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Great Lakes Nuclear Waste Dump: The Battle Continues

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Read Joyce Nelson’s first piece on the Great Lakes nuke dump in the latest print edition of CounterPunch Magazine.

Opposition to the proposed nuclear waste facility by Lake Huron continues to grow. By the end of 2015, at least 182 communities (representing more than 22 million people) on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border have adopted resolutions opposing the plan by Ontario Power Generation to build a deep geological repository (DGR) for storage of low- and intermediate-level radioactive nuclear waste.

A Canadian federal panel approved the nuclear waste dump in May 2015, accepting testimony that Lake Huron would be large enough to dilute any radioactive pollution that might leak from the DGR.

The immediate outcry on both sides of the border prompted the Conservative government of Stephen Harper to postpone any decision until Dec. 1, 2015, after the Oct. 19 federal election – in which they were booted out of office. The new government of Liberal Justin Trudeau then pushed that decision to March 1, 2016, after a dozen members of Michigan’s congressional delegation urged the new prime minister to deny the construction permits necessary for the storage facility to be built.

Meanwhile, American efforts to engage the International Joint Commision (IJC), which oversees boundary waters’ issues, have come to naught. As the IJC’s Public Information Officer Frank Bevacqua told me by email, both the Canadian and U.S. federal governments would have to ask the IJC to intervene on the issue. “The IJC does not review proposals for site-specific projects [like the DGR] unless asked to do so by both governments,” he said.

That means a final decision on the DGR may reside with a small First Nations community.

First Nation Decision

The proposed DGR would be located on the territory of the Saugeen First Nation, which is in the process of evaluating the proposal. The Saugeen First Nation has a promise from Ontario Power Generation to not proceed without their support. As Saugeen Chief Vernon Roote told Indian Country Today Media Network (ICTMN) in December, “Ontario Power Generation had given us their commitment that they will not proceed unless they have community support. That’s a letter that we have on file.” [1]

Saugeen First Nation negotiator (and former Chief) Randall Kahgee told ICTMN that “we are starting to build some momentum on the community engagement process.” The Saugeen leaders are determining how to gauge the community voice, whether by polling or by vote at public gatherings, and have already held some engagement sessions on the issue. [2]

Randall Kahgee told ICTMN, “For the communities, this is not just about the deep geological repository but also about the nuclear waste problem within our territory. We have always insisted that while this problem is not of our own design, we must be part of shaping the solution. Gone are the days when our people, communities and Nation are left on the outside looking in within our own territory. These are complex issues that will force us to really ask ourselves what does it mean to be stewards of the land. The opportunity to be able to shape the discourse on these matters is both exciting and frightening at the same time.” [3]

The Saugeen First Nation is especially concerned about simply moving the proposed facility into somebody else’s backyard. “We might not be the best of friends when we push nuclear waste on our brothers’ and sisters’ territory,” he told ICTMN.

Nuclear Expansion

The proposal by provincial Crown corporation Ontario Power Generation (OPG) is for at least 7 million cubic feet of nuclear wastes from Ontario nuclear power plants to be buried in chambers drilled into limestone 2,231 feet below the surface and under the Bruce nuclear site at Kincardine, Ontario. The waste to be entombed in the DGR would come from the Bruce, Pickering and Darlington nuclear sites in Ontario – currently home to 18 Candu reactors.

The eight nuclear reactors at the Bruce site (the world’s largest nuclear station) are leased from OPG by a private company called Bruce Power, whose major shareholders/partners include TransCanada Corp. – better known for its tarsands pipeline projects. (TransCanada earns more than one-third of its profits from power-generation.) Bruce Power pays OPG for storage of nuclear wastes, which are currently stored and monitored above-ground on site. [4]

In December, Bruce Power announced that it will invest $13 billion to refurbish the Bruce site, overhauling six of the eight reactors on Lake Huron beginning in 2020. [5] Just weeks later, OPG announced a $12.8 billion refurbishment of four nuclear reactors at Darlington, while extending the life of its ageing Pickering nuclear power plant on Lake Ontario. [6] The Pickering move requires public hearings and approval from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, but Ontario’s Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli has voiced his approval and touted the nuclear industry as “emissions-free,” while ignoring the issue of nuclear wastes.

OPG, Bruce Power, and the Ontario government are obviously onside with the Canadian Nuclear Association lobby, whose president and CEO John Barrett is using the COP21 Paris Climate Agreement to push for nuclear expansion. In an op-ed for The Globe and Mail, Barrett declared that “it is time to recognize the contribution – current and potential – of nuclear power in curbing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions worldwide,” and he stated that Canada, with its uranium mining and nuclear reactor technology, is “ready to play an international leadership role on climate change.” [7]

Barrett, in turn, is onside with the billionaires now pushing nuclear energy expansion worldwide: Richard Branson (Virgin Group), Peter Thiel (PayPal co-founder), Bill Gates and Paul Allen (Microsoft co-founders), and Jeff Bezos (Amazon) have all endorsed nuclear energy as the solution to climate change. [8] As well, scientists James Hansen, Kerry Emmanuel, Ken Caldeira and Tom Wigley have recently called for building 115 new reactors per year as “the only viable path forward”. [8] They dismiss nuclear waste as “trivial” and claim that there “are technical means to dispose of this small amount of waste safely.”

In that case, the resulting nuclear waste should be stored in their basements and under the billionaires’ mansions, rather than near bodies of water like the Great Lakes, which provide 40 million people with their drinking water.

Footnotes:

[1] Konnie Lemay, “Saugeen Nation May Be Final Word in Nuclear Waste Storage Next to Lake Huron,” Indian Country Today Media Network, December 11, 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Joyce Nelson, “Nuclear Dump Controversy,” Watershed Sentinel, Sept.-Oct., 2015.

[5] Robert Benzie, “Bruce Power to invest $13 billion to refurbish nuclear station on Lake Huron,” Toronto Star, December 3, 2015.

[6] Rob Ferguson, “Ontario Power Generation to spend $12.8 billion refurbishing four Darlington nuclear reactors,” Toronto Star, January 11, 2016.

[7] John Barrett, “Nuclear power is key to decarbonization, and Canada can lead the way,” The Globe and Mail, December 16, 2015.

[8] Emily Schwartz Greco, “A Big Fat Radioactive Lie,” Other words.org, December 4, 2015.

Joyce Nelson is an award-winning Canadian freelance writer/researcher working on her sixth book.

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