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Despite election, no change yet to Canadian nuclear waste site plans

Michigan officials request new look

By: Kevin Bunch | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published November 16, 2015

Illustration by Denis Rozhnovsky/Shutterstock image

The recent Canadian election saw the Liberal Party come to power with new ministers and officials, but the government has not yet announced plans to change its timetable for a decision on the proposed Kincardine nuclear waste site near Lake Huron.

“Essentially, we do have a new minister of the environment as of Nov. 4, and the status of the environmental assessment is that the decision is due Dec. 2,” said Lucille Jamault, communications manager from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.

Minister of the Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna is expected to announce whether or not construction of the deep geologic repository, or DGR, would be allowed to move forward. Low- to medium-level nuclear waste would eventually be stored in the DGR, located less than a mile away from the shore of Lake Huron near Kincardine, Ontario.

If the environmental assessment approves construction, the DGR would be built about 2,260 feet deep — or 680 meters — on the Bruce Nuclear Facility property, owned by Ontario Power Generation, or OPG. Upon completing construction, OPG would then need to get approval to put the nuclear waste inside before sealing the structure with concrete.

The decision was pushed back by a few months to accommodate a 90-day comment period, Jamault said, during which time the government received about 800 comments from members of the public, First Nations groups and participants of the environmental review. 

If approved, the decision statement would include the requirements and final conditions for construction to move ahead, Jamault said. She added that at this time, she and the department could not speculate or announce what McKenna would decide.

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 within a layer of limestone underneath 200 meters of shale. The limestone layer that the proposed site would be in does not appear to have been disturbed by surface events in that time, he said.

Groundwater from the lake does not extend any farther than 400 meters down, with the majority contained within the first 5 to 100 meters. As such, Jensen said, the waste should not contaminate the water or the lake within the radioactive life span of the materials.

American officials are skeptical of the safety claims, and a joint letter by U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan; U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan; and U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint, urged the new Canadian government to deny permission to move forward with the site.

In the letter, the congressional members said that the Great Lakes provide drinking water for 40 million people and are worth billions of dollars to the state and provincial economies.

“Given the critical importance of these shared waters to our countries, and the potentially catastrophic damages to the lakes from a nuclear accident, we urge your administration not to approve this repository and consider alternative locations outside the Great Lakes basin,” Stabenow wrote in the letter.

At the least, Stabenow wrote, they would like a chance to meet with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to discuss their concerns in person before a decision is made.

On the state level, Rep. Sarah Roberts, D-St. Clair Shores, said she and Sen. Hoon-Yung Hopgood, D-Taylor, also drafted a letter calling on the new Canadian government to deny the DGR proposal.

“They have an opportunity to protect the drinking water source for millions of people in Michigan, the United States and Canada,” Roberts said. “One of the things so concerning about this is they may say that it’s all low- to intermediate-level radioactive waste, but some of it has a life of 100,000 years.”

If completed, the DGR would house about 200,000 cubic meters of nuclear waste, largely low-level things like rags and shoes that have been incinerated. Those items would be safe within 300 years, while mid-grade waste like filters and power core parts could remain radioactive for upward of 100,000 years, according to OPG.

Human monitoring of the site would end after 300 years, though OPG believes the structure would be sound for about 100,000 years before collapsing entirely.

The nuclear waste is currently being stored above ground at the Bruce Nuclear Facility. OPG has said on its website that it has not looked at any other suitable sites, as Kincardine has approved this one locally.