Beverley Fernandez never considered herself an activist, until Ontario Power Generation (OPG) decided it wanted to bury nuclear waste one kilometre from the source of fresh drinking water for 40 million people.
Fernandez has been working as a spokesperson for Stop The Great Lakes Nuclear Dump, a non-profit organization determined to fight against OPG’s planned Deep Geological Repository (DGR). The repository would be the final resting place for the country’s low to intermediate level nuclear waste.
It is an idea that Fernandez, and a growing number of people, are taking a stand against.
“Water is the most important, and the precious, natural resource. The clean waters of the Great Lakes are North America’s greatest asset,” Fernandez said. “Enter Ontario Power Generation. They want to bury the most toxic, lethal, dangerous and long-lasting poisonous material humans have ever created right next to the life-giving waters of the Great Lakes.”
Fernandez was in London on Wednesday (Nov. 20) as part of a panel discussion put together by Ward 5 Councillor Joni Baechler. In addition to Fernandez, the panel included Gordon Edwards, a former Western University professor and the president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility; Theresa McClenaghan, a lawyer and executive director of Canadian Environmental Law Association; and John Jackson, chair of the Grand River Environmental Network and an expert on nuclear issues and Great Lakes water quality.
For Baechler, who sits on both the Lake Huron and Lake Erie joint water boards (from which London receives its fresh water supply), the evening was important for several reasons. For one, councillors now face a legal responsibility to exercise a high standard of care when it comes to drinking water.
However, she also felt a less legal, and more moral, responsibility.
“I heard about the Deep Geological Repository hearings, followed some of the presentations, became somewhat alarmed by what I was hearing,” Baechler said. “I thought we needed to bring together a group of people to share the concerns about this. This is a very important issue to everyone in London.”
The meeting was to give people the opportunity to learn more about the public hearing process currently underway where a joint review panel will look at the plan to bury more than 200,000 cubic metres of radioactive waste 680 metres below ground.
It was a topic that drew more than 100 people to the Wolf Performance Hall as the panelist explained the history behind the project, the science that drives it, and the potential consequences of allowing the DGR to go ahead.
Erika Simpson, a Western University associate professor who teaches about international security nuclear waste proliferation, was one of those audience members.
“All of us drink fresh water from the Great Lakes, so it is our responsibility as citizens to learn about the issue,” Simpson said. “And I am also concerned the federal review panel, with only three panelists, is that democratic? Is that enough? I think we need to have longer hearings, a more widespread process.”
Jackson said his concerns are many, but that when dealing with “these types of waste,” there can’t be an accident, there can’t be a flaw in the system. And should London residents think they need not be too concerned, Jackson said people need to remember they are literally downstream, and downwind, from any potential problem.
McClenaghan said the process, which won’t likely bring forward any recommendations before next spring, has proven to be substantially flawed.
“This process has not worked well, it is a very poor environmental assessment, particularly for the kind of proposal it is,” McClenaghan said. “It’s shockingly limited in terms of what it has looked at. Alternatives were not considered. Other sites were not considered. These are problems that can’t be ignored.”
Edwards, an expert in mathematics and physics, has spent the last 40 years criticizing nuclear power. He says the DGR debate has been shaped as a perception problem.
“The real problem is that the nuclear industry has told people for decades that nuclear power is safe, clean and cheap and that there is no problem with nuclear waste because they know what to do with it,” Edwards said. “It turns out this was a bluff; they really don’t know what to do with it. And that is the problem. They just don’t know.”
Gary Brown, a former Green Party of Ontario candidate, was also in attendance at the meeting. Brown said discussions around DGR are “extremely important” because the public needs to be educated around what is happening.
He also says the fight against the DGR has its hopeful moments as well.
“When you have people like Beverly, who had never been involved, never been an activist, when they are willing to step forward and take on the responsibility of basically a full-time job, you do have hope,” Brown said. “I think everybody recognizes the sacrifice that is being made by people and I think that gives us hope that maybe we can win another fight.”