Nukes in the Bruce: will SW Ontario be the nuclear dumpsite for Canada?

At the beginning of everything, the Navajo were shown two yellow powders. One they could use—it was maize pollen. The other they were told to leave in the ground. That was oxidized uranium.

No one talks of “clean” nuclear energy anymore, not when you consider the whole fuel cycle.

Early mining in the NWT rendered Deline a “village of widows” because of the high mortality rate of Dene men who worked, unwarned and unprotected in the uranium mines.

The same thing happened to Navajo in the southwest US. Their ancient lands have been devastated by uranium mines, turning their creation story into apocalyptic prophecy.

Contamination during the operation of a nuclear plant is a constant concern. And the spent fuel from the core of a nuclear reactor is high level nuclear waste. It takes a million years (give or take a few millennia) before it’s safe to stand beside.

So why do four municipalities in southwestern Ontario want to be the nuclear waste capital of Canada?

18 communities are being considered by NWMO to host an underground repository for high-level nuclear waste (used fuel) from all the reactors in Canada.

Fourteen other communities—11 in northern Ontario and 3 in Saskatchewan are also in the running. But Brockton (Walkerton), Saugeen Shores, Huron-Kinloss and Central Huron are all inside a 4-hour drive from London, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton, Toronto and the US border. One community in the same area, Kincardine, has already agreed to take Canada’s low and intermediate level waste.

Brockton, Saugeen Shores, Huron-Kinloss and Central Huron  are vying for high level waste bill themselves as tourist destinations, none more so than Saugeen Shores.

For Larry Allison, the CAO of Saugeen Shores, the answer is pretty simple—economic development: jobs and the spin-off that comes from jobs.

Besides, he says, the region is already home to the largest nuclear generator in Canada—Bruce Power, where 40% of the high level waste in Canada is stored now.

That’s true. Nuclear power plants are obliged to store their used fuel bundles on site—in pools for ten years, and then in dry storage containers. They will stay there until the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (the NWMO) finds a community willing to take nearly a million bundles stored at Bruce Power, plus over a million bundles from the other plants in the country.

Both Mr Allison and David Inglis, the Mayor of Brockton, speak mainly of the economic benefits: roughly 600 jobs during the construction phase, plus another 400 jobs at the site itself, the spin-off effect of those jobs, the development of a research centre, and the fact that NWMO will pay for all the infrastructure improvements required to service the transport of high level waste along the region’s roads. The whole area will benefit, not just the host community.

That doesn’t mean the proposal to bury high level nuclear waste half a kilometre underground is without its opponents.

Cheryl Grace is the chair of Save Our Saugeen, a citizens’ group opposed to any storage of high level nuclear waste near the Great Lakes, especially in Southampton. She’s suspicious of the process that will be used to determine who is a “willing host” for the stuff.

“Look at the process that was used to put a DGR [deep geological repository] for low and intermediate level waste in Kincardine. Communities have to guarantee continued public acceptance if they want a share of the hosting fees.”

But the process for the high level DGR is different than it was for the Kincardine DGR says Michael Krizanc, spokesman for the NWMO. The site selection process is long and careful and geared to ensure the geology of an area meets their engineering criteria and that the population is willing and prepared to accept high level nuclear waste.

Chris Peabody, a Brockton municipal councillor, has raised concerns about putting the DGR below the town’s aquifers. You might remember that Walkerton residents went through a terrible time when E-coli infected their water supply. Ever since, they have been vigilant about anything that might affect the groundwater in the area.

Nevertheless, they’re willing to consider sitting atop some 144 metric tons (when the DGR is full) of something that will be highly toxic to life for about 800,000 years longer than man has been homo sapiens. Such is the slow state of economic growth in rural Ontario.

When you switch on your lights in Ontario, almost 50% of what you see has been generated by nuclear power. Perhaps we should have listened to the Navajo creation story. Now that the nuclear genie is out of his bottle, it’s proving very difficult to stuff him back in.

So what do we do with our nuclear waste? No one seems to have a better answer than what the NWMO is trying to do. Putting the highly poisonous end product of our genius back into the earth might be the best way to deal with it. But somehow it seems like a perversion.

All four municipalities fall within the traditional territories of the Saugeen Ojibway Nations. Neither chief could be contacted before deadline to confirm whether they will support or oppose the project, although the prevailing feeling is that they will.

© David McLaren, May 2012.
A version of this article appeared in the Focus section of QMI community papers, June 14, 2012.

The NWMO plans to bury used fuel from Canada’s reactors in chambers 500 meters underground—well below ground water levels and even the bottom of Lake Huron. There it must remain for the roughly 1 million years it will take for the radioactivity to subside. The engineers and scientists engaged by NWMO think the best matrix for storing nuclear waste is in shale—the kind of shale that lies under SW Ontario, in fact.

From OPG’s (Ontario Power Generation’s) Deep Geological Repository Project for Low and Intermediate Level Waste (Environmental Impact Study, March 2011). Relative to other areas in Canada, SW Ontario east of Lake Huron is one of the most stable.

Nuclear power & the cost of electricity

In the wake of the tsunami’s destruction of the Fukushima nuclear plant, Japan has abandoned its plans to build more nuclear reactors. And Germany is closing eight plants now and shuttering its remaining nine by 2022. The lost energy will be replaced by wind, solar and bio-mass.

In late May, Germany’s existing solar stations produced 22 gigawatts of electricity, enough to replace 20 nuclear stations running at full capacity. A feed-in-tariff (much like the one in Ontario) is fuelling the renewable energy industry. It adds about 2 cents per kilowatt-hour to Germans’ electrical bill which amounts to some $5 billion a year. Even with the highest charges in Europe at 23 cents per kilowatt-hour, Germany is still the Eurozone’s economic powerhouse.

Compare that to Ontario’s relatively cheap (some say unrealistic) rate of 11.7 cents per kilowatt-hour at peak time of use. However, Ontarians also pay 7 cents per kilowatt-hour on the debt incurred by nuclear power. To service the nuclear debt and pay down the principle, taxpayers are paying about $2 billion a year. They still have nearly $15 billion to go.

From Coal to Oil to Nuclear to Renewables … the energy industry evolves.
(From Centre for American Progress, June 22, 2012.)

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About David McLaren

David McLaren is an award-winning writer. He has worked in government and the private sector, with NGOs and First Nations in Ontario. He is currently writing from Neyaashiinigamiing on the shore of Georgian Bay and can be reached at david.mclaren@utoronto.ca. In February 2015, he won the nomination for the NDP to represent the riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound in the 2015 federal election. See that page for writings during the campaign.
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3 Responses to Nukes in the Bruce: will SW Ontario be the nuclear dumpsite for Canada?

  1. Munroe Scott says:

    Thanks for a very informative article (with interesting links). I find it difficult to comprehend the idea of communities actually vying with each other for the privilege of storing the stuff. Is there a deficiency in our brains that won’t let us learn from either Germany or Japan?

  2. Northwatch says:

    Thanks for your thoughts on this, David. You say no one has a better idea than the NWMO – their’s being to stash the highly radioactive waste deep underground – but it must also be said that few have come up with an idea that is worse. The NWMO burial scheme adds the risks of transfer and transportation to the hazard equation, and would make monitoring and remediation anywhere from way more difficult to nigh on impossible as we move further out into the future. Visit http://www.KnowNuclearWaste.ca to learn more.

    • True … transportation is a big problem. As for remediation, I would have thought that would be easier at sites without the waste present. I’d be interested in hearing about alternatives to dealing with nuclear waste.

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