MINTO – A group fighting a proposal to locate an underground dumpsite for radioactive nuclear waste in neighbouring South Bruce brought its concerns to council here on Feb. 2.
“Over 50 years ago the nuclear industry told the government to let them start producing nuclear power and they would have a solution for the waste within five years,” said Michelle Stein of Protect Our Waterways – No Nuclear Waste (POWNNW), during a council video-conference meeting.
“But they didn’t. Now they have a problem.”
Stein explained POWNNW was formed last February after an announcement that 1,300 acres of prime farmland had been purchased and optioned by the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO).
NWMO is proposing to locate a deep geologic repository (DGR) in South Bruce to contain high-level radioactive nuclear waste from all of Canada’s nuclear reactors.
Stein said the radioactive waste from Canada’s reactors is “safe where it is right now. But politically, it’s no longer acceptable and the government and the public are demanding a solution before they grant the nuclear industry permission to expand.”
Stein continued, “There’s a lot of money on the line. So the industry has set up [NWMO], which is funded and directed by the nuclear industry and the best idea they’ve come up with is to take this highly radioactive nuclear waste that is dangerous for over 100,000 years and bury it under prime farmland in the municipality of South Bruce.”
The proposed site near Teeswater was selected, said Stein, because “that’s where they found owners willing to sell them land” and “South Bruce was one of the municipalities who offered to learn more in exchange for money – lots of money.
“A lot of the money is spent on promoting the project, but there’s also donations to local organizations and community projects,” she noted.
In a Feb. 5 email to the Advertiser, NWMO regional communications manager for southwestern Ontario Becky Smith said the organzation has been engaging with residents of South Bruce since 2012, “when they voluntarily entered into our site selection process, along with 22 other communities.”
Stein told council the proposed site “has the Teeswater river running through it, wetlands at the edge of the Greenock Swamp, springtime floodplain and the town of Teeswater is close enough to see, with its elementary schools and the Teeswater Gay Lea plant.”
Stein called the proposed South Bruce repository “an experiment,” noting there are currently no operating DGRs for high level nuclear waste on the planet.
She noted an almost complete, but not yet licensed, DGR in Finland is presently the closest to coming on line.
According to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, said Stein, the Waste Isolation Plant Pilot (WIPP) in New Mexico is the only operational DGR in the world. It accepts only low/intermediate nuclear waste, not high level, and is located in a desert, 35 kilometres from the nearest town and surrounded by a controlled safety zone encompassing more than 10,000 acres.
“The only thing we can really learn from this project is that accident happens and you can’t predict human error,” said Stein.
She added that in 2014 the WIPP “became radio actively contaminated by explosion of an underground drum of nuclear waste due to human error.”
Stein said the 2014 incident was “a mistake that took three years and $500 million to clean up.”
She pointed out establishing a DGR in South Bruce would massively increase the amount of nuclear waste being transported through a wide region.
“Currently they are around five loads of high level waste being moved per year, but an operating DGR would increase that to one or two shipments per day. These loads would be transported through surrounding communities,” she stated.
“And what does this mean for agriculture? Will consumers want to purchase products produced next to a nuclear dump? Will people want to buy freezer beef or chicken raised on or beside a nuclear dump?”
Smith, in her email stated, “Our mandate from the federal government involves the safe, long-term management of Canada’s used nuclear fuel (half of which is currently stored in Bruce County) in a manner that protects people and the environment.
“Our process, Adaptive Phased Management (APM), involves the containment and isolation of Canada’s used nuclear fuel in a deep geological repository. A practice that is widely accepted around the world as international best practice.”
With the NWMO publicly stating it is looking for a “willing host,” Stein said POPNNW wants to see a clear benchmark that defines the term.
The group is lobbying for a standard that would require a two-thirds vote in favour of the proposed DGR, using a community referendum with a clear yes or no question, supervised by an independent third party.
On Feb. 5, legal counsel acting on behalf of POWNNW sent a letter to South Bruce council members urging the municipality to commit to a binding referendum requiring a two-thirds majority. The letter also demanded that the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) be compelled to comply with the Ontario Planning Act and South Bruce zoning bylaws.
Smith stressed that NWMO has committed to finding a willing host for the project.
“We have made a commitment to our municipal and Indigenous communities that we will only proceed in an area with informed and willing hosts. We are expecting to make a decision on a single preferred site in 2023,” she stated.
“Following site selection in 2023 there will be about a 10-year period where we will undertake a full impact assessment and seek licencing from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.
“This will be followed by a 10-year construction period. We are aiming to be in operation by 2043,” Smith added, noting “we are taking the time we need to ensure that this project is safe.”
Councillor Ron Elliott asked Stein what her group believes would be a better solution to burying the waste.
“You’re recommending we can’t get rid of the nuclear waste underground. What do you recommend we do with it? Because it’s there, we’ve got nuclear waste to get rid of,” said Elliott.
Stein replied, “At this time we’re recommending they go with rolling stewardship, which is keeping it above ground in a monitored state until they come up with a real solution.”
“So wouldn’t that be more dangerous?” asked Elliott
“Building a DGR doesn’t remove it from above ground. It still needs to be above ground (in containment pools) for 30 years before it can even be moved,” said Stein.
“What is a safe recommendation?” Elliott persisted.
“At the end of the day the nuclear industry has had over 50 years to come up with an idea and they haven’t,” Stein responded.
“To be honest, most of us have only been thinking about it for a year. But to accept the wrong solution is in fact no solution at all.”
Bill Noll, another member of the POPNNW delegation, said Ontario Power Generation has stated nuclear waste has been stored safely above ground for 60 years “and it can be stored longer.”
Noll said the group would like to see Canada wait for the results from the planned Finnish DGR in 2024 before going ahead with one here.
“Let them experiment for a couple of decades while we keep it above ground safely and then maybe we can consider whether or not the DGR is safe,” said Noll.
Deputy mayor Dave Turton asked Stein if local officials in South Bruce responded to the group’s concerns. “Are they listening to you?” he asked.
Noll replied, “We are up against the wall to some degree. Our council is very much interested to see some economic development in the area, and we certainly understand and appreciate that, and so they’re very much in tune with the agenda being put forward by the NWMO.”
Mayor George Bridge thanked the group for sharing information with council.