Nuclear Hot Spots on the Great Lakes

Anna Tilman

Image: USEPA (Environmental Protection Agency) via Wikimedia Commons

The Great Lakes ecosystem forms about twenty per cent of the world supply of fresh water. The region is home to approximately 42 million people, one-third of which are Canadian, residing mainly in large metropolitan areas along the shores of the lakes. Millions of residents rely on their drinking water from the lakes.

This updated release of the Great Lakes Nuclear Hot Spots Map, April 2013, provides a detailed regional, binational view of nuclear facilities in the Great Lakes Region. With the exception of Lake Superior, each of the Great Lakes has numerous nuclear sites related to nuclear power generation, most of which are located within one kilometre of the lakes.

Routine emissions of radioactivity from these facilities and waste piles, along with frequent occurrences of leaks of toxic substances and radioactive substances into the lakes and groundwater, contribute to the degradation of the world’s largest surface freshwater ecosystem.

In 1998, the International Joint Commission’s Task Force on Inventory of Radionuclides released an assessment of nuclear facilities around the basin. The Task Force concluded that releases from nuclear facilities were substantial, but that the extent of knowledge about the releases and their impacts was “limited.” This map has been the first comprehensive update of information on nuclear activities in the Great Lakes Region since then. It highlights the lack of information that we have about radioactive releases from these facilities. It also shows the numerous places where a serious accident could occur.

The map includes all aspects of nuclear power production in the Great Lakes Region, including 38 operating nuclear reactors, many of which are well over thirty years old, and 12 reactors that are now closed. It also includes facilities that process uranium ore and manufacture the pellets, as well as tailings sites from uranium mining, and facilities that store and dispose of radioactive waste.

Every site on this map is a radioactive waste site.

Great Lakes Nuclear Hot Spots Map

click for larger map

Ontario, with 18 operating reactors, ranks as one of the world’s highest per-capita for dependency on nuclear power, which produces about 60% of its electricity. The thirst for nuclear energy in Ontario has not abated as it plans to refurbish eight of its reactors (four at Darlington and 4 at Bruce).

One site of particular notice is the Deep Geological Repository proposed by Ontario Power Generation (OPG) by the shores of Lake Huron for storing low and intermediate-level radioactive waste from the nuclear reactors in Ontario. The federal government was to make a decision by March 1, 2016 whether the project would be approved. However, on February 18, Minister McKenna requested that OPG provide additional information and studies before making her decision. This will lead to a delay in the decision. This proposal has received staunch opposition far and wide. Additionally, most of the communities currently under consideration by the federal government to store highly radioactive waste (irradiated fuel) lie in the basin.

With the potential for new disposal sites within easy access of the Great Lakes, communities are concerned that nuclear waste could be brought in by ship, creating substantial risks of spills along Great Lakes-St. Lawrence shipping lanes and during loading and unloading near shore.

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Anna Tilman is a public health researcher who writes on nuclear matters for the Watershed Sentinel

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