Ordinarily, a proposal to bury radioactive waste in a scenic area that relies on tourism would inspire “not in my backyard” protests from local residents -and relief in places that were spared. But conventional wisdom has been turned on its head in the Canadian province of Ontario, where a publicly owned power company wants to entomb waste from its nuclear plants 2,230 feet below the surface and less than a mile from Lake Huron.
Some of the strongest support comes from Kincardine and other communities near the would-be disposal site at the Bruce Power complex, the world’s largest nuclear power station, which produces one-fourth of all electricity generated in Canada’s most heavily populated province. Nuclear is a way of life here, and many residents have jobs connected to the industry. Meanwhile, the loudest objections are coming from elsewhere in Canada and the U.S.- particularly Michigan, which shares the Lake Huron shoreline with Ontario.
Critics are aghast at the idea. They don’t buy assurances that the waste would rest far beneath the lake’s greatest depths and be encased in rock formations that have been stable for 450 million years. “Neither the U.S. nor Canada can afford the risk of polluting the Great Lakes with toxic nuclear waste,” U.S. Reps. Dan Kildee, Sander Levin, John Dingell and Gary Peters of Michigan said in a letter to a panel that is expected to make a recommendation next spring to Canada’s federal government, which has the final say. Michigan’s two U.S. senators, Democrats Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, have asked the State Department to intervene. Business and environmental groups in Michigan and Ohio submitted letters. An online petition sponsored by a Canadian opposition group has collected nearly 42,000 signatures.
The Canadian “deep geologic repository” would be the only deep-underground storage facility in North America, aside from a military installation in New Mexico. Other U.S. radioactive waste landfills are shallow-usually 100 feet deep or less. The most highly radioactive waste generated at nuclear plants is spent fuel, which wouldn’t go into the Canadian chamber. Instead, the site would house “low-level” waste (decay within 300 years) such as ashes from incinerated mop heads, paper towels and floor sweepings. It also would hold “intermediate waste” (decay within 100,000 years)– discarded parts from the reactor core. The project would be operated by Ontario Power Generation (OPG), a publicly owned company that manages waste generated by its nuclear reactors and others owned by Bruce Power, a private operator. Officials insist it’s the safest way to deal with radioactive material that has been stored above-ground since the late 1960s and needs a permanent resting place.
Company specialists say the waste would be placed in impermeable chambers drilled into sturdy limestone 2,230 feet below the surface, topped with a shale layer more than 600 feet thick. The lake’s maximum depth in the vicinity of the nuclear site is about 590 feet. But Charles Rhodes, an engineer and physicist, contended seeping groundwater would fill the chamber in as little as a year, become contaminated and eventually reach the lake through tiny cracks in the rock. “It’s only a question of how long, and how toxic it will be when it gets there,” he said in an interview.
Nuclear waste burial debate produces odd alliances. The Associated Press, Nov. 30, 2013