Canadian nuclear waste site is one step closer to reality

By: Kevin Bunch | C&G Newspapers | Published May 15, 2015

METRO DETROIT — The Canadian joint review panel looking over a proposed nuclear waste site that would be less than a mile from Lake Huron recommended the project to Canada’s minister of the environment May 7 despite an outcry from communities on both sides of the border.


The electric company Ontario Power Generation has proposed building an underground storage facility — called a deep geologic repository, or DGR — for storing low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste 680 meters — or 2,230 feet — underground. Those low-level items include contaminated clothing, tools and cleaning materials that have been incinerated or compacted for storage.


The 200,000 cubic meters of waste would then be buried in rock with the idea of keeping it from contaminating the lake or the surrounding environment, according to a press release by OPG. Corrosives and used nuclear fuel are excluded specifically from the project.


The radioactive items currently are being stored above ground at the Bruce Nuclear facility, located near the proposed DGR site.


Mark Jensen, director of the DGR geoscience and research department, said in a YouTube video published by OPG that the proposed site is hundreds of millions of years old and within a layer of limestone underneath 200 meters of shale. The limestone layer does not appear to have been disturbed by surface events in that time, he said.


Jensen said the site has numerous advantages, as these multiple layers of sediment and rock extend laterally under the lake and inland and have little-to-no groundwater flow at the depth the waste would be stored. The bulk of groundwater flow is within 5-100 meters underground, with a smaller amount found up to about 400 meters. One hundred meters is equal to 328 feet.


“What we have found with these sediments is that there is no groundwater flow,” Jensen said in the video. “It’s dry and stable, and, most importantly, groundwater sources and Lake Huron would be protected.”


Since the site also lacks appreciable amounts of oil or natural gas, it is unlikely that someone digging for those in the future would disrupt the protective layers of rock, he added.


Canadian Minister of the Environment Leona Aglukkaq must now approve the proposal or otherwise reject it and leave OPG to come up with an alternative storage plan. She is expected to make a decision within the next four months.


According to Aglukkaq’s office, it will soon invite aboriginal groups and other registered participants to comment on possible conditions for waste mitigation measures and follow-up requirements if the project is approved. Those comments are then taken into account by Aglukkaq when she makes her assessment decision; any additional environmental provisions added at that time will be legally binding.


OPG would then need to apply for an operating license before anything could be buried. It has said that it would not move forward on construction without the approval of the Saugeen Ojibwe Nation.


According to the report, the panel’s recommendations have certain requirements: monitoring, the relocation of endangered wildlife from wetlands that would be filled in, groundwater testing, increasing the capacity of nearby drainage ditches, and developing a spill containment plan.


While human oversight of the location is planned to end after 300 years, the report says that OPG’s modeling believes the site should be structurally sound and self-contained for the initial 150,000 years. By 300,000 years on, it expects roof collapses to begin occurring, though it is believed that it should not damage the integrity of the limestone layer above and below the chamber.


The low-level nuclear waste should decay to safe levels within 300 years, while some of the intermediate-level waste — accounting for about 20 percent of all of the waste that would be buried — could last for upwards of 100,000 years before decaying to safe levels, according to the report.


OPG Senior Vice President Laurie Swami said in a statement that the company developed its plan to create a “permanent, safe storage” location for the waste material.


“The deep geologic repository will be designed to protect the Great Lakes’ unique natural environment and precious resources,” Swami said. “OPG and a team of scientists will closely analyze the panel’s conditions, many of which reinforce our commitment to the stewardship of the Great Lakes.”


American leaders from both political parties have decried the proposal as a danger to Lake Huron, as well as the people and animals that rely on it. Michigan law prevents burying nuclear waste within 10 miles of the Great Lakes and its major connected bodies of water, and metro Detroit sits downriver from the lake.


U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, a Democrat from Michigan, said in a statement that he has introduced a resolution urging the Obama administration to formally oppose the proposal and to help find a safer alternative location.


He said that the lake provides drinking water for more than 40 million people in both countries and any contamination could take thousands of years to decompose to safe levels.


“The Great Lakes are critical to Michigan’s environment and our economy, and we must ensure we are protecting their health and safety for generations to come. Building a permanent nuclear waste dump so close to Lake Huron puts this vital resource at risk,” Peters said in a statement. “The Great Lakes support our multibillion dollar shipping, fishing, agricultural and tourism industries, and contamination to our Great Lakes could cause catastrophic, long-lasting damage to this precious resource.”


U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, said in a statement that she formally requested U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to engage the International Joint Commission — a group with U.S. and Canadian representatives that discusses and cooperates on lake policies — to push the Canadian government to find another location.


According to state Rep. Sarah Roberts, D-St. Clair Shores, the waste would sit 1,320 feet underneath the lake’s level, leaving her concerned about leakage and contamination despite the joint review panel’s recommendations. Both she and state Rep. Hoon-Yung Hopgood, D-Taylor, testified against the plan at a public hearing.


“I think it’s a very dangerous decision, and I don’t think that it’s founded in a strong obligation to protect the health of people or of the Great Lakes,” Roberts said. “If you look at their final conclusion, they basically say it’s ‘not likely’ to cause a negative impact, but what does ‘not likely’ mean? That doesn’t sound very reassuring to me.”


She said that more than 150 resolutions from municipalities have expressed opposition to the proposal, on top of thousands of individuals. Roberts said she wants Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to publicly oppose the plan, as the leader of the Great Lakes State.


The Michigan Senate unanimously approved a resolution in 2014 requesting that the Great Lakes Commission — an advisory group established by the Great Lakes states and Ontario — investigate and advise on the waste project. Tim Eder, executive director of the commission, said it looked into the DGR but ultimately decided not to take a position on it.


“We decided it was not appropriate for us to take a position on it at this time, given the nature of our organization as we are,” Eder said. “We represent the province of Ontario as well the Great Lakes states, so for us to get involved with a provincial decision like that wouldn’t be appropriate.”


Roberts recommended that concerned residents contact their representatives in Washington. Peters’ office can be reached at (313) 226-6020. Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s office can be reached at (313) 961-4330. Rep. Sander Levin’s office can be reached at (586) 498-7122. Rep. Brenda Lawrence’s office can be reached at (248) 356-2052. Miller’s office can be reached at (586) 997-5010. Rep. David Trott’s office can be reached at (248) 528-0711.