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A disaster waiting to happen: nuclear waste and Lake Huron

Feb 25, 2016

Michigan has been so preoccupied with our own environmental disaster in Flint that we may have missed the announcement that Canada last week indefinitely delayed a decision about whether to bury low-level nuclear waste near Lake Huron.

That is bound to be seen as good news by virtually the entire environmental community – though there is a caveat or two that I will get to in a bit.

First of all, it is important to note that the utility that wanted to do this, Ontario Power Generation, was not talking about burying spent radioactive fuel rods at the water’s edge. This was low and intermediate level nuclear waste.

Low-level means stuff like old uniforms and brooms and mops; intermediate waste includes filters and pumps and machine parts that came into contact with nuclear fuel. They wanted to bury 20 years of this stuff almost half a mile below the surface near the town of Kincardine, in a rock formation geologists say hasn’t shifted in 400 million years.

The utility said this was perfectly safe – but many disagreed, including virtually everyone in state or federal government from Michigan.

Congresswoman Candice Miller, who represents much of the area across the lake from the site, wrote a column opposing this, in which she said, "In a territory as vast and geologically diverse as Ontario, the notion that no viable alternative to Kincardine exists – one not in close proximity to the lakes – is not credible.”

Well, she’s certainly right about that. Canada has slightly more area than the United States, but barely a tenth of our population. You would think there might be far safer sites in the trackless and largely frozen north.

By the way, this is one more example that elections really do matter.

Had the conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper been reelected last fall, the decision announced last week would almost certainly have been to bury the waste here. But Harper’s party lost in an unexpected landslide to Justin Trudeau’s more environmentally conscious liberals.

The outcome may be especially welcome in poor, battered Flint. The city hopes to eventually switch to a new water provider using Lake Huron, and the last thing anyone wants to worry about is radioactive waste leaching into the water, as unlikely as that may be.

But this also means we still don’t have an answer to what is to be done with 200,000 cubic feet of nuclear waste, currently stored in above-ground containers near Ontario’s immense Bruce nuclear generating station.

Even more important is finding a permanent home for all those highly radioactive, spent nuclear fuel rods in both our nations. Scientific American estimated seven years ago that the United States alone had produced 64,000 metric tons of those rods.

There’s more now, and any effort to establish a permanent burial site has been killed by narrow, NIMBY, not-in-my-backyard thinking, as it has in Canada.

This is a disaster waiting to happen – there's tons of this stuff in “temporary,” above-ground storage everywhere from Monroe to Charlevoix, where an old nuclear plant was torn down nearly twenty years ago.

If the apparent decision to not bury low-level waste near Lake Huron makes us forget this far bigger problem, then it is no kind of victory at all.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.