A first-of-its-kind underground nuclear waste dump proposed for excavation less than a mile from Lake Huron in Canada has prompted a heavy dose of fallout from U.S. politicians who want to see the waste stored elsewhere.
At issue is Ontario Power Generation's solution for coping with low- and medium-level waste from 20 reactors operating in the province. The publicly owned utility has been pursuing underground storage for almost 15 years and won an endorsement last month from an advisory panel that recommended construction of a "deep geological repository" by Canadian Minister of Environment Leona Aglukkaq.
The review panel under the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission found no reason to not move forward with what would be the first such operating project in North America and the first anywhere to dig a nuclear repository out of limestone rock formations.
Crucially, the site would not house spent fuel rods, though there is a separate process afoot in Canada much like the ongoing battle over Yucca Mountain, Nev., in the United States to find a suitable long-term federal site for high-level radioactive waste.
The panel found that water supplies close to the low- and medium-level site in Lake Huron, which supplies water to millions in Michigan, would not be in jeopardy. Their report also claimed the maximum dose rate from such waste -- which includes ash resulting from incinerated mops, gloves and paper, as well as filters, resins and reactor parts -- "to a person living farther away and consuming fish and water from Lake Huron was orders of magnitude lower than for people living" in Kincardine, Ontario, a community close the site.
This is why the company is not backing away from pressure by Michigan politicians and environmental groups to involve U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in the situation in an attempt to push the Canadian government to find an alternative location.
"You can safely store this material at this depth, and it's not going to move anywhere," said Neal Kelly, spokesman for OPG. "It has been subject to the most rigorous form of environmental assessment in Canada."
Kelly added that about half the waste that would be stored underground is already on-site at the Bruce nuclear power complex, which has eight reactors currently running. He insisted that the utility is exploring long-term storage, rather than sticking with aboveground housing, because it is "the responsible thing to do" for waste that will be radioactive for thousands of years.
The burial site could house about 200,000 cubic meters of waste, according to Kelly. Kincardine was selected because it is close to Bruce "and has been a nuclear community for a couple of generations," Kelly said, meaning its residents view the jobs created as well as the industry's safety record in a favorable light.
Mich. lawmakers move for State's involvement
The reaction south of the international border has been aggressively against the idea. After the review panel recommended approval, the proposal drew a hostile reaction from Michigan Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D) and Gary Peters (D) as well as Reps. Candice Miller (R) and Dan Kildee (D), and has since resulted in the introduction of House and Senate resolutions against the idea.
Kildee and Miller have been especially worked up about the concept and have urged Kerry to get involved to signal the Obama administration's disapproval of the site. Kildee in a statement last month said "surely in the vast landmass that comprises Canada there has to be a more sensible place to bury nuclear waste than right next to the world's largest freshwater source."
Miller followed that up with renewed calls for getting the State Department involved, saying Kerry should "encourage the Canadian government to reassess ... as such a move could endanger the health of [the Great Lakes] and create a public safety hazard."
"We can come up with a viable alternative site for their proposed nuclear waste facility," she said, adding that Congress should also get its act together on Yucca Mountain "instead of just pointing fingers at the Canadians."
But Kelly responded that Bruce is ideal for underground storage because the rock formations are 450 million years old and stable. He also noted that the repository would be more than 2,000 feet deep, at a level that tunnels farther underground than the CN Tower skyscraper soars above ground in Toronto.
"Many geologists from around the world are looking at deep geological repositories like this one as best practice," he said. "We're on a secure nuclear site. It's handled very safely today, and we will continue to do that."
Kelly also compared the project to the first deep geological repository in the world, the Onkalo site in Finland, but distanced his facility from a New Mexico waste isolation pilot plant run by the U.S. Energy Department that houses nuclear waste from the Los Alamos National Laboratory. That site has been shut down since a leak exposed workers to radiation last year, and an independent review board has since determined the leak was "preventable" and was due to poor packing and treatment procedures at Los Alamos.
"We know our waste," Kelly said. "We've produced it; we know what it is."
Enviro groups line up
Even so, environmental groups have started to mobilize and last week backed the Republican Miller's call for Kerry to get involved. They argued that the proposal violates the Binational Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and said OPG selected the host community simply because it was willing to accept the waste.
Marc Yaggi, executive director of the Waterkeeper Alliance, noted that Great Lakes water quality is jeopardized by aging infrastructure, contamination leaching from industrial sites, invasive species and agricultural runoff -- so the last thing it needs is another threat, he said.
"Siting a new toxic nuclear waste site in such close proximity to the largest freshwater system in the world would severely imperil the water security of two nations," he said.
A more localized activist, Doug Martz of St. Clair Channelkeeper, argued that OPG has tried to keep the project under the radar -- "Nobody's heard about it," he said -- and he wouldn't be surprised if the site one day becomes home to high-level spent fuel rods.
"Everyone believes it's going to be fuel rods and everything," he said. "They say it will be just a few gloves and rags, but we all know it will be a lot more than that eventually."
Martz added that more than 170 Canadian and Native communities have passed resolutions against the facility, and he's hoping that pressure will force the federal minister to reject the site.
"This thing has been hidden like you wouldn't believe," he said.
Joanne Robbins, general manager of the Chamber of Commerce in Ontario's Saugeen Shores municipality close to the Bruce site, countered that "a lot of people have been mixing them up" in reference to the OPG site and the broader Canadian debate over a high-level burial site. She added that residents in her region "listen to the science" and don't believe there's anything wrong with underground storage.
"We trust the process; we trust the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission," she said. "It hasn't split the community hugely because we've had a nuclear site here for years. They have the best safety record in the world."
When asked about this pushback, OPG's Kelly acknowledged that the project still has a ways to go before securing final approval and pledged that his company will keep reaching out to U.S. politicians. He added that OPG is especially sensitive about the Ojibway Nation of Saugeen Indian Reserve, which so far has not lent the waste site its support.
"We are speaking with them; we are in discussions," he said. "We will not build this repository without their support."
OPG hopes to start construction by 2018.