U.S. opposition to Canadian government’s nuclear waste storage facility proposal in Great Lakes Basin

Nuclear Fuel Rod Photo Courtesy of Jonathan Zettel

Michigan Congressmen are asking President Joe Biden to oppose the Canadian government’s proposal to construct a nuclear waste storage facility near the Great Lakes Basin.

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), on behalf of the Canadian government, has developed a plan to build a storage facility—referred to as a deep geological repository—over 600 metres underground to store nuclear waste. South Bruce, Ont., one of two proposed sites, is approximately 40 kilometres from the shores of Lake Huron, directly across from Michigan.

In a resolution put forward in the U.S. House of Representatives, Michigan Representative Dan Kildee wrote, “The President and the Secretary of State should ensure that the government of Canada does not permanently store nuclear waste in the Great Lakes Basin. The water resources of the Great Lakes Basin are precious public natural resources shared by the Great Lakes states and the provinces of Canada.”

He added that 40,000,000 Canadian and U.S. residents rely on the Great Lakes for drinking water. If the nuclear waste were to seep into that water, it would be a catastrophe.

The resolution has been endorsed by 20 representatives.

What was omitted from the resolution is that Michigan operates four of its own nuclear waste storage facilities in the Great Lakes Basin.

“The NWMO’s top priority is to protect people and the environment, and this includes the Great Lakes,” said Dakota Kochie, director of government and external relations. “We have connected with Representative Dan Kildee’s staff and will continue to build relationships and share information about the importance of a deep geological repository to safely contain used nuclear fuel for generations to come.”

According to the NWMO, a deep geological repository is a safer long-term strategy for storing nuclear waste than how it’s currently stored in Ontario—at surface level next to the Great Lakes.

“I know the initial reaction from everybody is this is a horrible idea. We’re going to put nuclear waste in the ground and just bury our problems,” said Jonathan Zettel, a media representative for NWMO. But he explained that the International Atomic Energy Agency, which includes Canada and the U.S. among its 171 member states, recognizes this as the safest approach for managing high-level radioactive waste.

In a deep geological repository, a system of natural and engineered barriers is used to contain and isolate nuclear waste. The used fuel, which takes the form of a non-flammable ceramic pellet, is contained within a corrosion-resistant zirconium alloy called a fuel bundle. These bundles are put into steel- and copper-coated containers, which are then placed in a bentonite clay box—a natural material proven to be a powerful barrier against water flow. Finally, the waste is stored 600 metres below ground in the Cobourg Formation—a geological formation that has changed very little in the last 450 million years.

“It’s an incredibly stable environment,” Zettel said. He added that on top of these barriers, the project’s geoscientists also look at how the stored waste will interact with groundwater and potable water. In this instance, groundwater is only 100 metres below the surface, meaning there’s no chance of it carrying the waste to the Great Lakes.

The geoscientists run just about every scenario you could imagine, Zettel said, including what would happen if a missile hit the surface level of the site or if there was an ice age.

The South Bruce town council, along with 22 other communities, expressed interest to the NWMO about being a potential site for the deep geological repository. South Bruce and Ignace, in Northern Ontario, are the final two considered site locations, but the project has yet to be given the green light in either community as citizens and local Indigenous groups are canvassed on their willingness to host the storage facility. Official site selection won’t occur until 2023.

The South Bruce Council has hired a third-party consultant to assess the community’s willingness to host the facility. “It is expected that willingness will be measured in 2022 to 2023,” wrote Steve Travale, a media representative for the municipality, in an email.

The project’s entire lifecycle, including site selection, construction, operations, and decommissioning, will cost an estimated $23 billion over 150 years.

Looking to learn more about nuclear waste and the Great Lakes? Read this.

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