Underground Storage for Nuclear Waste Near Great Lakes?

  • The blue pin indicates the municipality of Kincardine, Ontario. Kincardine has signed a hosting agreement demonstrating its willingness to host Ontario Power Generation's proposed low and intermediate level nuclear waste repository. (Credit: Google Maps)

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

The Bruce Nuclear Power Plant sits on the Ontario side of Lake Huron. It’s across the lake from Michigan’s Thumb region.

Ontario Power Generation owns the plant.  They want to store the lower level nuclear waste from all of their plants underground, near the Bruce plant.  They’re proposing to dig almost a half mile underground to build the facility. It would be a little more than half a mile away from Lake Huron.

It’s called a deep geologic repository. It would store low and intermediate level waste from the company’s 20 nuclear reactors.  Just to be clear: spent nuclear fuel would not be stored in this proposed site.

Marie Wilson is a project spokesperson for OPG. She says the low level waste includes things like clothing, mop heads and paper towels with very low levels of radioactivity. She says intermediate level waste includes things such as filters from the reactors’ water systems.

“About 80 to 90 percent of what is going to go in OPG’s DGR is low level waste, so it will be the majority.  After about 300 years, all of that waste for the most part will have decayed.  With respect to the very small volume of intermediate level waste, which would be about 10 to 20 percent, most of that waste will be gone after about 100,000 years.”

Wilson says they’ve conducted more than four years’ worth of studies, taking a close look at the conditions of the rock at the site.

“The conclusion is that there will not be any significant adverse effects to the environment or human health.”

But other people who’ve looked at the proposal say it’s hard to know what the effects will be.

MURPHY: “We’re talking about timelines that go incredibly far into the future, farther into the future than we have pyramids going back into the past.”

Brenda Murphy studies nuclear waste management at Wilfrid Laurier University in Brantford, Ontario. She says there has been a lot of research on deep geologic repositories, but she says it depends what parameters you put into the models and how you tweak those models.

“One of the things for Canada is that most of our models that have been done over the last 40 years have been for igneous rock, which is the rock on the Canadian Shield.  It’s not been for the sedimentary rock.  And so, Kincardine, where they’re looking at the low and intermediate level facility, is going to be in that sedimentary rock.  The difference being: the sedimentary rock is much softer, it’s more porous, it’s more prone to fracture – all of those things, compared to the harder rock of the Canadian Shield.”

In an email, a spokesperson for Ontario Power Generation said two decades of international research says otherwise. He wrote that sedimentary bedrock settings can provide favorable conditions for the safe, long-term management of radioactive wastes.

This proposal to bury low and intermediate level waste is dividing some communities in Canada.

Cheryl Grace is the spokesperson for Save Our Saugeen Shores. It’s a citizen’s group that’s against the repository.

“I mean, there’s definitely a lot of tension because a lot of people earn their livelihood from Bruce Power and Ontario Power Generation. They’re very loyal, and you know, I can totally understand that.”

But she says people are concerned that burying nuclear waste deep underground could end up contaminating the water.

There’s also an even more controversial proposal in play.  21 communities in Canada have expressed interest in hosting a deep geologic repository for all of the country’s highly radioactive waste. (You can read this related article in The National Post for more information.)

More than a dozen of these sites are near one of the Great Lakes.

Cheryl Grace says it’s clear we have to do something with the waste.  But she says her group doesn’t want to see it buried near the Lakes.

“It’s too precious a resource to fool around with and build an underground facility to store highly radioactive nuclear waste.”

The siting process for the high level waste repository is in the early stages.

I’m Rebecca Williams.