The traditional territories of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation (SON) encompass some of the most picturesque places in Ontario—the Bruce Peninsula, which stretches out into the waters of Lake Huron, and the green lands surrounding it, dotted by farms and cottages.
These lands also include one of the major nuclear hubs in Canada: Bruce Power, which sits on the SON's traditional territories. First Nations here haven't always had a good relationship with Ontario Power Generation (OPG), the Crown corporation that owns the Bruce. Now the two are working together, partly out of necessity—OPG wants to bury radioactive waste on SON lands, in an underground bunker where it could stay for up to a million years. But OPG has also agreed not to proceed with the plan without the Nations' support.
The proposed nuclear bunker, which would be near the town of Kincardine, Ontario (population 11,000), has spurred controversy among environmentalists who worry about its proximity to the water: It would be about one kilometre from Lake Huron. Even so, OPG scientists say this would be the safest way to store radioactive waste in the long-term, and the plan is slowly working its way toward federal approval.
On Monday, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) said it's satisfied with OPG's most recent submissions. It will now prepare a draft report that, after a period of public consultation, will make its way the federal Environment Minister. According to OPG, a final decision on the dump—first proposed more than a decade ago—could come later this year.
But it doesn't just hinge on them. In a process described to me as unique in Canada, maybe the world, the SON—which includes Saugeen First Nation and the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation, and has about 5,000 members—is weighing whether to give their own consent to OPG's plan, and say there's no specific timeline for how long that will take.
"We have a waste problem in our territory," Randall Kahgee, a lawyer and former Chief of the Saugeen First Nation, told me over the phone. "We didn't ask for it, we didn't create it, but we must be part of shaping the solution. That doesn't mean turning your back on it and kicking it down the road for the next generation to tackle."
Ontario gets about 60 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, and that creates a lot of radioactive waste. Right now, all of it is stashed at or near the surface of the Earth, where it's potentially vulnerable to weather and other hazards. According to OPG, which owns Ontario's four nuclear reactors, the safest place for nuclear waste is deep underground, where it can ideally remain undisturbed for hundreds of thousands of years. The Deep Geological Repository, as OPG calls it, would put the waste 680 meters (2,230 feet) underground.
The SON have lived on these lands "for as long as our history remembers," notes a welcome message posted to their website. In my conversations with Kahgee, he emphasized that members are taking the issue extremely seriously, as it will impact their lands and waters over such an incredibly long timescale. "It's a forever project," he said.
The proposed nuclear vault near Kincardine would hold OPG's low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste, stuff like irradiated mop heads and tools. (There's a separate plan in the works for Canada's high-level waste—irradiated fuel.) "If the community doesn't support it, then we would not proceed with the project," Lise Morton, OPG's vice president of nuclear waste management, told me. As for what form this support will take, "it's up to [SON] to determine what community support means," she said. "It's part of the discussion."
For Kahgee, OPG's promise not to proceed without the SON's consent—which was made explicit in a letter in 2013—followed 50 years of the nuclear industry excluding Indigenous peoples from decision-making, dating back to when the sites were first built. "In terms of our relationship [with OPG], it hasn't always been good," he said. "That exclusion has seen very little benefit to the communities, and has left us with a long list of concerns and fears," including about the impacts of nuclear power on health and the environment, he said.
"OPG has moved in the right direction," Kahgee added. "It's still a work in progress."
The community is holding information sessions with names like "Nuclear 101," working toward a consensus around the proposed repository. As for whether OPG might grant certain concessions or benefits to the SON, Morton said that is part of the discussion. A spokesperson for CEAA, meanwhile, noted that the views of the SON are included in the public registry and will be factored into the government's final decision on whether to green-light it. Canada is consulting with the SON and other affected Indigenous groups around the repository, the CEAA said.
I asked Kahgee what he's heard from other members of the SON so far. "The first reactions to this are very strong," he said. "There's a lot of concern in terms of proximity to the water. The second biggest issue that's consistently coming up is alternatives. And not only alternative sites," he continued, but alternative energy sources, including wind and solar.
"Beyond science and technology aspects, we have to consider what it fundamentally means for the territory and our relationship with it," Kahgee explained. If the SON decides to go ahead with the project, the waste will be part of their lands and legacy. "Waste stays in the ground forever," he said. "It will become part of the cosmology of our people."
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