Picture of a pilot cave at final depth in a planned deep geological repository for the final disposal of spent nuclear fuel in Eurajoki, Finland. Image credit: kallerna/Wikimedia Commons

A new organization called “We the Nuclear Free North” held a very informative webinar on May 10 to address concerns about the proposed burial of high-level nuclear waste in northwestern Ontario. High-level nuclear waste is intensely radioactive, spent nuclear fuel rods taken mainly from nuclear power plants. (Viewers wishing to access the webinar can contact We the Nuclear Free North or email nuclearfreenorth[at]gmail.com.)

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) has selected the Revell Lake area, between Ignace and Dryden (northwest of Thunder Bay), as one of the two most promising sites in Ontario for a deep geological repository (DGR).

The other site is just north of Teeswater in the Municipality of South Bruce.

The NWMO is a consortium formed by Ontario Power Generation (OPG), New Brunswick Power, and Hydro-Quebec. In 2007, the Canadian government gave the consortium the responsibility for finding an “informed and willing” community to host the nuclear waste site. Since 2010, the NWMO has considered at least 18 sites in Ontario for the high-level nuclear waste, narrowing the list down to two while studies of bedrock continue in both locations.

But now opposition is growing in these areas, as residents increasingly become “informed and unwilling.” What they are up against, however, is formidable power and money.

Dangers of deep geological repositories

The Nuclear Free North webinar focused on two great dangers from the deep geological repository: the transportation of nuclear waste to the site and the threat to the watersheds from underground burial.

The nuclear waste consortium wants to transport some 57,000 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel rods from 18 nuclear reactors in Ontario and one in New Brunswick to the disposal site. As the webinar panelists explained, that would mean “two or three trucks per day” making the long-distance drive to the site “every day for the next 40 years.” 

An accident en route could result in significant radioactive contamination. If the nuclear waste were transported by rail, that too is not risk-free for communities along the route.

As the waste arrives at the disposal site, it would be re-packaged and sealed in copper cannisters, encased in cement, and buried in bedrock tunnels and chambers 500 metres deep.

But as the webinar told listeners, at the consortium, “they acknowledge the containers will fail.” That means eventual nuclear contamination of the watersheds. According to the Nuclear Free North website, “Dryden, Kenora, many Treaty 3 communities, and Winnipeg’s drinking water are all downstream” from the Revell Lake site.

So far, around the world there have been three attempts to bury nuclear waste in deep geological repositories, but all have leaked nuclear radiation into the environment. Dr. M.V. Ramana, an expert on nuclear energy and professor at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at UBC, told me by email that currently, “Finland and Sweden have identified sites [for DGRs] and Finland is constructing one but it is not yet completed. Sweden’s project is yet to be approved.”

When asked why the nuclear industry wants a deep geological repository, Dr. Ramana answered that “nuclear power operators want to make the claim that nuclear waste is not a problem. Commissioning, or even starting work on a DGR, will allow them to argue that they have dealt with this concern.”

By allowing “in-situ decommissioning” of any future small modular reactors (abandoning the waste on site) and starting work on a deep geological repository, the nuclear industry and governments can claim the nuclear waste problem has been solved.

Money talks

Recently, CBC News published an article on the “goodwill money” that the NWMO has been pouring into South Bruce — the other site being considered for the nuclear disposal site.

In 2012, the local council volunteered to be considered as a host for the site, and that’s when the money started flowing: “According to a March 2021 report from South Bruce Treasurer Kendra Reinhart, the community has received more than $3.2 million from the NWMO since 2012.” But that doesn’t include “a $4 million NWMO-sponsored investment fund” that the community can also draw upon.

Members of a local grassroots group, Protecting Our Waterways — No Nuclear Waste, told CBC that by taking the money, the municipality is undermining its official position, which is that it is simply learning about the project and is neither for or against hosting the nuclear disposal site.

Michelle Stein and Bill Noll, president and vice-president of Protect Our Waterways, “said the more the municipality of South Bruce becomes intertwined financially with the NWMO, the harder it will be for the community to disentangle itself by saying no to the nuclear disposal site, lest it cut off the community’s newfound source of wealth.”

South Bruce Mayor Robert Buckle disagrees with that assessment and told CBC News that it would be “foolish” to not accept the money from NWMO. “That’s just business,” he said.

The same thing has been happening at the other proposed nuclear disposal site.

Brennain Lloyd of Nuclear Free North told me by email that the NWMO “is definitely delivering large amounts of money to municipalities to curry favour, including over $2 million (that we know of, so far) to the Township of Ignace,” and “earlier this year $624,078 to the City of Dryden.”

Lloyd says “it’s been a 10-year campaign by the NWMO with regular injections of large amounts of cash into low-budget municipalities (including those the NWMO has ‘suspended’ their investigation of). And the mayor of Ignace has now dropped any pretense of ‘learning’ about the project and is now blatantly pitching for it.”

The nuclear waste consortium wants to select the final site by 2023.

During the May 10 webinar, a question was asked about where NWMO gets its money. Brennain Lloyd answered, “From rate-payers.” She noted that in Ontario, as you saw your electricity bill going up over the past decade, “some of your bill is going to fund their activities.”

Ironically, those same rate-payers will be paying for their own endangerment by funding the transport of nuclear waste.

Saugeen Ojibway Nation

The South Bruce site is located on Saugeen Ojibway Nation territory. The NWMO has promised the First Nation that they will not proceed with the high-level nuclear disposal site if the community does not give its consent.

In January 2020, 85 per cent of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation voted against siting a low- and medium-level nuclear waste site in Kincardine, also located on their territory. Ontario Power Generation had promised the First Nation that it would not build the repository without their consent. But Ontario Power Generation had also offered the First Nation $150 million to host the site — money which the community turned down.

Days ago, Saugeen Ojibway Nation Communications Manager Kurt Kivell told me by email that the First Nation:

“[i]s exercising its Rights in the Territory and have begun a free, prior, and informed consent-based process towards a Community decision on the proposed [nuclear waste repository]. We are in the early stages of engagement and consultation with NWMO on the project and sharing information with the Community to support informed decision-making towards a Community decision. We have not had any discussions with NWMO regarding financial compensation for supporting the Project.”

I asked Dr. Ramana what would happen if both the South Bruce and the Ignace/Dryden sites are rejected because of public opposition. Would the nuclear waste consortium revisit earlier (“suspended”) sites? He answered, “Good question. I don’t know. It is also possible that they may open new sites.”

During the Nuclear Free North webinar, panelists were asked whether it would be only the communities of Ignace and/or Dryden that would make the final decision about the deep geological repository. The answer was stark: “An infinitesimal number of people will make this decision in comparison to the millions who will be affected along the routes.”

Canadian freelance writer Joyce Nelson is the author of seven books. She can be reached via www.joycenelson.ca

Image credit: kallerna/Wikimedia Commons

Joyce Nelson

Canadian freelance writer Joyce Nelson is the author of seven books and many hundreds of articles and essays published by a variety of magazines and websites. During more than 30 years as a full-time writer,...