Should we dump nuclear waste near the Great Lakes?

Radioactive waste at the Bruce Power nuclear complex near Kincardine, Ontario.

This article was originally published in the May 2015 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

Growing up in Burlington, Ontario, Marti McFadzean spent the summers of her childhood on Inverhuron Bay in Lake Huron. The clapboard cottage, built by her grandparents in 1928, was one of several scattered along the sandy bay. There were marshmallow roasts on the beach, sailing races, swimming on the rocky reef, and raucous square dances. It was a child’s paradise.

When McFadzean and her husband retired five years ago, they decided to make Inverhuron Bay their permanent home. They built a house there, intending to settle down and enjoy their grandchildren and the community that has grown up around the bay.

Instead, the former teacher and school board trustee finds herself busier than ever, passionately engaged in a second career of sorts as an environmental advocate. At issue is a nuclear waste dump that Ontario Power Generation has proposed to build just up the shore. At stake, she and many others argue, is the safety of the water of the Great Lakes.

The proposed dump, a deep geologic repository (DGR) to be buried 680 metres below ground to accommodate at least 200,000 cubic metres of nuclear waste—enough to fill 80 Olympic-sized swim-ming pools—would be the first permanent nuclear waste storage facility in Canada and the first in the world to store nuclear waste in sedimentary limestone. A joint review panel, established in 2012 to assess all sides of the issue, is scheduled to make its recommendations to the minister of the environment by May 6. The federal government will then decide if the project will proceed.

While OPG maintains that the site is ideal for the purpose, opposition to the facility is fierce and growing. The community is divided. The local town and council largely support the plan, but many cottagers and residents like McFadzean are adamantly opposed, and environmental groups and politicians across North America share their concerns.

Nuclear is nothing new to the Bruce region. McFadzean remembers the summer of 1961 because that was the year a large structure appeared on the peninsula at the north end of the bay. Douglas Point was Canada’s first commercial nuclear reactor. She recalls her grandfather, an electrical engineer who worked for OPG’s precursor, Ontario Hydro, explaining to her what nuclear energy was. He told 11-year-old Marti that it was the future.

He was right, at least for Ontario. In the decades following 1968, when Douglas Point started feeding into the grid, the province built a nuclear power generation station at Pickering, another at Darlington, and two more next to Douglas Point on the sprawling nine-square-kilometre site called Bruce Power.

Today, Ontario is Canada’s biggest nuclear power producer by far, with nuclear energy making up 59 percent of the province’s electricity. Expensive to build but relatively cheap to run, nuclear power stations produce minimal carbon emissions, making them particularly attractive in Ontario since the government’s 2009 decision to shut down all of the province’s coal plants and expand green energy. But nuclear power also has significant downsides—toxic waste and the potential for catastrophic accidents

McFadzean’s grandfather never talked about the downsides. Like much of his generation, he was wowed by this new “cheap and clean” energy; concerns about nuclear development tended to focus on military weapons. So Ontario enjoyed low energy bills while the radioactive waste piled up.

Nuclear waste falls into one of three categories, depending on its level of radioactivity. In the early 1970s, Ontario Hydro decided that all of its low- and intermediate-grade nuclear waste would be temporarily stored at the Bruce Power site. The location was deemed appropriately “remote”—a large swath of land in an area of low population density. To this day, trucks transport this waste from Darlington and Pickering to be sorted and incinerated or compressed at the Bruce site. The Western Waste Management Facility, as it is called, looks like a small industrial park. Low-level waste (items used in the plants, such as protective clothing, mops, and tools) is stored in concrete, warehouse-like buildings, and intermediate waste (materials closer to the reactor cores, like filters and resins) is placed in steel-lined caskets and buried in shallow concrete beds.

As this “temporary” solution extended to nearly half a century, and pressure mounted to find a permanent storage site, the municipality of Kincardine, in which Bruce Power sits, offered itself as a “willing host community.” Backed by council, Glenn Sutton, then mayor, signed a hosting agreement with OPG in 2004: in exchange for allowing OPG to build and operate a deep geologic repository on the Bruce Power site, the municipality (and four adjacent ones) would receive $35.7 million over 30 years.

Sutton’s successor, Larry Kraemer, supported the deal, claiming that a permanent dump was “in the best interest for our community and the industry.” He also disputed that it was all about the money, as does the current mayor, Anne Eadie. “The big question,” says Eadie, “is what is safer: above or below ground?” And then she points out that Goderich, just down the shore, was nearly wiped out by a tornado a few years ago.

Eadie grew up on a local farm and taught school for 25 years in Kincardine. She calls the town “a nuclear community.” Until nuclear arrived in the 1960s, the region’s mainstays were agriculture and tourism. Today, Bruce Power is Kincardine’s biggest employer, and it makes sizable contributions to local charities, festivals, and community projects. “They give back,” says Eadie. 

Marti McFadzean can see how locals—particularly those who work for Bruce Power—would feel conflicted. “We try not to pressure them. And I understand: for them, not going along with it creates cognitive dissonance.” But she feels this vulnerability is being exploited.

