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Stopping the Great Lakes Radioactive Dump

Hundreds of environmental and public interest groups, dozens of governmental bodies and thousands of concerned residents across the Great Lakes Basin have joined in rejecting a proposal by the giant utility company Ontario Power Generation (OPG) to bury 200,000 cubic meters of its radioactive waste on the eastern shore of Lake Huron, near its Bruce Nuclear Generating Station, in Kincardine, Ontario. The proposed dump is for so-called low- and intermediate-level radioactive wastes from the company’s 20 nuclear reactors. The site is 1.2 kilometers from Lake Huron on Bruce Peninsula.

On May 6, Canada’s Joint Review Panel submitted to Canada’s Ministry of Environment — the Honorable Leona Aglukkaq — its formal recommendation to approve the plan. Intervening parties have 120 days to submit comments on the JRP’s “environmental assessment” once its “conditions” have been made public. Aglukkaq will then make a recommendation to Ontario’s Premier, Kathleen Wynne, who will make the final decision about whether the dump should be constructed.

Most of the groups, legislators and cities opposing the so-called Deep Geologic Repository (regular folks call it a hole in the ground) have decided to ignore or to just parody the forthcoming “conditions” regulating the plan. A nit-picking analysis of them, they say, only gives the impression that permanent contamination of the Great Lakes somehow an acceptable risk under certain theoretical, computer-model-derived conditions. As Dr. Gordon Edwards, founder of Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, said May 19 over the phone, “We reject any permanent abandonment of radioactive waste deep underground near the Great Lakes. And this project, at this time, under any conditions is absurd.”

The Great Lakes is the drinking water supply for 40 million people in eight US states, two Canadian provinces, and a large number of Native American Reservations and First Nations. Great Lakes water is the lifeblood of millions, 20% of the world’s surface fresh water, and close to 90% of North America’s fresh water. As the Chernobyl and Fukushima radiation catastrophes have demonstrated, OPG’s proposed dump would put the Great Lakes and its residents at risk of radioactive ruination.

During the course of extensive public hearings, dozens of show-stopping facts were revealed that should have seen the proposal nixed. (The Joint Review Panel’s lengthy report noted each one and then dismissed them all.) Among them:

* OPG confessed to a lack of seriousness about containing the radioactive wastes, saying in a public brochure that even if all 200,000 cubic meters of it were to spread into Lake Huron, the public would not be endangered. The claim sent shock waves through the environmental community in view of the need to permanently containerize radioactive materials for hundreds of generations.

* The company grossly underestimated the level of radioactivity in much of the waste intended for the dump. Intermediate-level nuclear wastes include highly-radioactive components from reactor cores which can remain carcinogenic and mutagenic for 100,000 years or more, the Toronto Star reported April 18, 2014. The same article noted that an “expert panel” had concluded that the “immense” waters of the Great Lakes would “greatly dilute” any radiation-bearing water that might leak from the proposed nuclear waste site.

* The company’s secretive plans to double the dump’s already gigantic capacity, once the initial plan’s been approved, and to bury highly-radioactive “decommissioning wastes” left from pending reactor shutdowns across Ontario.

* Although OPG claims that the DGR should cost $1 billion to construct and operate, the US Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) most recent cost estimate for the (cancelled) Yucca Mountain, Nevada DGR was almost $100 billion. Further, the February 2014 underground explosion and fire at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico (after which Canada’s DGR plan is modeled) — and the resulting radioactive release to the environment — will cost hundreds of millions and perhaps even $1 billion to address.

The company has repeatedly insisted that getting approval from the indigenous Saugeen Ojibway Nation (SON) would be necessary for the project to proceed. On May 8, Saugeen First Nation Chief Vernon Roote said, “Of course we are opposed to it. In our community that I represent … there are no members that are agreeable to the burial at the site at this time.” OPG spokesperson Neal Kelly responded to the Chief, telling the Toronto Star, “We will not build this project without SON support.”

So the Joint Review Panel’s May 6 acceptance of the plan is something of a declaration of war against the First Nations, against the Precautionary Principle, and against the Great Lakes Basin itself. If the Ministry of Environment and Ontario’s Premier decide to approve the incredibly risky scheme, the bi-national grassroots coalition will have to intensify its opposition and resistance.

At least 154 cities and municipalities across eight US states and Ontario — including Toronto, Chicago and Duluth — have passed resolutions opposing the ill-advised dump. US Senators and Representatives need to hear that voters want them to support bipartisan bills in Congress demanding rejection of the DGR, and calling on President Obama to take action against it.

John LaForge works for Nukewatch and lives on the Plowshares Land Trust near Luck, Wisc.

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John LaForge is a Co-director of Nukewatch, a peace and environmental justice group in Wisconsin, and edits its newsletter.

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