U.S. lawmakers from the Great Lakes region are weighing in on the fate of two major Canadian nuclear waste facilities, which could hinge on a vote in a First Nation community in western Ontario on Friday.
The 4,500-member Saugeen Ojibway Nation, based on Lake Huron’s Bruce Peninsula, is voting on whether to support construction of Ontario Power Generation Inc.’s C$2.4 billion ($1.8 billion) deep geological repository for low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste near the shore of Lake Huron. But several U.S. members of Congress oppose it, claiming it could endanger drinking water for millions.
Ontario Power Generation pledged not to move ahead if the First Nation community votes against the repository. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization, which could build a much larger C$23 billion repository for more radioactive spent nuclear fuel in the same region, won’t proceed in the area if it doesn’t have a partnership with the nation. The vote on Friday doesn’t deal with its proposal directly.
The two projects together represent the bulk of Canada’s long-term plan to store nuclear waste. Canada has 2.9 million bundles of highly radioactive used nuclear fuel, according to 2015 data, and around 100,000 cubic meters of low and intermediate nuclear waste, according to 2016 figures, the most recent available.
U.S. Lawmakers Oppose Both Sites
U.S. lawmakers from across Lake Huron in Michigan have long opposed both projects, and environmental groups say storing radioactive materials deep underground near large bodies of water isn’t safe.
“Storing high-level nuclear waste could threaten the well-being of the Great Lakes for generations to come and undo progress made to preserve them,” Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) said in a statement Thursday.
“This makes no sense,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). “Canada has as much at stake as we do in protecting our Great Lakes. There is no justification for a nuclear waste site so close to Lake Huron to even be under consideration.”
At its closest point, the low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste could be stored underground within a mile of the lake’s shoreline.
Peters and seven other senators from the Great Lakes region introduced a resolution in the Senate on Jan. 15 calling on Canada’s federal government to stop both projects and for the Trump administration to help find a solution. An identical resolution was introduced in the House of Representatives Jan. 17.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has shared concerns about the project’s potential impact on the U.S. and the Great Lakes, the agency said in a statement Thursday.
Highly Radioactive Waste Site
The Nuclear Waste Management Organization repository would be built to store 5.2 million bundles of used nuclear fuel Canada is projected to produce. It could be built in South Bruce, Ontario, or farther north in Ignace, the organization said Jan. 24. The waste is currently stored outside nuclear facilities across four provinces, with 90% of it in Ontario.
“We’re working to identify a single, preferred location for a deep geological repository to be located in an area with informed and willing hosts,” spokesperson Bradley Hammond wrote in an email Wednesday.
Landowners in South Bruce gave the organization the go-ahead to dig bore holes to test the area’s suitability this month.
The joint private-federal agency wants to pick its site by 2023.
The U.S. has long wrestled with its own plan to store nuclear waste in a repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.
First Nation Vote
The vote by the Saugeen Ojibway Nation on the site for low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste is a monumental accomplishment for First Nations having a say over major decisions, the nation’s environment office said in a statement in December.
“Never before has a First Nation secured this level of consent on a project of this magnitude,” the nation said. It declined to comment further.
Ontario Power Generation has proposed a financial benefit for the nation, but details aren’t public.
A Canadian federal review panel approved the Ontario Power Generation project in May 2015, but the then environment minister asked the company to get more information on impacts to the Saugeen Ojibway Nation’s cultural heritage and wait for the results of the community vote.
After receiving the new information, the Impact Assessment Agency will write a draft report on the project’s community impacts, Alison Reilander, agency spokeswoman, wrote in an email Jan. 21.
Canada’s existing low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste is currently stored at the surface of where the repository will be located, which is also home to the eight-reactor Bruce Power plant.
The repository would go 680 meters (2,230 feet) below the surface in highly stable rock where water hasn’t moved for millions of years, Ontario Power Generation says.
Low-level radioactive waste includes equipment used in power plants like mopheads and protective clothing, while intermediate-level waste covers some reactor components, resins, and filters used to clear water systems, the utility says.
A small amount will be radioactive for 100,000 years, it says.
Deep geological repositories are dangerous because the shafts can be blocked by fracturing near the surface and waste shouldn’t be irretrievably buried, Theresa McClenaghan, executive director of the Canadian Environmental Law Association, said in an interview.
Ontario Power Generation also didn’t adequately consider other storage options or locations, McClenaghan said.
Community support is primarily driven by the prospect of a new economic engine, she said.
Benefits to Town
The municipality of Kincardine, where the nuclear power plant is located, is already home to over 4,000 nuclear industry workers and understands the risks well because of the existing power plant, Mayor Anne Eadie said.
Kincardine received a one-time benefit of C$1.3 million in 2005 for the repository proposal and receives annual sums that rise with inflation each year, Eadie said.
Underground repositories, which are used or proposed in 16 countries, have been considered the best way to store nuclear waste in the long-term around the world since the late 1950s, Michael Apted, principal geoscientist with Austin, Texas-based engineering firm Intera Inc., said in an interview.
The rock under Kincardine is very stable, but the key to safety depends on a combination of the natural barriers and the engineered structures, said Apted, who has worked with Ontario Power Generation in the past.