When Larry Kraemer boasted publicly, as he often did, that the DGR was supported by 74 percent of the decided voters in the community, he was referring to a telephone survey done in the winter of 2005. Retiree and seasonal residents who, like McFadzean, spend their winters in southern climes weren’t around to answer their phones, and many dispute the municipality’s claims that it tried to reach them by mail. Further, McFadzean feels that the question asked—whether respondents wanted “a facility for the long-term management of low and intermediate level waste at the Western Waste Management Facility”—was loaded. “Of course people like the idea of a solution!” she says today. “But most people hadn’t a clue what they were saying yes to.”

As more residents became aware of the repository plans, they began to mobilize. McFadzean and seven others formed the Inverhuron Committee, which to date has helped to collect more than 73,000 signatures on a petition opposing the dump. Up the lake in Saugeen Shores, former cottager and now permanent resident Beverly Fernandez started the group Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump, which has successfully lobbied to get 143 Canadian and U.S. jurisdictions, representing more than 18 million people, to adopt resolutions against the proposed facility.

The opposition groups have attracted the support of several environmental groups and scientists. One of the most outspoken is Frank Greening, a nuclear chemist who worked for 23 years at Ontario Hydro and then OPG in radio-analytic research, studying nuclear deposits and waste. He has followed the waste disposal issue throughout his career and is deeply cynical about OPG’s choice of the Bruce site. “OPG suffers from deliberate amnesia on this,” he says. “Until about 2000, Bruce was dismissed outright because of the limestone rock. Nobody buries nuclear waste in limestone.”

Indeed, none of the DGRs currently operating around the world—and there are a handful—was built in limestone, a sedimentary rock. The preference has been crystalline rock, such as granite, which, unlike limestone, is highly stable and virtually impermeable to water. In Germany and the U.S., repositories have been built in salt beds and domes. 

Not helpful to OPG’s case were the underground truck fire and a radiation leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, N.M., in February 2014. Prior to these accidents, OPG had referenced that plant as an example of functional nuclear waste disposal. OPG now emphasizes its project’s differentness from the WIPP facility—both in terms of oversight and geologic structure. Jim McLay, a senior geoscientist on contract with OPG, says that the layer of rock in which the waste will be buried—sandwiched between multiple layers of low-permeability shale on top and limestone beneath—is completely isolated from groundwater aquifers and absolutely solid. “This rock has been through nine ice ages without being disturbed,” he says with confidence during a tour of the Bruce facility.

Greening doesn’t buy that rationale. He’s convinced that the real reasons behind OPG’s choice of the Bruce site are convenience and the tremendous expense involved in transporting the waste to another location.

“Proponents of the DGR like to turn the tables and put the onus on us: ‘Where would you bury the waste?’  ” he says.“All I can say is that if you look at a map of Ontario, the one place nobody should choose for nuclear waste disposal is right on the shores of the Great Lakes.”

Of further concern to critics is that while Ontario is looking for a permanent facility for its low and intermediate waste, Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization is looking for the same thing for the country’s high-level nuclear waste, the most radioactive. Since the advent of nuclear power generation in Canada, this spent fuel has remained on location where it was produced. But this storage protocol was also considered a “temporary” measure. OPG insists that spent fuel would never end up in the Bruce repository and included this commitment in its hosting agreement with Kincardine. Still, skepticism abounds. With 90 percent of Can-ada’s spent fuel, Ontario seems the most logical province to locate a permanent storage facility. And with OPG having already spent $179 million on feasibility studies and drilling, and the project’s total construction price tag estimated at $1 billion, with hundreds of millions more in operating costs, critics like Greening think there will be a temptation to extend the repository’s purpose.

“It’s hard not to see this as a Trojan Horse,” says McFadzean, noting that OPG is already talking about doubling the capacity of the DGR to 400,000 cubic metres to accommodate the low- and intermediate-level waste from the decommissioning of Ontario’s nuclear plants in the coming decades.

Ultimately, it comes down to trust. Thinking back to the halcyon summers of her childhood and the nuclear facility next door, she says, “We didn’t pay enough attention. There were no environmental assessments back then, no public consultations. But things have changed.”

Seven of the eight members of the Inverhuron Committee are grandparents, and many are what she calls “foundation families” whose presence on Lake Huron dates back six or seven generations. She and Fernandez refuse to be characterized as nimby cottagers or recent arrivals who don’t truly belong. “We’re doing this for future generations,” says McFadzean.

In the end, it may be the truly foundational families of the region that decide the fate of the repository. Bruce Power is located on the traditional territory of the Saugeen Ojibway Nations, and OPG has promised to make the repository contingent on the Nations’ approval.

It’s a decent and overdue move. “There’s a long history of exclusion here,” says the Nations’ former chief Randall Kahgee, referring to the Bruce site. “The SON has never been part of decisions or the economic benefits. Our water, our fishery, our environment, and our relation to our territory have all been affected.”

A lawyer and the lead negotiator for the Nations, Kahgee agrees that a permanent solution to the waste problem must be found. “The status quo is not pretty. These materials are above ground, and there’s no end in sight,” he says.

And while the relationship with OPG is “cordial” and the support of cottagers’ associations and local groups “very meaningful,” Kahgee says that the Nations’ allegiances are not to one group or the other. “The question is: what does it mean to be stewards of the land?”

It’s a big question. Those who assume the mantle carry a huge responsibility—now and for millennia to come.