It took less than a month for the Harper government to realize it has another major election issue on its hands.
On May 6, a federally appointed Joint Review Panel (JRP) approved the environmental assessment of the controversial Ontario nuclear waste disposal site proposed as a Deep Geologic Repository (DGR) next to Lake Huron. The announcement was immediately met with howls of outrage on both sides of the Canada-US border.
Current federal Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq was scheduled to announce a decision by early September, but suddenly on June 3, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) launched a 90-day “public comment period” until September 1, extending the deadline for a federal Cabinet decision until December, after the federal election.
Ms. Aglukkaq’s spokesman said the comment period would allow for “more public participation.” But according to the CEAA website, the public was allowed to comment only on “potential conditions related to possible mitigation measures,” not on whether the project should proceed.
The proposal by provincial Crown corporation Ontario Power Generation (OPG) is to bury low- and medium-level nuclear wastes from Ontario nuclear power plants in chambers drilled into limestone 680 metres below the surface and under the Bruce nuclear site at Kincardine – 400 metres from Lake Huron. The waste will come from the Bruce, Pickering, and Darlington nuclear sites – currently home to 18 Candu reactors.
According to CBC News (May 7), after construction, “the operations phase would last about 40 years, followed by a decommissioning period of five or six years, which would include the installation of a ‘concrete monolith’ at the base of the shafts, then sealing the shafts and removing the surface buildings.” During the Abandonment Phase, the “OPG assumes that some kind of institutional control over the abandoned repository would last for up to 300 years.”
Dr. Gordon Edwards, founder of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, calls the plan “absurd.” Former Ontario nuclear scientist Dr. Frank Greening has slammed the idea as “idiotic” and “dangerous.” Water expert Maude Barlow calls the proposed DGR “absolutely the most terrible idea I can think of.” Even the JRP’s own consultant, Dr. Peter Duinker, told the hearings that OPG’s environmental analysis was “not credible, not defensible” and “not reliable.”
“Flawed Project/Flawed Review”
By mid-July, 80,000 people had signed a petition to stop the project, and 164 communities on both sides of the Canada-US border had passed resolutions opposing the DGR.
Construction of the site could begin by 2018, but the OPG has said it will not go ahead with the project over the objections of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation, on whose territory the DGR would be located. Saugeen First Nation Chief Vernon Roote told the press on May 8, “Of course we are opposed to it. In our community that I represent … there are no members that are agreeable to the burial at this site at this time.”
In mid-May, one hundred public interest groups wrote an open letter to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and the Ontario legislature, asking that the Ontario government, “as the sole shareholder of the proponent, Ontario Power Generation,” direct OPG to “withdraw its proposal.”
Currently, low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste is stored in surface or near-surface facilities at the Western Waste Management Facility, which is located on the Bruce site and overseen by the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO).
When JRP hearings temporarily ended in 2013, Kincardine News reporter Steven Goetz noted (November 4, 2013) that OPG “failed to demonstrate any urgency [for the DGR] and acknowledged the status quo – holding the material in storage containers on the surface – is safe for now. OPG told the panel the project is needed due to its ‘desire to provide a long-term solution for the waste’ and ‘the interest of a municipality in hosting.’ In other words: they want to get rid of it and the Municipality of Kincardine will let them,” Goetz wrote.
It was the Kincardine council that approached OPG about a possible long-term waste facility in 2001.
That was the same year that Bruce Power was hived off from OPG by the Conservative Mike Harris government to become a private power company, leasing the eight Bruce nuclear reactors from OPG under a public-private partnership (P3).
Bruce Power’s two major shareholder-partners are TransCanada Corporation and Borealis Infrastructure (investment arm of the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System). Borealis bought Cameco’s stake in January 2014.
The Bruce site’s assets (including the nuclear waste) remain owned by OPG, while Bruce Power gets the profits from selling the nuclear-generated electricity.
Report on Business (March 2015) stated that Bruce Power “was perceived by many [DGR opponents] as a central player in the debate,” but “the company has never had any role in nuclear waste disposal.” In the next paragraph, however, the author wrote that “Bruce Power pays OPG to store [the nuclear waste].”
Neither Bruce Power nor OPG would answer my questions about waste-storage fees, so I looked at OPG’s annual reports. OPG’s income category “Regulated – Nuclear Waste Management Segment” gives an overall dollar-figure that includes used nuclear fuel and low- and intermediate-level wastes. The reports show that the amount OPG has been receiving for storage has been steadily rising: 2011: $57 million; 2012: $107 million; 2013: $113 million; 2014: $121 million.
In April 2014, Bruce Power’s CEO Duncan Hawthorne told the Toronto Sun that he’s interested in taking over the Darlington and Pickering nuclear plants – suggesting intentions to expand private nuclear operations. Hawthorne has also publicly referred to his “100-year plan” and a desire for a “Bruce C.”
