The fate of a proposed nuclear waste facility near the Canadian shores of Lake Huron is left to the democratic process.
For the past 15 years, Ontario Power Generation — one of the largest producers of electricity in North America — has been working to obtain approval from the Canadian government to build an underground repository near the Great Lakes to store its nuclear waste.
As the approval process for the Deep Geologic Repository, or DGR, nears an end, some concerned citizens have started a petition asking lawmakers in Canada, as well as the United States, to block the approval of the proposed nuclear waste repository near the Bruce Nuclear Power Plant site in Kincardine, Ontario.
Almost 61,000 people have signed the petition so far, including Dr. David Suzuki, a famous Canadian environmentalist.
Much of the concern is focused on the proposed repository’s location — just about a half mile from the shores of Lake Huron. Groups such as Stop The Great Lakes Nuclear Dump argue that if radioactive nuclear waste leaked into the water, 40 million Canadians and Americans who depend on the Great Lakes for their drinking water, would find themselves without access to a source of clean freshwater.
Though some are troubled by the idea of underground nuclear waste repositories, Emily Hammond, a law professor at The George Washington University Law School and scholar at the Center for Progressive Reform, says the scientific community has come to the consensus that it’s actually the best way to dispose of radioactive material.
Hammond recognizes the concerns regarding the proposed facility — and of nuclear power or waste, in general — but, she said, “Nuclear waste repositories are some of the safest places you could put anything on Earth,” as the facilities are “overdesigned.”
She also says that any company building a repository should be transparent and allow scientists and concerned citizens to conduct studies and voice concerns.
Meanwhile, although many activists opposed to the site have expressed their concerns in recent years, numerous scientific studies conducted on the proposed site of the DGR by scientists around the globe have all come to the same conclusion: the site is a safe location for nuclear waste disposal.
Arguments that the site is safe stem from its location in a seismically stable region. Scientists say the rock formations have hardly moved during the last 450 million years and don’t appear to indicate any future movement.
However, not all scientists agree that a glance at a rock formation can clearly determine how safe it may be to store nuclear waste in the area. For instance, William Fyfe, a retired University of Western Ontario professor who worked as an international consultant on nuclear waste before he passed away last fall, voiced his concerns about the project due to the site’s close proximity to water.
“It is universally acknowledged that nuclear waste must be kept away from water circulating through the environment of living things,” Fyfe said, “since water is seen as the main vehicle for eventual dissolution and dissemination of radiotoxic pollutants.”
Michigan Congressman Dan Kildee has also expressed concerns about the location of the proposed DGR, especially due to recent issues at facilities that were supposed to be spill-proof — such as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, in New Mexico.
“These nuclear waste storage sites, although often said to be impenetrable, are not perfect, as this radiation leak shows,” Kildee said in February, after a broken drum at the WIPP facility reportedly caused a leak. “I continue to have great concerns with locating a similar nuclear waste site less than a mile from Lake Huron in Ontario.
“Storing nuclear waste so dangerously close to the Great Lakes is just too much of a risk to take,” Kildee continued. “Michigan and our shared water basin with Canada would be forever changed if a nuclear radiation leak were to happen. Such contamination would also have a drastic effect on the livelihood and well-being of both Michiganders and Canadians.”
Concerns regarding contaminated water have prompted more than 50 cities and towns in Ontario and in the U.S. states bordering the Great Lakes to pass resolutions opposing the DGR.
Beverly Fernandez, spokesperson for Stop The Great Lakes Nuclear Dump, an opposition group formed last year, says the project “defies common sense.”
“Would you bury poison beside your well?” she asked rhetorically.
Need for a nuclear repository
Plans for the underground repository first began in 2001, when officials from the small town of Kincardine in Ontario, Canada, approached officials at OPG in search of a more permanent storage solution for the nuclear waste materials the Ontario-government owned company has kept in above-ground containers for the past 40 years or so.
Ontario relies heavily on nuclear power, which is viewed as a clean power source because it doesn’t produce smog or contribute to climate change. About 50 percent of Ontario’s electricity is currently generated by nuclear power plants, making the province the largest nuclear power jurisdiction in North America.
“We have had nuclear power since the late 1960s,” said Neal Kelly, director of media, issues and information management for OPG.
The major benefit to nuclear power, he says, is that it generates large amounts of relatively cheap electricity around the clock, which is used to power homes, businesses, hospitals and more.
But the creation of nuclear energy also creates a need to dispose of the resulting nuclear waste. There are three types of nuclear waste streams produced by nuclear power plants: low-, medium-, and high-level wastes. High-level wastes — essentially the fuel bundles in the reactors — would not be put into the DGR, as Kelly says those only disposed at the very nuclear power plants where they were produced and used.
The other two types of radioactive waste materials would be buried in the proposed DGR site, though. The vast majority would be low-level waste — items that are slightly contaminated by nuclear waste, such as gloves, coveralls and mops. For the past 40 years, these low-level materials were moved to Kincardine, where they were incinerated.
Kelly says that OPG will continue to incinerate these items and bury the ash in the depository. Although the resulting ash is radioactive, the material being burned contains such a small amount of radiation that Kelly says the employees who handle it wear minimal protective gear — just coveralls and gloves.
Medium-level waste that would be buried in the DGR includes items like filters and resins that cannot be incinerated because they were located closer to the reactor core. Just like the low-level radioactive items, the medium-level items have been disposed of safely in the area for 40 years, Kelly says.
As both sides argue why the DGR should or should not be built on the shores of Lake Huron, a three-person environmental panel of experts in the fields of geology, science and mining, has been appointed by the Canadian Ministry of the Environment to thoroughly research the geologic structure of the land and hear comments and concerns from members of the public.
