On nuclear waste, we need to listen to the science — and to vulnerable communities

OPINION: Just like COVID-19, nuclear-waste disposal will affect some populations more than others. Their voices need to be heard
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Feb 02, 2021
For years, Ontario Power Generation worked to get approval for a deep geological repository around the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station. (Chuck Szmurlo/Wikipedia)

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About halfway through this week’s episode of TVO’s Political Blind Date, the former mayor of Flint, Michigan, says something that rings out in the second year of a global pandemic.

"Don't let us go through a crisis and not learn from us,” says Karen Weaver. “Because that would be another tragedy."

Flint, of course, suffered one of the most basic failures and betrayals that’s possible in modern society: the poisoning of its water, which led to preventable illnesses and at least 12 deaths. Earlier this month, state officials, including former governor Rick Snyder, were charged with numerous crimes related to the crisis.

Weaver’s words, though, were spoken in 2019, when she was still mayor of Flint (she was narrowly defeated in her re-election bid that year). And viewed from 2021, Flint ought to have been a warning for the world about how public-health failures unevenly harm different communities. The story of the water crisis in the suburb of Detroit can’t be separated from the fact that it’s a majority-Black community in the particular racial context of the United States.

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It's something we could have applied to COVID-19 if we’d learned it well enough, early enough: we know the pandemic is not affecting all communities in Ontario equally, not even in a single region, such as Toronto. Whiter, wealthier neighbourhoods (where people can afford more personal space and be tended to through services like grocery delivery) don’t see infection rates nearly as high those in more crowded, lower-income neighbourhoods.

We weren’t really prepared for that, and we still haven’t really grappled with it — the province’s pandemic response still isn’t properly supporting people whose workplaces have become the most dangerous. We’re just weeks away from the first anniversary of Ontario’s (first) state of emergency, and nobody really has an answer to the problem that millions of workers in the GTA are basically unprotected, while comfortable, white-collar office workers (such as myself) face far less danger. Essential workers might be closer to the front of the line for vaccines than I am — and deservedly so — but that won’t bring back the people who have died.

Some things can’t be repaired once they’ve been broken.

Which brings us to the other side of this week’s episode, about the prospect of burying nuclear waste somewhere in the Bruce Peninsula — a project that has raised alarm bells for several communities on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border. Mitch Twolan, mayor of Huron-Kinloss, was one of the leaders of a community that strongly supported the idea of a deep geological repository (and wanted the jobs and money it could bring). Some hopes don’t pan out: the Nuclear Waste Management Organization announced last year that Huron-Kinloss won’t be considered as a possible host community going forward.

For years, Ontario Power Generation worked to get approval for a different proposed DGR, for lower-level waste from the province’s nuclear-power plants, around the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station. But it, too, was nixed in 2020, after the Saugeen Ojibway Nation voted overwhelmingly against supporting the project.

There’s a fair argument to be had about what role nuclear power should play in Ontario’s future, but this is a hard problem: the nuclear waste we’re talking about here already exists, and it’s going to pose a potential danger to human health for millennia to come. I’ve taken the same tour that Twolan and Weaver took and seen the dry-storage containers of nuclear waste sitting there like so many nondescript sarcophagi. I’ve had people from the NWMO explain, in great detail, why they’re confident that a DGR is not just the best possible solution, but also a safe one in an absolute sense. And, for what it’s worth, I found those explanations convincing.

But I’m not the kind of person who needs convincing, in the end. Since I live in Toronto, I can be reasonably confident that nobody will propose to bury that stuff anywhere near me — never mind the fact that people like me and the other 6 million or so people in the GTA are the primary reason there’s so much nuclear waste in the first place. The people who need convincing are the ones who are going to need to live with it — and, in the case of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation, the people who went ignored in the early years of Ontario’s nuclear industry.

Whether it’s lead pipes, a pandemic, or nuclear waste, it’s a mistake to pretend that science alone is the solution to our problems. If we aren’t looking out for vulnerable people, and hearing their voices, we’re never going to get to answers that actually work.

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