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There's a Plan to Bury Nuclear Waste a Kilometre Away from Lake Huron

Choosing a site to permanently store Canada’s nuclear waste is all about finding the community that is most willing to host it. Ontario Power Generation and the federal Nuclear Waste Management Organization are planning to build two underground storage...

Illustration by Alex Sheriff.

Choosing a site to permanently store Canada’s nuclear waste is all about finding the community that is most willing to host it. Ontario Power Generation and the federal Nuclear Waste Management Organization are planning to build two underground storage facilities called Deep Geological Repositories, fill them with radioactive waste over approximately 40 years, and then abandon them until the waste is decommissioned 100,000 years from now. It’s a process that requires an incredible amount of foresight, which is why for nearly a decade OPG and the NWMO have met with the mayors of Bruce County in secret and, according to a town councillor in one eligible municipality, “wined and dined” them.


The first of these proposed facilities could begin construction after regulatory hearings in late 2013. Storing low and intermediate level nuclear waste, including everything from irradiated mops and rags to components of decommissioned reactors, the proposed facility would be built about a kilometre away from Lake Huron in Kincardine, Ontario—a town so friendly to the nuclear power industry that its Mayor Larry Kraemer uses the word “we” interchangeably to refer to the town of Kincardine and the nuclear industry itself. And although OPG scientists have determined that the proposed site is safe so long as no unexpected human incidents or mechanical failures occur, a leak from this facility would irradiate the water supply of 40 million Canadians and Americans. Which begs the question: Out of all of Canada, why was this site chosen?

This is the picture from the “Assuring our Future” page of Ontario Power Generation’s website.

Part of the reason is that OPG is inordinately lazy. It’s like they’re not even trying. To Mayor Mike Bradley of Sarnia, who is drumming up opposition to the project from within a coalition of Great Lakes mayors, the Kincardine proposal is a symptom of a “bizarre selection process. Kincardine said ‘we want to be the host community’ and OPG said yes…. They didn’t look anywhere else in the country. They didn’t look anywhere else to see if there were better sites. They simply said ‘If they want it we’ll give it to them.’” Kincardine already hosts the largest nuclear generating station in the world, a privately run facility that has stored low and intermediate level waste above ground for 40 years, and its Mayor is pretty nonchalant about storing this waste in his community forever. “The underground repository basically guards us permanently from environmental effects,” he told me.


But Sarnia’s Mayor criticizes OPG for choosing a permanent nuclear waste site simply because it was convenient and economical. He argues that OPG has decided to “build the case for doing it around the fact that they’ve said they would be a willing host. But then you get into whole issue of who determines that for a community? Is it political leadership—the elite? Or is it the community itself?” To Mayor Bradley, the way in which Kincardine’s leaders determined that the community was willing to host this facility, through a town poll, was “totally unscientific… the most dependable way of getting community assessment is to put it on the ballot as a referendum in the next election… OPG and Bruce Power are huge employers in that area and I think people are often apprehensive about speaking out in the public realm. But they can certainly do that in private in the ballot box.”

A diagram from Ontario Power Generation explaining the proposed Kincardine DGR.

Mayor Bradley also criticized the “ad hoc” nature of the government’s upcoming regulatory hearings, suggesting that many potentially affected communities have not been adequately consulted. “It’s fine to have [hearings] in Kincardine. But shouldn’t they also be taking place in Thunder Bay, Toronto, Cleveland, you know other places along the Great Lakes? So that there’s more knowledge of what’s going on? More ability to give input?” The Mayor of Kincardine and OPG, in contrast, insist that adequate consultation has taken place in external communities. According to Neal Kelly, an OPG representative, OPG has had consultations with political leadership as far as Michigan: “We’ve talked to the senate, we’ve talked to congressional people, we’ve sat down with anybody who has contacted us.” Similarly, referring to the nuclear industry and not his own community, Kincardine’s Mayor explained that a decade ago “we began with consultations and polling in Kitchener, London, and Toronto, areas like that. One of the more common responses that we got was ‘Where did you say this is?’ ‘The answer is Kincardine.’ ‘Kincardine? Well, who cares?’ That was a really common response because it didn’t affect them, right?”


Taking what the Mayor calls a “leadership role,” the community of Kincardine has signed a hosting agreement with OPG stipulating that they will support the project in exchange for financial and non-financial benefits. “Part of the host agreement which provides funds to the community is that one cannot speak ill of the project,” explained Sarnia’s Mayor Mike Bradley. Since 2005 Kincardine has received annual payments of $650,000 that have so far only been used to lower the town’s tax rate. In addition, Kincardine will soon open a post-secondary education institution on industry dollar, and its property values will be protected by industry, if and when the land loses value, because it’s on top of a permanent nuclear waste dumpsite.

Kincardine's Mayor. Courtesy of the Kincardine Times.

This agreement may explain why Kincardine’s Mayor assessed years of secret meetings between OPG, the NWMO, and the mayors of Bruce County as being “very, very, very, very transparent.” To Chris Peabody, a councillor in Walkerton, the secrecy of these meetings is a sign that the leadership in his own community has learned nothing from the E. Coli tragedy a decade ago, where a lack of private sector and government disclosure caused the deaths of seven people and the illnesses of several thousand. He explained that: “certainly they’re not following the provisions of the Municipal Act that they’re governed by which requires public postings of meetings and accurate takings of minutes… these mayors were wined and dined. They took them up to Ottawa, they put them up [in nice hotels] , they made them feel important. It’s a well-known corporate strategy. You don’t have to spend a lot of money wining and dining them.” OPG denies “wining and dining” but capitulates that these secret meetings occurred.

In their search for a community to host a second Deep Geological Repository for spent nuclear fuel, the federal NWMO may seem to be taking a more reasonable, less bribery-centric approach than the provincial OPG—and at very least they are considering twenty one potential waste sites instead of just one. But the NWMO has a similar history of luring communities with financial enticements and even promoting these enticements in humiliatingly insensitive contexts, like the healing circles of indigenous elders. Currently, the NWMO is only offering interested communities financial reimbursement for the expense of educating their population. However, according to Chris Peabody, “sketchy notes” from the secret meetings of Bruce County mayors means that: “we’ll never know exactly what enticements were made.” After a high level facility was first suggested by the NWMO, the Mayor of Brockton told Peabody “there’ll be payouts, there’ll be a research centre, a swimming pool.” Peabody explained that “now that the whole plan is facing a bit of criticism, the NWMO has said ‘all deals are off the table. We don’t want to be seen to be buying out the towns so we’re only offering eight hundred jobs. The only benefit is the eight hundred jobs that come with the plant.’”

Still, twenty-one communities are desperate enough to consider the offer, and Peabody fears that “the only prerequisite for winning is whoever is the most willing to host.” The NWMO stresses that their highest priority is selecting a safe site, though “community willingness” is assessed prior to any actual on-site geological surveys in their scouting process. To Kincardine’s Mayor Larry Kraemer, this peculiar enthusiasm around hosting nuclear waste is a “tremendous success.” Though the Kincardine facility has not yet been built, and has no observable safety record, he explained that “one of our motivators for being involved in the way that we have was to be a demonstration project and to provide confidence that a community could host this type of facility and do so knowing that the safety and economics of this situation were sound.”

To Mayor Mike Bradley, the fact that communities are actually competing to host high-level nuclear waste is a sign of a bleak economic landscape. “There are lots of communities in the North that are seeking it just because they’re so desperate. Just to stay alive, to survive.” Previously:

A Toxic Tour of Canada's Chemical Valley