ontario organization focusing on environmental activism, hosted sessions in some of the communities which have expressed interest in the NWMO process.

Lloyd said the sessions covered a lot of the “basics” related to what the nuclear waste is and why their community is being asked to consider hosting a nuclear waste repository.

“I think people have appreciated having the context for the discussion,” she said.

Lloyd said Northwatch plans to hold more detailed sessions on the subject in the involved communities starting this fall.

In general, Northwatch doesn’t support deep geological repositories because it doesn’t think a compelling technical and safety case has been made for the idea, despite studies which go back to the late 1970s.

“The NWMO is saying we’re good enough to go, and we’ll solve the problems by the time we get there,” Lloyd said.

“Northwatch’s view is you’ve been at this for decades, and there’s still large uncertainties about what we would consider to be basic criteria for a waste containment system.”

She’d rather see the country’s nuclear waste stay right where it is right now, although she concedes that’s not a perfect solution either.

The lifespan of the containers used to store the fuel needs to be increased, and better security is needed to ensure it’s safe from threats such as terrorist attacks, Lloyd said.

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