Bruce’s burning secrets

Stephen Salaff
NOW magazine
August 5, 2004

There’s no hint in the cool summer winds blowing off Lake Huron onto the sandy beaches of the lower Bruce Peninsula that nuclear managers have developed plans to turn the shoreline into a vast radioactive waste sacrifice zone.

But a look at internal documents suggests that anti-nukers and worried locals have it exactly right. NOW has examined Ontario Power Generation’s Environmental Assessment Study Report to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission of March 2004 and discovered not only that OPG is seeking permission for three more radioactive waste storage buildings at the Bruce nuclear park, but it also wants to increase the volume of low-level radioactive waste it incinerates by some 33 per cent between 2004 and 2008.

Yes, you heard that right – incinerates. Of all the worrisome atomic waste issues, this discharge of poisons into the atmosphere above Bruce County, 250 kilometres northwest of T.O. and the same distance from Detroit, has traditionally received the least public scrutiny in Canada.

But just as shocking is the fact that the Ontario Ministry of the Environment (MOE), which bans many other forms of incineration, adamantly refuses to regulate this one. Many environmental orgs are infuriated by this lethal abstentionism and are calling on the province to own up to its environmental and health protection responsibilities.

OPG’s report to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, obtained by NOW, reveals that some 50 to 70 per cent by volume of all so-called low-level radioactive waste transported to the nuclear park from across Ontario is being incinerated. (Knowledgeable critics believe that in utility jargon “low level” or “intermediate level” may not mean gloves, mops and brooms, as the industry alleges, but rather any waste that isn’t spent nuclear fuel.) Further, the report forecasts that when OPG ramps up its new incinerator design, radioactive waste volumes incinerated at the park will soar annually from 3,000 cubic metres in 2004 to 3,500 cubic metres in 2006 and 4,000 cubic metres in 2008.

NOW has also obtained the controversial MOE certificate of approval, dated January 2004, for an incinerator with a design capacity of 2,270 kilograms (about 5,000 pounds) per day of various radioactive waste types at Bruce.

But Ontario law, as an air pollution prevention measure, has prohibited the incineration of many forms of waste since the mid-90s.

How is it that the ministry is nonetheless providing OPG with a certificate of approval?

Says Energy Probe’s Norm Rubin, this favouritism toward nuclear waste incineration is part of a “long and persistent history of the environment ministry’s abdicating its responsibility to protect the Ontario environment from radioactive pollution.”

The world was staggered when a Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded in April 1986, violently dispersing enormous quantities of volatile radioactive contaminants around the globe. The toxins injected accidentally into the atmosphere included tritium and radioactive iodine – exactly the same pathogens that have been dispersed deliberately and by design since 1977 at Bruce. We’re talking about poisons that are most hazardous to living organisms. Tritium, a long-lasting radioactive form of hydrogen and a human carcinogen, enters the water cycle and cannot be removed by conventional means. Radioactive iodine settles in the thyroid gland, where it often causes childhood cancer.

Esteemed radiation protection professional and biostatistician Rosalie Bertell, retired president of the International Institute of Concern for Public Health, tells NOW that “the radioactive iodine discharged from the Bruce incinerator is being widely distributed over time, both on land and in water. This environmental contaminant will have an immediate effect around the point of release from the incinerator, and far into the future as it is recycled by the earth back into the global food web.”

Such concerns are now making it onto the agenda of nuclear monitoring orgs like Don’t Waste Michigan. According to spokesperson Kevin Kamps, U.S. senators have already expressed alarm to the State Department over the 2,000 casks used for high-level radioactive waste on the Lake Huron shoreline at Bruce. Now, he says, “Michigan residents are learning about the alarming incineration of large quantities of so-called low-level waste. This assault on the Great Lakes basin must be stopped.”

Energy Probe’s Rubin says, “Radioactive wastes don’t hurt people because of their excessive volume, but because they are extremely poisonous and hard to contain. Instead of incinerating radioactive waste, OPG should focus on reducing and curtailing its production of radioactive toxins and keeping the remainder out of the environment. If the nuclear industry needs to incinerate radioactive waste, then it is not a safe or sustainable industry and should be phased out.”

How great is the danger? The size of the radiation dose received from combustion depends on many factors, including the height of the emissions plume, the concentration and type of the radioactive materials involved and the length of time the plume persists.

To accurately compute the harmful effects, and to compare them with Chernobyl’s, we would need full disclosure from OPG and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission of the toxic content of the plume, a mathematical model of the plume pathway and comprehensive data on the radiation burden delivered by the plume to humans and other receptors.

Alas, such disclosure eludes us. Many argue that funding for nuclear-safety disclosure should certainly receive higher priority than the rebuilding and restarting of OPG’s Pickering A. When this reporter asks Hugh Morrison, OPG’s Tiverton-based director of nuclear waste operations, to explicitly describe the pathways of toxins from nuclear waste incineration, he sidesteps the question by replying that such hazardous emissions are regulated by the MOE certificate of approval.

But the MOE disclaims responsibility for monitoring and regulating radioactive emissions from the Bruce incinerator. Spokesperson John Steele says the ministry lacks the clout and juridical competence to measure and regulate radioactive pollution.

Conventional emissions, he explains, are regulated by his ministry, while the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission regulates radioactive substances. “The ministry is assuredly authorized and empowered to regulate the mercury, dioxin and furan discharges from the incinerator, and we are vigorously performing that role,” he says.

Why is that mandate so narrow? “The Ontario Environmental Protection Act Regulation 346 explicitly prevents MOE from regulating airborne radioactive substances,” he says. But despite follow-up written requests, Steele has thus far failed to point out the language in Regulation 346 that he claims prohibits Ontario from regulating airborne radioactive pollution.

A look at the reg reveals that the MOE, in consultation with the Ministry of Health, is mandated “to curtail the operation of sources of air pollution.” The reg then continues to discuss measuring instruments for quantifying air pollution.

For its part, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is smugly satisfied with the environmental performance of the Bruce incinerator. A May 2004 major regulatory document proclaims without apparent proof that incinerator operations “do not result in significant effects on the atmospheric environment.” After many e-mails and phone calls to media relations staff going back several weeks or more, CNSC has not yet produced anyone in authority who can speak to this document.

Environmental lawyer Mark Mattson, president of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, deplores MOE staff’s “passive and narrow interpretation of the law and the Canadian Constitution. Sadly, they are getting away with it at many hazardous waste sites along Lake Ontario and elsewhere in Ontario. Waterkeeper has frequently asked the Ministry of the Environment to explain why it avoids regulating radioactive pollution. Yet the ministry has never been willing to provide us with formal legal justification.”

Mattson says Regulation 346 is long and complex, but he disputes that it contains any provision instructing MOE staff to neglect the regulation of airborne radioactive substances.

“Waterkeeper and our allied NGOs Energy Probe, Sierra Club of Canada and Port Hope Nuclear Environmental Watchdogs all urge that the government of Ontario proactively regulate radioactive emissions,” says Mattson. “We think Regulation 346 is, in fact, sufficiently broad to define radioactive emissions as air pollution.”

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