It’s not yes — but it’s not no, either — for building a contentious deep storage vault for nuclear waste in Southwestern Ontario.
A long-awaited decision by federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna came down Thursday, instead, as an ambiguous statement asking Ontario Power Generation (OPG) for more information on its proposal to bury low- and mid-level nuclear waste in an underground chamber near Kincardine, on the Bruce Peninsula, that would be deeper than the CN Tower is tall.
It’s a pause, with little hint of when or how or where the process will go. And neither opponents nor proponents were declaring victory nor defeat Thursday in the wake of the rookie Liberal minister’s move.
“It’s sort of like getting a kiss from your grandmother. It’s nice, but it doesn’t mean a lot,” said Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley.
Bradley is a longtime foe of the plan by provincially-owned OPG to bury the radioactive waste from its nuclear power plants in a vault the size of a big-box store, deep in ancient rock 1.2 kilometres from the Lake Huron shoreline.
The site is in the shadow of the giant Bruce power complex, the world’s largest operating nuclear plant.
Bradley said he was “encouraged” McKenna didn’t outright endorse a federal review panel’s recommendation last year, which left the final say with the government before the fall election, to proceed with the project.
“Two-and-a-half years ago, the expectation was that this would just sail through,” he said.
Even so, Bradley said he’s not sure what to make of the three new directives the minister has given the provincial power producer about the project:
- Study the environmental effects of finding potentially feasible alternate sites.
- Analyze the potential cumulative environmental effects of putting the so-called deep geologic repository (DGR) so near to another proposed potential storage site for high-level waste — spent nuclear fuel.
- Update the list of ways that OPG will mitigate any identified adverse effects the project could have.
OPG needs to come up with a timeline for meeting those requests by April 16.
OPG spokesperson Neal Kelly, in an e-mailed statement, said the utility is committed to conducting the requested technical, environmental and economic studies.
“OPG understands the sensitivity of decisions around nuclear waste and respects the minister’s request for further information to inform a science-based decision . . .
“OPG maintains that a deep geologic repository is the right answer for Ontario’s low- and intermediate-level waste, and that the Bruce site is the right location. OPG is confident that further studies will confirm this,” Kelly said.
The mnister’s statement says the old timeline is now paused and no new timeline for a decision has yet been set.
The non-decision decision incensed Beverly Fernandez, who leads the citizens’ group Stop the Nuclear Dump. She said the federal Liberals could have, and should have, rejected the plan outright.
Instead, she said, the government ignored the leaky history of other DGRs on the planet and ignored requests that all Great Lakes communities have a say in the decision-making.
“No matter what process is followed, burying and abandoning radioactive nuclear waste in the Great Lakes basin will always be a bad idea.
“The Trudeau government’s credibility is on the line,” Fernandez said.
A particularly puzzling note is the government’s request that OPG do a “study that details the environmental effects of technically and economically feasible alternate locations for the project” — although it doesn’t direct OPG specifically to examine another location.
Opponents have long criticized OPG for choosing just one site. They says this one is too close to the Great Lakes, where any leakage would devastate the drinking water of millions of people.
But OPG said Kincardine offered to be a willing host — and when studies found the location to be ideal, with dense limestone unchanged for 450 million years, it made no sense to look for another.
McKenna couldn’t be reached for comment late Thursday.
She had a March 1 deadline to answer the joint review panel’s recommendation. The statement, late on Thursday afternoon, appeared to take everyone by surprise.
Mitch Twolan, the mayor of neighbouring Huron-Kinloss, wasn’t sure what to make of it.
“I don’t know,” he said when asked if it’s a positive sign or not.
Twolan said, “It’s been a long process and a tiring process” that’s lasted more than a decade.
He supports the project, but he also chairs the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, a 100-mayor group that opposes it.
“I wouldn’t support this project unless it was safe,” Twolan said. “The studies have been done. The geology is good there . . . Obviously, the minister wants further information so, so be it.”
Ottawa’s pausing the project didn’t surprise Kincardine Mayor Anne Eadie, especially after last October’s federal election that changed the government.
“I was expecting a delay. It just takes time to wade through all that material,” she said, responding shortly after receiving the news.
“Just from reading over the announcement, it just looks like the federal government wants to exercise due diligence. We’re satisfied that the science is there.” she said.
“This has been a very thorough, rigorous process. And that’s what we want,” Eadie added.
“They’ve decided they need more time before they finally make a decision. They`re really exploring it closely.”
With files by Dan Brown, Free Press reporter
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ABOUT THE DEEP-BURIAL PROJECT
- Would store about 200,000 cubic metres of low- and mid-level waste from Ontario’s nuclear power plants. It would include incinerated dry material that has come into contact with the nuclear power process, but not include wet materials or spent fuel rods.
- 680 metres underground, on the site of the Bruce nuclear plant near Kincardine.
- After months of hearings and sifting through more than 30,000 pages of documentation, a federal review panel endorsed the plan in 2015 and asked the federal environment minister to recommend the go-ahead.
- A citizens’ group mobilized 181 communities and tens of thousands of names on a petition to oppose it.
- Federal decision-making briefly stalled when last year’s election was called.
- New Liberal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna had promised a decision by March 1.
- Regardless what Ottawa finally decides, an area first nation, the Saugeen Ojibway Nation, has veto power and it hasn’t yet firmed up its stance.
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ENVIRONMENT MINISTER’S STATEMENT
An excerpt, from Catherine McKenna:
“After considering the Joint Review Panel Environmental Assessment Report, the Minister has requested that the proponent, Ontario Power Generation, provide additional information on three aspects of the environmental assessment: alternate locations for the project, cumulative environmental effects of the project, and an updated list of mitigation commitments for each identified adverse effect under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012 (CEAA 2012).
Ontario Power Generation has been asked to provide the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, by April 18, 2016, with a schedule for fulfilling the information request.”
By Debora Van Brenk, The London Free Press, Thursday, February 18, 2016 8:01:25 EST PM, as posted at http://www.lfpress.com/2016/02/18/the-new-liberal-government-in-an-unexpected-twist-is-asking-ontarios-power-producer-for-more-information-about-its-controversial-project-planned-in-southwestern-ontario