Before OPG applied for approval to build the facility near Lake Huron, Kelly says, the company researched the types of facilities used to store nuclear waste around the world and shared the best practices with officials from Kincardine and surrounding municipalities.
The creation of a nuclear waste storage facility in deep rock was the option the municipalities liked best, Kelly says, so OPG moved forward with the project.
Geologists were also called in to analyze the proposed site, which is where a lot of the waste is currently stored above ground. They spent about four years assessing the underground geological formations, studying the current environmental conditions, and forecasting what might happen in the future.
Based on an examination of a piece of rock removed from over 3 miles underground, geologists and scientists reported that the rock structure was around 450 million years old and hasn’t shifted much over the long course of its existence. Because of this, the site was deemed an appropriate and safe place to build the repository.
“We were very lucky with the geology of the site,” Kelly said.
OPG had the initial findings peer-reviewed by other scientists, he continued, and has since shared more than 12,000 pages of studies proving the safety of the rock formation to the environmental review panel and the public.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Environmental Quality in Michigan have also reviewed the findings. Both bodies concluded that storing the nuclear waste in the rock about 2,230 feetbelow the surface would not harm the environment.
Despite a plethora of scientists coming to the same conclusion, Allison Macfarlane, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has argued that geology has not yet advanced to the point in which predictions on future movement can be made based on a study of a rock formation.
Even with the use of computer software that can make predictions, Macfarlane has said that geologists are not able to account for processes or features they may be unaware of. For example, after studying a rock formation, government and industry scientists reported the chance of off-site migration occurring at a nuclear waste facility in Kentucky was “essentially nonexistent.” But the plutonium, which scientists believed would travel a half of an inch on-site over a 24,000 year period, actually moved 2 miles off-site in less than 10 years.
Dr. Frank Greening, a retired OPG chemist, worked in the nuclear industry for more than 30 years. He also expressed concerns about the site in a report, in which he claims OPG has “severely underestimated” the radioactivity of the materials that will be put into the repository, “sometimes by factors of more than 100.”
Although thousands of Americans and Canadians are opposed to the DGR, thousands of others support the plan. Hammond says she must admit that even as an environmentalist, OPG appears to be doing everything properly by following the laws and being completely transparent throughout the democratic process.
Fernandez, of Stop The Great Lakes Nuclear Dump, disagrees that it has been a democratic process. She says OPG has paid around $35.7 million to Kincardine and four other shoreline communities located near the proposed DGR site, claiming that these funds are dispersed with the understanding that officials must support any effort to approve the repository or they’ll lose the contributions.
OPG has not denied that it has donated money to local municipalities, which are home to 10,000 OPG employees, and it has been transparent about the donations. While it may be surprising that a company would willingly disclose financial contributions, according to Hammond, these types of donations are legal as long as they are authorized by the government.
Known as “benefits packages,” Hammond says companies around the world — including those in the U.S. — often donate sums of money to cities where a project is anticipated in order to persuade people to support the project. In the case of a nuclear structure, these funds are also meant to ensure that hospitals are equipped to handle the chemicals and relevant vocational courses are offered in the area that would enable local workforce participation.
But Fernandez remains unconvinced that the process is as democratic as OPG claims. She says the company failed to consult the 40 million people who would find themselves without access to clean drinking water if the DGR leaked or ask them if they approved of the project.
She also says OPG is seeking approval from a town of around 14,000 people — many of whom are OPG employees — for a decision that has implications for millions.
Fernandez suggests the company find another location to store the nuclear waste, such as an area that is not near the Great Lakes or as highly populated, or it should continue storing the material in bomb-proof, above-ground containers.
OPG’s Kelly acknowledges the opposition to the project, but says most people change their minds once they learn about all of the research that has gone into the DGR. While OPG seems to be working hard to convince the public that the DGR is the right way to go, he says the company will not proceed without support from the First Nations groups that live in the area.
It should become clearer how indigenous populations and members of the public feel about the project in September, when four weeks of public hearings commence for what is likely the last time before the review panel is expected to make their decision sometime in early 2015.
How the Canadian government will eventually decide is anyone’s guess at this point, but as environmental lawyers like Hammond note, this has been a remarkably aboveboard, democratic process — a feat in and of itself.
Long road to approval
Though Fernandez and other opponents push members of the public in both countries to block approval for the project, the petition to stop the DGR from being built is arguably a bit premature, as the project has not yet been approved.
Even if the panel does side with OPG, Kelly says the company has only applied for a license to construct the facility. OPG is currently essentially seeking approval to construct a mine to build the underground storage facility.
If the project is approved, Kelly says it would take five to seven years to build the DGR. Upon its completion, OPG would have to undergo another public process in order to obtain an operation license so the company could lawfully transport and store the nuclear waste in the DGR.
OPG expects the DGR to hold about 52,834,470 gallons of nuclear waste — the equivalent of about 35 years worth of nuclear waste. Once the DGR is full, the OPG would submit to another public process in which the company would seek a decommissioning license, which would allow OPG to fill about 2,230 feet of the mine shaft with cement and cap it at the top.
The company would be responsible for monitoring the facility for a period of time to ensure that radioactive material was not leaking, but it would eventually ask to abandon all responsibility for the site. This could occur about 300 years after the DGR had been closed, even though the chemicals remain radioactive for around 100,000 years.
Kelly says he and others at OPG are not concerned about the chemicals getting into the Great Lakes because not only have the rocks not moved in 450 million years, but there are multiple natural barriers — such as shale — that would help insulate the materials and prevent them from leaking into Lake Huron.
When asked about the disaster at the WIPP facility in New Mexico, Kelly explained that the proposed facility in Kincardine is different than the WIPP facility and OPG is studying what happened at WIPP and incorporating lessons learned into their plans to build the repository.