It’s also useful to recall that Bruce Power’s other major shareholder, TransCanada Corp., envisages its proposed Energy East tarsands pipeline as needing some 70 electrical pumping-stations (at least 20 in Ontario) to push the heavy piped dilbit to the East Coast.
As well, nuclear industry analysts maintain that no more reactors will be built in North America until the waste-disposal problem is solved.
Apparently, there is a lot riding on getting this first DGR approved.
Former nuclear scientist Dr. Frank Greening told me that many individuals and groups made “excellent” JRP presentations against the DGR, “but by and large our concerns were just ignored,” he said. “It’s like talking to a brick wall and they call it ‘public hearings.’ We have an illusion of debate,” he said, “but the CNSC and the nuclear juggernaut has its way every time,” partly because of “the revolving door” in the industry.
JRP Chair Dr. Stella Swanson was previously a member of the Scientific Review Group advising the 1998 Seaborn Panel, which spawned the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO).
Dr. Greening said, “The NWMO is supposedly an independent body, but it’s really OPG in disguise,” while “the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is the enabler of the nuclear industry.” It was “disturbing during the [JPR] hearings to see the CNSC sitting beside the OPG, as though they were co-proponents.”
“It’s a big old-boys club,” Dr. Greening told me, “and they get annoyed when people like me come along and raise issues.”
In 2014, Dr. Greening challenged OPG’s radioactivity figures for the wastes, finding them to sometimes be “1,000 times lower” than the actual radioactivity level that can be expected.
He also said that OPG “hadn’t considered the chemistry of the wastes, which are not that stable.” The nuclear wastes “might as well have been Kleenex the way they were treating them” in their proposal, he told me.
It was the chemistry of the nuclear wastes that led to a nuclear accident at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico.
Epic Fail of DGRs
As Beverly Fernandez, co-founder of Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump, puts it, “There are only three deep geological repositories on our entire planet that have actually held nuclear waste, and all three of these have failed.”
In New Mexico on February 14, 2014, a fire broke out in a WIPP storage chamber and a drum of nuclear waste ruptured – exposing 22 workers on the surface to radiation. The WIPP has been closed ever since.
An investigation found blunders and missteps, including the fact that a contractor used a wheat-based kitty litter to stabilize the waste in the drum. The rotting wheat created enough heat to cause a chemical reaction, leading to the rupture. Because hundreds of drums contain the organic material, there is no way to rule out further ruptures.
Asse II, a former salt/potash mine in Germany, was turned into DGR in 1967. Some 126,000 drums of nuclear waste were stored in the underground cavities, which began leaking irradiated water only 20 years later. By 2007, investigations resulted in what Spiegel Online called “the biggest environmental scandal in postwar German history.”
Morsleben, an old salt/potash mine in the former East Germany, contains 36,753 cubic metres of low-and intermediate-level nuclear waste, now leaking. The German government regularly conducts emergency backfilling to prevent cave-ins.
With no working example of a successful DGR, Dr. Greening says that OPG “really have no justifications [for the project] except that they have a willing host.”
In fact, by volunteering as host, Kincardine saved OPG and the NWMO from having to search for another site.
As this “flawed review” of a “flawed project” has proceeded, the revelations have ranged from the astonishing to the ludicrous.
For example, in March 2013, Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump reported that “OPG is paying $35.7 million to Saugeen Shores, Huron-Kinross, Arran Elderslie, Brockton [and] Kincardine. All are [municipalities] adjacent to the Bruce Nuclear Power Plant site. Ten and a half million dollars have already been paid even before approval to construct the dump is received.”
Erika Simpson, political science professor at the University of Western Ontario, recently noted that the payments to these municipalities will continue for decades “so long as they provide their co-operation in support of the environmental approvals and licensing applications.…”
“Doubling the Waste”
In 2011, OPG proposed to transfer 200,000 cubic metres of low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste into the DGR. But during the 2013 hearings, OPG expressed their intent to double the amount of waste and “seek a licence amendment after they receive a project approval based on the original volume,” according to the open letter.
OPG wants to store “de-commissioning wastes” (including reactor cores) produced when existing nuclear plants are eventually dismantled.
When hearings resumed, the Toronto Star reported (August 8, 2014) that OPG “has publicly acknowledged that its long-term safety plans are based, in part, on new technologies that have not yet been invented.”
As of May 2015, according to the open letter, “the final use and size of the proposed DGR remain unknown.”
Dr. Gordon Edwards calls the DGR plan “simply a corporate strategy for terminating liability” because “corporate bodies cannot tolerate the concept of never-ending liability.” Edwards advocates a “policy of Rolling Stewardship” by which the waste would be “constantly monitored and kept in a retrievable condition [above-ground] indefinitely.”
Joyce Nelson is an award-winning freelance writer/researcher and the author of five books.