SUDBURY, ONTARIO – Nuclear is in the news, making some residents of Northern Ontario nervous.
The Nuclear Waste Management Organization is scouting for a permanent storage solution for the waste produced by Ontario Power Generation Inc., Hydro-Quebec and the New Brunswick Power Corporation reactors.
Blind River and Elliot Lake are in the running to host a deep geologic repository (DGR), a storage facility that plunges more than 500 metres underground, in which nuclear waste will be buried. White River, Ignace, Hornepayne and Manitouwadge are also under consideration.
Robert Beaudoin sees red flags. A regular contributor to the Facebook group, Citizens Concerned about Nuclear Waste in Elliot Lake, which currently has 274 members, he believes there is “a lot of business potential” in the city and the presence of a DGR would be a deterrent.
“This is just going to put the big red letter on us,” he says. “Who’s going to want to live here? I can’t. I’ll take a loss on my house just to get away. I don’t want to raise my son around this.”
He says he would rather lose his house and declare bankruptcy than jeopardize the safety of his seven-year-old. If the DGR is built in Elliot Lake, Beaudoin plans to relocate his family to the East Coast.
“At least he’ll be safe. I can always get another house,” the concerned father says.
Waste from the power plants in Pickering, Darlington (located east of Bowmanville) and the Bruce peninsula would most likely pass through Sudbury along Highway 17.
Ed Burt, 85, has been challenging the nuclear industry since the 1950s as a member of NorthWatch, the Ontario Environment Network and Algoma-Manitoulin Nuclear Awareness. He believes waste could also be shipped by barge across Lake Huron, in the vicinity of Manitoulin Island.
But Michael Krizanc, a communications manager with the NWMO, insists transportation is foolproof.
“It’s not a liquid, it can’t leak. It’s not a gas, it can’t explode,” he explains. “It’s a solid material that will be placed in a steel container that weighs six times what the payload weighs. Nuclear fuel has been moved all over the world over the last 50 years and there has never been an accident involving the release of radiation that affected people or the environment.”
According to the 2011 Ontario road report, there were 4,946 collisions in the Algoma, Manitoulin and Sudbury districts, 3,695 of which involved property damage. Across Ontario, tractors and semi-trailers were involved in 6,720 collisions in 2011.
“This is a highly regulated activity and the vehicles are monitored as they travel. They don’t travel during inclement weather,” Krizanc says. “They would only transport when it is safe to do so. The container will not be breached, even under the most extreme accident conditions.”
In the case of an accident, Krizanc is certain there would be no danger.
“All you need is a barrier between yourself and the source, so even if the container, which is robust, was to open and the material was to fall on the ground or in the water, as long as you stood back from it far enough or put a barrier between it and yourself, there’s no impact,” he continues. “Neither the ground nor the water becomes radioactive.”
Krizanc insists there must be grassroots-level agreement to host the DGR. Site selection is ongoing and unfolding through a process called adaptive phased management (APM), a flexible back-and-forth system that allows interested parties to bow out at any time.
He adds safety is the NWMO’s primary concern.
“At any point, if we learn the potential for finding a safe site is less than optimal, we would advise that community. A number of communities have been eliminated on the basis of safety,” Krizanc says. “We want to get down to one or two communities where we can do detailed site characterization. Those will be the communities with the most potential from a geological perspective.”
Nuclear energy still constitutes a relatively small portion of Canada’s electricity. According to the World Nuclear Association, 19 reactors, 18 of which are located in Ontario, produce 13.5 GWh (gigawatts) of power, about 15% of the country’s electricity. By comparison, hydro accounts for about 60%. In Ontario, however, nuclear power is a major player and supplies more than 50% of the province’s electricity – without emitting pollutants or greenhouse gases, OPG boasts.
The Canadian Energy Research Institute indicates Canada’s nuclear reactors contribute $6.6 billion annually to the country’s gross domestic product, generate $1.5 billion in government revenue and $1.2 billion in exports. The World Nuclear Association indicates that, as of February, more than 70,000 people across Canada were employed directly or indirectly within the industry.
Elliot Lake mayor Dan Marchisella believes his council had a duty to participate in the groundwork and they voted unanimously to proceed.
“My personal view is that we have a responsibility as a community to take part in this research to see if we can (host) the long-term storage, because Elliot Lake was the uranium capital of the world for some time,” he says.
Marchisella admits community reaction has been mixed – residents have expressed concerns about transportation and the environment – but notes the NWMO’s open houses have helped shed light on the details.
Once the fuel rods are placed underground, they would be monitored for hundreds of years and the facility would be expected to house them for hundreds of thousands of years.
If Elliot Lake hosts the repository, Marchisella estimates the city of 12,000 could see as many as 1,000 new jobs. Even so, his priority is safety.
Despite the potential economic benefits, opposition remains fierce.
