Ontario Power Generation faces a fight over plans to bury nuclear waste

By Tim Alamenciak - Published on May 7, 2015
Pickering nuclear plant
The Pickering Nuclear Plant

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Ontario Power Generation’s project is either the Deep Geologic Repository or the Great Lakes Nuclear Waste Dump.

The pitched battle over the future of thousands of tonnes of contaminated material has spurred hundreds of hours of public consultations, more than ten thousand pages of research and widespread debate. The controversial project received approval this week from a federal panel, marking a milestone towards its realization.

OPG insists its proposal is based on sound science. Opponents point to examples of deep repositories gone wrong and have rallied other municipal governments to their cause.

Currently the waste from nuclear power sites in Bruce County, Darlington and Pickering is all stored above-ground at the Bruce Power nuclear facility near Kincardine, but the power company says it can’t stay there forever.

Instead, OPG wants to bury the nuclear waste 680 metres below Kincardine’s surface, a little more than a kilometer from Lake Huron. The plan alleviates the need for surface storage, and OPG argues it’s a long-term solution to the waste problem.

According to the panel, an independent body that has studied the proposal for years, the deep geological repository is “not likely to cause significant adverse effects.”

The underground repository would eventually – in nearly one hundred years – be sealed up, entombing the waste for thousands of years.

Opponents argue burying the waste underground, and so close to Lake Huron, is too risky. They want the project shelved until storage technology has advanced.

“What OPG wants to do, and we have to be clear, they want to bury and abandon this nuclear waste in this nuclear waste dump so that if it leaks we will never know until it is too late,” says Beverly Fernandez, spokeswoman for the group Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump. “No scientist, no geologist and certainly not OPG can provide a guarantee that this nuclear waste dump will not leak and contaminate the Great Lakes.”

The proposal is to use the underground facility to store 200,000 cubic meters of low- and intermediate-level waste, including materials such as contaminated safety equipment, rags and power plant components.

The power agency says it thoroughly researched the storage practice and it’s safe. According to OPG director of media and issues management Neal Kelly, the debate is one of “science versus emotion.”

He points to 12,500 pages of peer-reviewed studies that conclude material can be safely stored 680 meters into the ground in 450-million year old rock.

“That's the science of it,” says Kelly.

Another major criticism of the project is around process. Kincardine was selected to host the waste because former mayor Larry Kraemer suggested it to OPG in 2001, and the power agency already owns land there. No other locations were considered.  

“It's unconventional to say the least because there was no assessment of alternatives. It has a very bizarre history,” says Theresa McClenaghan, executive director and counsel with the Canadian Environmental Law Association. “The rationale for the project was very poor and basically amounted to ‘Well, Kincardine asked us to do that,’ and that was the reason they hadn't evaluated alternatives.”

The location also minimizes the risk of accidents while the waste is being transported. OPG already uses the Kincardine site for above-ground storage of nuclear waste from all Ontario reactors. The trip from above ground to below is short.

“We started looking at different jurisdictions around the world to see: what is the international best practice? What are other jurisdictions doing with low and intermediate level waste?” says Kelly. “The conclusion we came to was that deep rock burial is international best practice.”

While recognized as the best practice, the implementation of deep geological repositories have been largely flawed. Two facilities in Germany using salt barriers instead of rock have leaked. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, an American underground facility, also experienced a waste leakage in 2014. Designed to hold waste securely for 10,000 years, it failed 15 years after opening.

OPG’s facility is different. It doesn’t rest in salt, relying instead on ancient rock barriers, and the waste is from known, controlled sources.

Kincardine’s government supports the project, but Fernandez’s Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump group has rallied 152 municipal governments and councils surrounding the Great Lakes region to oppose it. Each has passed a resolution opposing the site – a symbolic gesture.

This week’s panel report advances the Kincardine repository but doesn’t mark the approval of the project. The report now goes to the Minister of the Environment for approval.

In all likelihood, there’s going to be a decades-long fight. Every step, from green lighting the project to starting the process of storing waste to sealing the facility in 100 years, requires public consultation. Construction isn’t expected to begin until 2018 at the earliest — the power agency still needs to gain the approval of the Saugeen First Nation.

And even more fights are coming: the power company is seeking a host for another repository to hold high-level nuclear waste, such as spent fuel.

Despite the prospect of many battles to come, OPG stands behind its plan.

“We wouldn't propose this project if we didn't think it was safe. The science supports us when we say this project does not pose a risk to the great lakes or the environment,” says Kelly.

Fernandez offers a different perspective. Her solution: continue storing waste above ground, as it has been for the previous 40 years, in order to allow for monitoring and new technology to make permanent storage safer in the future.

“In the coming years, technology may advance, and we may be able to render this nuclear waste harmless,” she says. “If it is buried and abandoned, we won't have that chance.”

Image credit: ilkerender/flickr.com

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