Canada to decide on nuclear waste plan

12/19/2016
BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
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Rows of chambers hold intermediate-level radioactive waste at the Bruce Power nuclear complex near Kincardine, Ont. Ontario Power Generation is seeking permission to permanently store radioactive waste in an underground chamber.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

One of North America’s biggest policy decisions of 2017 is likely to be what Canada does with a long-standing proposal to build a deep underground repository for low and intermediate-level nuclear waste a mile from Lake Huron.

Known simply as the DGR — an abbreviation for Deep Geologic Repository — the concept of an underground bunker costing more than $1 billion has been promoted for more than 15 years by the Ontario Power Generation.

The project has gained a lot of attention on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border, especially in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, because of its proximity to the Lake Huron shoreline and potential impact on Great Lakes water quality.

The utility wants to build the repository on the massive eight-reactor Bruce nuclear power complex it owns and operates in tiny Kincardine, Ont., about a four-hour drive north of Toledo.

The Bruce nuclear complex is one of the world’s largest, generating 25 percent of Ontario’s electricity and employing about 4,000 people. Their wages and other revenue from the nuclear industry support half of Kincardine’s 12,000 jobs.

Waste such as protective clothing, gloves, and miscellaneous plant parts — nearly anything but spent reactor-core fuel — would be sent down a half-mile shaft to hard rock that geologists believe hasn’t shifted for 450 million years. The utility has said it’s been storing low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste above ground on its Bruce nuclear complex for more than 40 years.

Anti-nuclear activists were hoping Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a member of Canada’s Liberal Party, would kill the project after he took office on Nov. 4, 2015, when he replaced former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a member of the Conservative Party of Canada who was generally supportive of it.

That hasn’t happened, although Mr. Trudeau’s lead official overseeing the project, Catherine McKenna, Canadian minister of Environmental and Climate Change, has issued a couple of delays after first announcing plans to make a decision by last March.

Now, with a major policy shift in Washington coming next month when President-elect Donald Trump replaces President Obama, additional questions have been raised about what influence America might exert as Canada’s superpower neighbor.

A U.S.-based news agency recently learned Mr. Trump’s administration wants the U.S. Department of Energy to help struggling nuclear plants avoid more premature closures. 

Long-term waste management is one of the industry’s biggest obstacles.

By the end of this month, Ontario Power Generation plans to fulfill Ms. McKenna’s latest request for information, which will answer some 500 questions and be about 700 pages long.

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency announced last week the clock for a decision would be reset to 243 days from the point in which that information is submitted, meaning that Ms. McKenna’s announcement — barring any further delays — could come in August.

The agency did not explain how it came up with 243 days, nor did it discuss the merits of the project in its announcement.

Ontario Power Generation submitted 12,500 pages of information in 2011 and has since provided a couple thousand more, Kevin Powers, utility spokesman, said.

He said the project is getting “the most rigorous [review] you can get here in Canada.”

“They’re extending the clock again,” Mr. Powers said. “We continue to believe the science behind the project is sound.”

There are parallels between Ontario Power Generation’s proposed DGR and the Yucca Mountain project the Obama Administration mothballed in 2009 after years of controversy over whether the most radioactive form of nuclear waste in civilian hands — spent fuel pulled from reactor cores — should be allowed to decay indefinitely inside an excavated mountain in a Nevada desert.

One parallel is how the two projects have underscored North America’s general dilemma over how to best manage nuclear waste.

Though Ontario Power Generation’s proposed DGR would hold less-radioactive material than Yucca Mountain, critics remain nervous because the site a mile from Lake Huron — especially in the aftermath of high-profile events such as the Flint water crisis, which drew attention to a number of engineering and governance issues.

They also remain worried about another project under a separate review track.

Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization is in the early stages of looking for long-term storage of spent fuel from Canada’s nuclear reactors, nearly all of which are in Ontario.

Although a decision on that isn’t expected until at least 2023, three sites near the Bruce nuclear complex are under consideration.

Critics believe it will be politically difficult to deny that type of waste if low and intermediate-level waste comes to that area first — even harder when considering that construction of a high-level facility is expected to result in a $20 billion investment, thereby generating many more job opportunities and millions of dollars more in local tax revenue.

Kevin Kamps, radioactive waste watchdog of Maryland-based Beyond Nuclear and a board member of the anti-nuclear Don’t Waste Michigan group’s Kalamazoo chapter, said activists are going to “re-evaluate our resistance” strategies over the next eight months while awaiting Ms. McKenna’s decision.

He said the Trudeau administration’s recent approval of two major pipeline projects has reminded them they shouldn’t assume they have his administration’s support.

Mr. Trump “Isn’t known as a huge environmental champion,” either, Mr. Kamps said.

“We’ll see what all that means,” he said.

Activists want public officials in both countries to learn from places like Flint.

“How about preventing the drinking water catastrophe before it happens instead of reacting to it?” Mr. Kamps asked.

Ontario Power Generation’s DGR has support of Kincardine officials and is seeking support from the local Saugeen Ojibway Nations, known as SON.

It continues to face a long list of opponents from elsewhere.

As of earlier this year, 184 resolutions were passed against the project.

Toledo, Oregon, and Port Clinton are opposed, joining a block of opponents throughout southwest Ontario and the eastern half of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Major cities that have passed resolutions of opposition include Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Rochester, N.Y. 

The Washington-based National Association of Counties and the Great Lakes Legislative Caucus are opposed.

Thirty-two members of Congress signed a letter of opposition on Nov. 5, 2015, the day after Mr. Trudeau took office.

Those who signed it included U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.), Gary Peters (D., Mich.), and Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), as well as U.S. Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) and Debbie Dingell (D., Dearborn).

“It’s encouraging that the Canadian government has once again delayed the approval of this facility,” Ms. Stabenow said.

“I will continue to share the deep concerns of Michigan residents with Canadian officials, and am hopeful that they will put an end to these plans once and for all.”

Ms. Stabenow said there is “no justification to put our Great Lakes and drinking water supply for millions of people at this kind of risk.”

Mr. Peters agreed, saying the Great Lakes “are a vital resource for our region and our nation” and that he will be “focused on stressing the importance of protecting the Great Lakes with the incoming Trump Administration.”

“Contamination from the waste site would cause catastrophic damage to this precious resource, and it is simply too important to our economy and our environment to take the risk of building a permanent nuclear waste dump so close to the Great Lakes,” said Mr. Peters, who last year introduced a resolution in the Senate opposing storage of nuclear waste in the Great Lakes basin and has met with the Canadian ambassador to the United States on the topic.

Ms. Dingell met with Mr. Trudeau on the issue earlier this year. She told The Blade on Thursday she hopes the Trudeau administration ultimately will “reject this deeply flawed proposal that poses a serious threat to the Great Lakes.”

Kincardine Mayor Anne Eadie and the municipality’s council continue to be strong supporters.

Last year, Ms. Eadie admonished the mayor and council of Oshawa, Ont., for its opposition, stating in a letter the site’s geology is “remarkably stable” and that Oshawa officials “must understand that this is our community.”

Oshawa is hours away, east of Toronto.

“This waste is presently stored on the surface, an option which is neither desirable, nor sustainable,” she wrote.

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com, 419-724-6079, or via Twitter @ecowriterohio.