“It’s not up to us to deal with their problems,” says Beaudoin, who is spearheading the anti-DGR movement in Elliot Lake. “Just because they could put it up here does not mean they should. They say it’s proven, but we’ve only had this technology for maybe 60 or 70 years and they say it’s good for 10,000 or 100,000 years underground. If you look at maps of our area, all of our lakes are pretty much connected.”
Beaudoin is not convinced of the impenetrability of containers, arguing humankind has a long track record of making mistakes with supposedly foolproof technologies. He also accuses southern Ontario of NIMBYism.
“The number one problem I have with the NWMO is that they say nothing can go wrong, that it’s foolproof,” he says. “Southern Ontario energy interests want to hide their junk up north in the middle of the wilderness, before all of our communities have a chance to develop like their communities have.”
Beaudoin’s concern is based, in part, on previous incidents.
On Feb. 14, 2014 a leak at a nuclear storage facility near Carlsbad, New Mexico contaminated 22 employees with low-level radiation. Investigators suspect a mix of nitrate salts and organic kitty litter – added to the waste barrels to absorb moisture – caused a heat reaction and release of radiation.
The plant, about 48 km from Carlsbad, houses used gloves, tools and protective clothing from the Los Alamos national laboratory and other federal sites. Scientists said it was the first time in the facility’s 15-year history that radiation had been detected. In January, Fox News reported the plant would not be fully operational until 2018 as repairs are made to the ventilation system.
Gordon Edwards is the president of the Quebec-based Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility. He also has an academic background in mathematics, chemistry and physics. He says a burst of super-fine plutonium dust rose from the site, which is buried 800 metres underground, and drifted downwind to Carlsbad.
“Plutonium dust is very toxic when inhaled into the lungs, even in minute quantities,” he says. “They found traces of this dust all over the place, even in town. It wasn’t a heavy contamination, but nevertheless, there shouldn’t be any plutonium contamination. This isn’t something you want to happen.”
The coalition is neither a proponent nor opponent of nuclear energy.
“The question is what to do with the waste,” Edwards says. “Whether you’re pro- or anti-nuclear, who cares? The industry was given an ultimatum in 1978 by the Royal Commission on Electric Power Planning, which said that if the problem can’t be solved there’s not going to be any nuclear power in the future – we’re going to have to get out of it. In fact, that’s what’s happening. There hasn’t been a single nuclear reactor ordered in Canada since 1978.”
Edwards contends the fact the NWMO was established by OPG, Hydro-Quebec and the New Brunswick Power Corp. is problematic.
“They have a conflict of interest, because the nuclear waste producers want to continue producing nuclear waste,” he says. “It’s a little bit deceptive because they don’t want to get rid of it once-and-for-all. They want to continue producing indefinitely. As long as you keep producing it, you haven’t really solved the problem.”
Burt, a retired farmer who calls Manitoulin Island home, agrees with Edwards.
“You don’t hire a fox to look after the chicken pen,” the octogenarian says. “You hire an independent body.”
Edwards contends one of the major issues with nuclear waste – besides storage – is transportation between points.
“Why move it if it won’t be any safer at point B? If you can package and manage this stuff safely where it is, then why go to all the expense of moving it over great distances,” he argues.
Burt and Edwards suggest the waste be stored in southern Ontario near larger populations. That way, if ever there were a leak, it would be effectively addressed.
“Politically and economically, it’s more likely to be looked after properly if it’s in a place with some political clout,” Edwards says.
Edwards believes the NWMO is misleading Ontarians about the stability of the Canadian Shield. The waste management organization claims the rock has been solid for eons, but he points out there is no way to bury the fuel rods without actually disturbing the Shield.
“The very fact you start building a shaft and excavating tunnels – it’s no longer undisturbed,” Edwards argues. “Does anybody know how to put a rock back together? Nobody doubts they can mine the cavity and put the waste down there, but can they put it back together so that it’s just as strong as when you started? We don’t really know how to do that.”
Burt minces no words. He says nuclear power is disgusting and believes in its absence there would have been more emphasis on developing renewable energy sources. He accuses the NWMO of simply “pushing the debt load on some future generation” and of taking advantage of communities with weak economies.
“It’s morally wrong to dangle carrots in front of people who are starving to death,” he says. “Communities in Northern Ontario are not very rich.”
Beaudoin admits he has no solutions for the NWMO. Nevertheless, he insists nuclear waste does not belong in the North.
“Look at Gogama – they can’t even move something as relatively inert and safe as raw oil,” he says. “Radioactivity is forever. This stuff has a shelf life of 100,000 years. I know we’re talking in time limits that are just insane, but we have to think along those lines because this is the heritage we’re going to be leaving for future civilizations. Imagine the ancient Egyptians making decisions for us today.”
Originally published on March, 28, 2015 in the Sudbury Star.