Questions about two proposed nuclear waste sites continue to provoke controversy.
By: John Spears Business reporter, Toronto Star
More than half a century after miners started gouging uranium out of the Canadian Shield at Elliot Lake, William Elliott wants it back.
He’s leading the campaign by the town and surrounding communities to become the place where the used fuel from Canada’s nuclear reactors is stored forever.
But the long-running saga of finding a spot for Canada’s nuclear waste still has years more to run as those who want the waste and those who don’t struggle over what to do with it.
And the question gets even more vexed as a decision nears on a second radioactive waste site for less potent but still hazardous nuclear waste that Ontario Power Generation wants to develop at its Bruce nuclear site near Kincardine, Ont.
Decisions about nuclear waste, which have simmered for decades, are starting to heat up, as two processes move forward.
The Nuclear Waste Management Organization, responsible for finding a home for used fuel from nuclear reactors, has started trimming the list of applicants from its roster, dropping four communities and leaving 17 in the running.
A federal panel is due to make a decision this year on whether to give the go-ahead to OPG’s proposed waste site at the Bruce.
The double process, for two different waste sites, has sown confusion in the Kincardine area, where the town solidly backs OPG’s proposal, but has made it clear it has no interest in the used fuel waste site.
But a number of Kincardine’s neighbours have said they do want the used fuel site, leading to speculation that the two projects could still somehow become one.
That simply isn’t going to happen, vows Mike Krizanc of the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO).
“It’s been the challenge for us to address that and distinguish them,” he acknowledges.
But he says the two sites can’t possibly be combined.
“The two are technically different,” Krizanc insists.
OPG proposes to store its waste in a series of huge, horizontal underground caverns.
The used fuel that is the responsibility of the NWMO will be placed in radiation-proof steel and copper containers and deposited in vertical boreholes drilled deep into bedrock.
Any open spaces left when the containers are deposited will be packed with bentonite clay, a material that is a solid barrier to water flow, should radiation somehow leak from the containers into groundwater.
Technical issues aside, a key component in deciding where the used fuel depository should go remains finding a community that is happy to have it.
On that score, Elliott, who heads the Elliot Lake-area business development corporation, thinks his community’s bid comes in as a strong contender.
“It came out of the ground here, it was refined down the highway,” Elliott says simply.
“Nobody here thinks poorly of the nuclear industry at all.”
Krizanc said the NWMO wants to make sure that the chosen community’s near neighbours are onside with the decision.
Elliott notes that the bid from his area covers four municipalities: Elliot Lake, Blind River, Spanish and the township of North Shore.
“We’re still very confident that between our infrastructure, our history our community support, that we’re going to be seen as a very strong contender.”
But there are still 17 bids in the running, spread from Saskatchewan to Northern Ontario to a number of municipalities near the Bruce reactor.
Krizanc says the NWMO will take its time making sure the choice is right for the spent fuel site.
While Canada’s mining industry has explored much of the country’s geology, Krizanc says they haven’t necessarily covered the ground that the NWMO must investigate.
Miners are looking for rocks that might hold valuable minerals, he says. The NWMO is looking for precisely the opposite. The last thing it wants to do is develop a site on top of what later turns out to be an oil field or gold deposit. It wants to find rock that is stable and, from a resource point of view, dead boring.
That means that after the candidates are narrowed down to one, or possibly two, final candidates a result that’s still several years away there could be another four or five years of detailed technical analysis to make sure it’s the right spot.
Nowhere is the issue of finding both good geology and social acceptance more complicated that the Bruce area, where it’s debated by friends and foes of both waste projects, in the very shadow of Canada’s biggest operating nuclear station.
Saugeen Shores, just north of the Bruce station, has thrown its hat in the ring for the spent fuel site.
But Mayor Mike Smith who supports the OPG project is cautious about his position on the spent fuel repository.
The town has just formed a community liaison committee to see if consensus can be achieved.
Smith insists he keeps an open mind on supporting the spent fuel site.
“I wouldn’t be comfortable saying one way or the other at this point,” he said in an interview.
“There’s a number of other communities around us that are interested, so I think it’s important that we find out about it and try and at least engage our people. Whether we’ll support it in the end or not, I’m not sure.”
There is local confusion about the two projects, he said. “Anybody that works at the (Bruce) plant I think has a pretty good understanding of it. But if you’re not connected, you maybe would be confused.”
The tension between the projects was driven home by the Saugeen Ojibway Nation (SON), whose traditional territory includes the Bruce area.
In their final comments in October to the federal panel probing the OPG project, the SON said the two projects can’t be split.
“In our submission, there is a real and demonstrable connection between this (OPG) project and NMWO’s project for a used fuel repository, and there is an existing public perception of this connection,” SON lawyer Alex Monem told the panel.
Chief Randall Kahgee drove the point home.
The connection between OPG’s low and intermediate level waste project, and the NWMO site for spent fuel, remains “unexplored and unexplained,” Kahgee told the panel.
A small group of Bruce County residents has started an online petitionagainst burying waste near Lake Huron.
Co-organizer Beverly Fernandez calls the OPG site a “Trojan horse” for the used fuel site, arguing that once one is approved, it will open the gates for a second.
Dozens of Great Lakes towns and cities including Toronto have gone on record opposing any nuclear waste site in the Great Lakes basin.
An umbrella group, the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, whose members include Toronto, Montreal and Chicago, issues a statement in May voicing concern over “the close proximity of the site” to Lake Huron.