Coincidence or success? Nuclear waste facility drops towns after protest

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Anti-nuclear organizers note a coincidence: towns with resistance to the construction of nuclear waste facilities are often declared "geoscientifically unsuitable" and struck from the list of potential hosts.

On March 3, the towns of Creighton, Saskatchewan and Schreiber, Ontario were dropped from consideration by the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) to host a facility for highly radioactive used nuclear fuel.

Since 2010 the NWMO has been actively seeking a location to build what it calls a 'long-term management site' for the storage of used nuclear fuel. While there were originally 22 communities on the NWMO's list of potential hosts, only nine remain, all in Ontario, as candidates for a high-level waste site for used nuclear fuel.

While community activists celebrate being dropped from the lists, concerns about nuclear waste transportation remain. Local politicians are also quick to note a potential economic loss for their communities.

'Geological complexities' arise when there's opposition

In the announcement to remove Schreiber and Creighton, the NWMO cited what it called "geological complexities" as the reason it decided to remove the towns from contention for the waste site. However, this reasoning doesn't add up for Joe Kutcher, a member of the group Citizens Concerned About Nuclear Waste in Schreiber.

"I don't think you can determine that Schreiber is not geologically suitable based on the studies the NWMO did," said Kutcher.

While the NWMO emphasized its reliance on measures of "geoscientific suitability" in a letter to the town outlining its decision, Kutcher thinks it's more likely that Schreiber was released from consideration because of organizing efforts to oppose the project.

"We had an event with [nuclear expert] Dr. Gordon Edwards, then a big piece in The Globe and Mail came out, and then Schreiber was no longer 'geologically suitable.'"

Brennain Lloyd of Northwatch, a group dedicated to defending the interests of communities in northern Ontario, similarly hinted that it's more than a coincidence that the NWMO finds towns with a dedicated resistance to the project as 'geologically' unsuitable.

"The NWMO will not acknowledge this, and they almost always say it's for geoscientific reasons, but it's not a coincidence that the communities that have been dropped are all places where community dissent about the project reaches a certain volume level," said Lloyd.

The NWMO has identified what it calls a Deep Geological Repository (DGR) as its preferred method of storing the highly radioactive fuel waste. The general idea behind such a design is that the rock formation that the repository is constructed in will aide containment of the waste.

As such, part of the search for a community has to do with the quality of rock formation wherever the purposed DGR would go. However, Lloyd thinks that for all the talk of geophysical features what the NWMO is looking for more than anything else is a community to say yes, regardless of the quality of the rock.

"The industry has been talking about the rock for decades, but its just window dressing," says Lloyd.

The NWMO's plan, says Lloyd, relies more on human-engineered containment than existing rock. "What the industry needs more than anything else is a community to say yes."

Removal comes as both a thrill and a shock

In interviews following the announcement, Schreiber's Mayor Mark Figliomeni described his reaction as "shocked." Although Mayor Figliomeni understood that being dropped by the NWMO was a possibility all along, he noted that no longer being considered for the waste site meant a new economic hardship for the town. He estimated that in the four years that Schreiber had been involved with the NWMO, the town had secured $800,000 in funding from the process.

March is generally budget season for municipalities in Ontario, so the timing of the NWMO's decision, and the sudden withdrawal of funding can quickly throw a town's financial plans into disarray. Cathie Smith, another member of Citizens Concerned About Nuclear Waste in Schreiber, said she was "thrilled" to learn that her community was no longer being considered but wondered about the timing of the announcement.

"We thought we were going to be fighting this project for at least 10 years, and we were prepared to do so. But for people who saw this project as an economic opportunity, this is a sudden surprise."

For Lloyd the economic influx that NWMO's process brings is not worth the trouble that a project of this kind brings. She says that the NWMO process stokes all kinds of divisions in a targeted town.

"The NWMO is mostly looking at areas where the mine is out, forestry is down, and its generally very difficult times. It's a time when a community needs to pull together, and not be torn apart by the NWMO exercise."

Nuclear waste on roads near you

Used nuclear fuel waste, referred to by the industry as high-level radioactive waste, was estimated to be in the neighbourhood of 9,000 cubic metres in 2011. This waste is presently being stored at the power stations it was created at in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, but the NWMO plans to transport it for almost four decades when their long-term waste management site is constructed.

While each future shipment of radioactive waste to the NWMO's site poses threats of human and environmental contamination, more pressing waste transportation schemes have raised the alarm of environmentalist and citizens groups.

Following significant opposition in 2013, plans to send radioactive steam generators from Tiverton, Ontario through the Great Lakes en route to recycling facilities in Sweden were deferred. More recently, environmental groups, including Sierra Club Canada, have raised significant concerns about the transportation of liquid nuclear waste from Chalk River Laboratories near Ottawa to a U.S. government site in South Carolina.

The proposal is currently under review, and armed trucks carrying the waste could hit Ontario roads as early as this spring.


Steve Cornwell is interested in social movements, science and technology. Steve has worked on energy issues with Greenpeace Canada, Environmental Defense, Safe and Green Energy Peterborough, and Find him on Twitter @steve_cornwell

Photo: wikimedia commons

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