July 27, 2005
Toronto: Government-owned Ontario Power Generation paid more than $3 million to municipalities on the shores of Lake Huron this spring as part of a deal clearing the way for construction of North America’s first deep rock nuclear waste storage facility.
The cash, which some critics have decried as hush money aimed at silencing opposition, is the first instalment of a “hosting agreement” that will see the utility pay the Ontario communities of Kincardine, Saugeen Shores, Huron-Kinloss, Arran-Elderslie and Brockton $35.7 million over the next 30 years.
In return, the five municipal councils have embraced OPG’s plan to store low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste in a deep rock geologic repository at the Bruce nuclear plant in picturesque Kincardine.
The plan for the repository includes digging 660 metres down into limestone and carving out 38 caverns, each as long as a football field, up to eight metres wide and 6.6 metres high.
While the project is massive and involves radioactive waste that will remain contaminated for thousands of years, the proposal has attracted scant attention in a province that was in an uproar five years ago over Toronto’s plans to dump city garbage into an old iron ore mine in Northern Ontario.
“Our municipal council volunteered us as the site for this, which is almost unheard of in the world,” says Jennifer Heisz, a critic of the scheme who lives one kilometre from the Bruce station. “OPG has not based this on health and safety considerations or the suitability of the site. It’s based on our councillors volunteering the site in exchange for $35 million.”
Ms. Heisz questioned whether it was appropriate for OPG to pay for municipal council members to visit nuclear waste storage sites in Europe and the United States. She says many council members are less-than-objective decision-makers because they have relatives who work for the Bruce nuclear station or are themselves current or former employees or contractors who did business with the facility. She insists there should have been a formal referendum on a matter that will affect the community for years to come.
And she railed against provisions in the formal agreement that allow OPG to cancel payments to the municipalities if there is any opposition to the deal. “The gag order aspect of this is terrible,” Ms. Heisz said. “It stifles open debate. It has intimidated a lot of public representatives into not being able to represent the public for fear the town will lose the money.”
The 20-page agreement states early on that payments to Kincardine and the neighbouring communities can be halted if any or all of them “have failed to exercise best efforts to support the construction of (the) deep geologic repository.”
High-level waste – used nuclear fuel – is stored at the nuclear power station where it is generated and that will continue, said OPG spokesman John Earl.
The Bruce station, however, has been the storage site for low- and intermediate-level waste from all of Ontario’s reactors since 1974.
Low-level waste, made up of minimally radioactive materials such as mop heads, protective clothing and floor sweepings, is placed in above-ground concrete warehouse-type structures.
Intermediate-level waste, such as used reactor components, resins and filters, is stored mainly in steel-lined concrete containers that have been set into the ground.
Mr. Earl said the Bruce site has been selected for the repository because “the community came and asked us to look at what the options are for the future and to look at deep geologic repository as the one that they considered to be the best technology available.”
The utility, he insisted, will “work diligently to meet the needs and satisfy the concerns of the community as we move this forward.”
Kincardine Mayor Glenn Sutton also makes no apologies for the money-for-waste deal he and the council signed with OPG last fall.
“There has been extensive consultation,” including a public opinion survey that found 60 per cent of residents support the project, Mr. Sutton noted. Seventy per cent of Kincardine’s approximately 8,319 adult residents were contacted for the poll. When respondents who were neutral or refused to answer were excluded from the total, the approval rating climbed to 73 per cent.
As the actual host community for the OPG project, Kincardine will receive the lion’s share of the OPG money over the next three decades. The $2.94 million paid earlier this year has been used for park projects and a reserve fund for a possible hospital expansion.
Mr. Sutton rejects suggestions the community has been bought off. “We did a survey of other jurisdictions across the world and the amounts paid as a hosting fee are consistent with other jurisdictions in Western Europe and the United States.”
He also disputes suggestions that becoming a major nuclear waste repository will put off the tourists and cottagers who flock to Lake Huron’s beaches each year.
“We’ve had a low-level waste storage site for the Bruce and Pickering and other nuclear plants for more than 30 years and it’s been a very safe storage procedure and we’ve had basically no reaction.”
Indeed, OPG is currently seeking permission to triple the size of its current surface storage facility for low and intermediate nuclear waste to accommodate contaminated materials generated by the refurbishment of its aging nuclear reactors.
About 60,000 cubic metres are stored at the Bruce site, which is equipped to handle 72,000 cubic metres. OPG wants to begin site preparation in December to expand that capacity to 212,000 cubic metres.
The schedule for the deep geologic repository is also ambitious. The utility aims to launch an environmental assessment of the proposal by 2007 and to complete that process by 2010.
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission would then be asked to issue the necessary licences so construction could begin by 2013. The goal is to begin storing waste in the caverns beginning in 2017.
William Fyfe, a retired University of Western Ontario professor who is Canada’s foremost Earth scientist and an international consultant on nuclear waste issues, attacked OPG’s plans yesterday.
“You do not put nuclear waste near things like the Great Lakes or the great rivers in case there’s a leakage that you haven’t expected,” he said. “The Earth changes … and nuclear waste is dangerous for at least one million years.
“It wasn’t that many thousands of years ago when we had ice on top of southern Ontario. That could happen again and when that happens, you get all sorts of new cracks and things formed.”
Mr. Fyfe, who has been a consultant to Switzerland and Sweden on nuclear waste, said it should be buried in areas where naturally occurring materials that are easily corroded or soluble have survived unscathed for millions of years. This indicates the geology is stable.
“In Canada, we have a lot of these in old mining areas,” he said, citing Sudbury as one example.
Mr. Fyfe said OPG should consult experts, including the Swedes, who are burying their nuclear waste deep under the Baltic Sea, before pushing ahead with the Bruce project.
The Swedes “are going underground more than a kilometre and if there ever was leakage, before the stuff gets into the sea, it has to go through a lot of clay sediments and things that accumulate from erosion on the ocean bottom that is very good at absorbing stuff. It is a perfect barrier.”
Norm Rubin, the director of nuclear research for the watchdog group Energy Probe, suggested that the number of jobs and economic activity generated in the Kincardine area by the Bruce station are factors in how the story is unfolding.
“If you start making decisions during a short-term period when everybody and their brother-in-law is working for the company, and you make decisions that are irreversible, then you stand a really good chance of making a really regrettable decision.