The Environment Report
12:41 pm
Tue November 20, 2012

Plan to store lower-level nuclear waste near Lake Huron

You can listen to today's Environment Report or read an expanded version of the story below.
The blue pin indicates the municipality of Kincardine, Ontario. Kincardine has signed a hosting agreement demonstrating its willingness to host Ontario Power Generation's proposed low and intermediate level nuclear waste repository.
Credit Google Maps

The Bruce Nuclear Power Plant sits on the Ontario side of Lake Huron. It’s across the lake from Michigan’s Thumb region.  Ontario Power Generation owns the plant. 

The company wants to store the lower level nuclear waste from all of their plants underground, near the Bruce plant.

They’re proposing to dig almost a half mile underground to build the facility. It would be a little more than half a mile away from the shore of Lake Huron.

It’s called a deep geologic repository.  It would store low and intermediate level waste from the company's 20 nuclear reactors.

Just to be clear: spent nuclear fuel would not be stored in this proposed site.

Marie Wilson is a project spokesperson for OPG. She says the low level waste includes things like clothing, mop heads and paper towels with very low levels of radioactivity. She says intermediate level waste includes things such as filters from the reactors’ water systems.

"About 80 to 90 percent of what is going to go in OPG’s DGR is low level waste, so it will be the majority.  After about 300 years, all of that waste for the most part will have decayed.  With respect to the very small volume of intermediate level waste, which would be about 10 to 20 percent, most of that waste will be gone after about 100,000 years," says Wilson.

So - the facility would need to be built to safely store radioactive waste underground for at least 100,000 years.

Wilson says they’ve conducted more than four years’ worth of studies, taking a close look at the conditions of the rock at the site.

"The conclusion is that there will not be any significant adverse effects to the environment or human health," says Wilson.

A very long timeline

But other people who’ve looked at the proposal say it’s hard to know what the effects will be.

Brenda Murphy studies nuclear waste management at Wilfrid Laurier University in Brantford, Ontario.

"We’re talking about timelines that go incredibly far into the future, farther into the future than we have pyramids going back into the past," says Murphy.

She says there has been a lot of research on deep geologic repositories, but she says it depends what parameters you put into the models and how you tweak those models.

"We're talking about timelines that go incredibly far into the future, farther into the future than we have pyramids going back into the past."

"One of the things for Canada is that most of our models that have been done over the last 40 years have been for igneous rock, which is the rock on the Canadian Shield.  It’s not been for the sedimentary rock.  And so, Kincardine, where they’re looking at the low and intermediate level facility, is going to be in that sedimentary rock.  The difference being: the sedimentary rock is much softer, it’s more porous, it’s more prone to fracture – all of those things, compared to the harder rock of the Canadian Shield," she says.

In an email, OPG spokesperson Neal Kelly gave the following response:

Over the course of the last two decades, international research has indicated that sedimentary bedrock settings can provide favorable conditions for the safe long-term management of radioactive wastes.  In the correct setting, sedimentary rock sites offer geologically stable and very low permeability environs that contain ancient groundwater systems in which contaminant migration is governed by diffusive processes. 

In clay rich sedimentary rock settings, the self sealing properties of the rock minimize the influence of fractures on Deep Geologic Repository (DGR) performance.  Extensive research conducted at Underground Research Laboratories, such as the Mt. Terri facility in Switzerland, is contributing to a strong sense of confidence that sedimentary environments provide a suitable setting for DGR implementation.  Sedimentary geologic settings are either being pursued for long-term radioactive waste management purposes or have operating DGRs in the United States, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Canada and Germany.

Pitting neighbors against each other

This proposal to bury low and intermediate level waste is dividing some communities in Canada.

Cheryl Grace is the spokesperson for Save Our Saugeen Shores. It’s a citizen’s group that’s against the repository.

"I mean, there’s definitely a lot of tension because a lot of people earn their livelihood from Bruce Power and Ontario Power Generation. They’re very loyal, and you know, I can totally understand that," says Grace.

But she says there are many beautiful tourist towns in the area, and people are concerned that burying nuclear waste deep underground could end up contaminating the water.

Grace says money is complicating the issue. The municipality of Kincardine has agreed to be the host community for the low and intermediate level waste DGR. In exchange, Grace says, Kincardine and nearby towns receive payments every year, including her community of Saugeen Shores.

"We now get about $280,000 a year. Kincardine gets over $650,000 a year to be the host of this facility, and the way the hosting agreement reads is as long as our communities exercise their best efforts to support the DGR 1 project, they will keep getting the money until 2034.  As well as in our case, two one-time payments of half a million dollars. So, one of our contentions is that our communities, like our community, Saugeen Shores, can't be critical of the concept of a DGR being so close or even being built here because that would not be exercising their best efforts to support this Kincardine project and then the money would end," Grace says.

Multiple parties from around the Great Lakes region recently signed a letter they called the Huron Declaration, to state their opposition to OPG's proposal for the low and intermediate level DGR.  Here's an excerpt:

We call upon the Governments of Canada and the USA, as well as First Nations, Indigenous Communities and Tribes in the Great Lakes Basin, to vigorously oppose the OPG proposed dump and to prevent its implementation.

It is understood that the proposed OPG dump is not to be used for the storage of irradiated nuclear fuel. However, there is no limitation as to the toxicity, longevity or diversity of radioactive materials to be included in the ill-defined categories of low and intermediate level waste that will be stored there. Indeed, virtually all of the radionuclides found in irradiated nuclear fuel are represented to some degree in these so-called low and intermediate level wastes.

We appeal to all people living in the Great Lakes Basin and their elected representatives to say no to OPG's proposed deep underground dump for radioactive wastes.

In an email, OPG responded to the assertion above:

The Safety Case submitted by Ontario Power Generation in support of its application for a construction licence for a deep geologic repository(DGR) for its low and intermediate level radioactive waste (L&ILW) considers a defined inventory of radionuclides.  L&ILW represents all radioactive wastes produced in the operation of OPG’s nuclear reactors other than used nuclear fuel. While there is a large diversity of radionuclides in L&ILW, many are present in very small quantities.  The Safety Case, which is summarized in Chapter 14 of the Preliminary Safety Report (found under DGR Submission  at www.opg.com/dgr) supports the conclusion that the DGR can provide safe long-term  management of the defined inventory of L&ILW.

Finding a home for all of Canada's high level waste

There’s also an even more controversial proposal in play.  21 communities in Canada have expressed interest in hosting a deep geologic repository for all of the country’s highly radioactive waste. (You can read this related article in The National Post for more information.)

More than a dozen of these sites are near one of the Great Lakes.

The 21 potential host communities for a deep geologic repository that will store all of Canada's highly radioactive nuclear waste.
Credit Google Maps

Cheryl Grace says it’s clear something has to be done with the waste.  But she says her group doesn’t want to see it buried near the lakes.

"It’s too precious a resource to fool around with and build an underground facility to store highly radioactive nuclear waste," says Grace.

In 2002, Canada's Parliament established the Nuclear Waste Management Organization to come up with a plan to deal with the country's used nuclear fuel.  The siting process for the high level waste repository is in the early stages. The NWMO explains the volume of highly radioactive waste this way:

Canada has been generating electricity from nuclear power for more than 40 years. In that time, we have produced just over two million used fuel bundles. Each bundle is about the size and shape of a fireplace log, weighing approximately 24 kilograms. If the entire current inventory could be stacked like cordwood, they could fit into a space the size of six hockey rinks from the ice surface to the top of the boards.

The high-level waste DGR is expected to open in the 2030s.