The federal environment minister, Leona Aglukkaq, has until September to consider a report recommending the construction of an underground storage facility for low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste deep below the Bruce nuclear power plant, about one kilometre from the shore of Lake Huron. If she approves, then the plans go back to the review panel to come up with terms for the licence. This is a woman who has called Arctic warming “debateable,” and whose lack of leadership as Canada prepares for the global climate change summit in Paris in December has frustrated and angered provincial environment ministers.
When she took her seat at the Arctic Council, Aglukkaq said that as a Northerner, she was “fed up” with southerners who try to influence Northern development. None of this indicates that she will act to protect the Great Lakes environment this time.
Although the town of Kincardine, where the plant is located and employs 4,000 local people, is in favour of the project, communities all around the shores of the Great Lakes, on both sides of the border, don’t feel the same. A petition against the disposal facility has reached 75,000 signatures, and many towns and cities have passed resolutions condemning it. Michigan senator Debbie Stabenow introduced a measure into the US Senate calling on the Canadian government to ban nuclear waste repositories within the Great Lakes basin: the resolution is probably purely symbolic, however.
Stephen Harper and his government have consistently loosened Canada’s formerly exemplary environmental protection laws, muzzled scientists who publicly disclose facts about the harm this will do, and gutted funding for statutory bodies who might offer objections. This is a dangerous path to take and one all of us will pay for in the end.
Ontario Power Generation, the publicly owned utility that operates the Bruce plant, which is the largest nuclear power plant in the world, believes the project is safe, claiming that the area’s uniquely stable rock makes it the perfect place to store the waste. Some experts, however, are skeptical: physicist Charles Rhodes told CTV News that even though the facility is proposed to lie 700 metres below the level of the lake, seeping groundwater will fill the storage chambers in as little as a year and then, eventually leak out again through tiny cracks in the rock. So, although the rock has not shifted in more than 400 million years, it is still somewhat porous.
Furthermore, although Ontario is not a particularly active earthquake zone, we do have light tremors. This month, both Michigan and Ontario had quakes of 3.3 and 4.2 respectively, and as the climate changes, we don’t know what will happen in the future.
If the facility does go ahead, what kind of waste are we actually talking about storing there?
Well, it won’t be spent fuel, which is considered to be high-risk. Low-risk materials include the ashes from incinerated cleaning materials, discarded protective clothing, and floor sweepings. Intermediate-level waste is things like reactor core components and filters. Eighty per cent of the waste will be low-level. The Bruce site already stores these kinds of waste from Ontario’s three reactors, in chambers above ground.
OPG insists that spent fuel would never be stored here. Opponents of the plan say that all it would take is a signature, and a dangerous precedent is being set.
If it’s built, the Bruce storage facility will open in 2025, operating for about 40 years. It would take about six years to seal the shafts, and then there will be some kind of oversight for 300 years. Three-quarters of the radioactivity is expected to dissipate in about 100 years, leaving one quarter to percolate.
Finally, OPG insists the project will not go ahead without the support of the local Saugeen First Nation, who have not agreed to it. And activists from Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump say they have more strategies planned to oppose it. With the recent passage of Bill C-51, however, which potentially classes environmental protestors as terrorists, the battle is weighted against the project’s opponents.
I, for one, will be holding my (beautifully kerned) picket sign high, standing with them to protect our wildlife, our drinking water, and our natural environment. We must keep the Great Lakes great….