The public has had its final say on whether it’s a good idea in principle to bury half a century’s worth of nuclear waste at the Bruce nuclear plant on the shores of Lake Huron.
A federal panel wrapped up one last round of public hearings Thursday on Ontario Power Generation’s proposal for the waste site near Kincardine.
The panel will recommend to the federal government whether to approve the plan as environmentally acceptable, or not. The panel can attach conditions to their verdict.
But if the three panel members were hoping for consensus to emerge at the end, they were disappointed.
OPG and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission insist the plan is sound, and have solid backing from Kincardine town council and local business groups.
First nations, environmental groups and many nearby residents remain unconvinced that the case has been proven.
As the panel packs up from the hearings to deliberate, here’s how the matter stands.
OPG wants to bury 200,000 cubic metres of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste in a layer of limestone 680 metres deep.
The waste doesn’t include used fuel — the most potent form of waste. It does include a wide range of materials including used parts from reactor cores, which must be shielded from the environment for many thousands of years.
A confusing element in the hearings was OPG’s disclosure that in the future it wants to double the size of the underground facility, to hold waste from decommissioned and dismantled nuclear stations.
The panel called the latest hearings after former OPG scientist Frank Greening said that OPG had severely understated the amount and level of radioactive material destined for the site.
He also questioned whether zirconium – a metal used for tubing in reactor cores, and which will be present in the waste – could ignite and burn intensely.
In addition, two serious accidents occurred at an underground nuclear waste site in New Mexico known as WIPP, releasing a radiation cloud to the surface. It’s now closed indefinitely, possibly for up to three years.
Greening presented a scathing analysis of the project.
“OPG is not telling us the real reason for choosing this site, and that is to save the billions of dollars that would have to be spent in moving this pile of radioactive waste en masse to where it really belongs, and that is in a more remote and safer location,” he said.
He told the panel that OPG had mischaracterized the waste destined for the site because it chose to “skimp” on the cost of properly testing and analyzing it.
The safety case:
Greening’s critique sent OPG and the nuclear safety commission back to their calculators.
But officials who appeared before the committee said that while some of OPG’s original work was incorrect, the built-in safety margins mean that the site remains safe for workers and the public.
Radiation doses in the case of accidents would still be within acceptable levels, they said.
The recalculation “does not change CNSC staff's conclusion regarding the long-term safety of the project,” said the CNSC’s Richard Goulet.
As for the WIPP incident, OPG officials said that early stages of the investigation have found that the operation had a “degraded safety culture.” OPG’s safety culture, they said, is much more robust.
The Saugeen Ojibway Nations (SON)
OPG says it won’t proceed with the project over the objections of SON, on whose traditional territory the Bruce nuclear site lies.
The final word at the hearings from SON leaders was: You have not heard the last word from us.
Former chief Randall Kahgee – a lawyer who is now heading SON’s process for determining community support for the project – told the panel that the communities have formed a working group.
In addition to technical questions, the group will study the spiritual and cultural significance of the project and how it affects the people’s relationship with their territory, he said.
“That is going to be a very lengthy process,” he said.
SON lawyer Alex Monem said that OPG and the CNSC must show how they’ll learn from WIPP.
“Everyone understood WIPP as a well-designed project being carried out by a responsible proponent and overseen by a strong regulator,” he said.
The international impact
The project continued to attract attention from the U.S.
Thursday, Michigan Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow introduced resolution urging the U.S. administration to oppose the project. Stabenow also wrote directly to the Canadian government.
Earlier, Michigan state senator Phil Pavlov told the hearing that Canadian politicians including then-Manitoba Premier Howard Pawley and then-external affairs minister Joe Clark were publicly worried in 1986, when the U.S. considered putting a waste site near the Canadian border.
“We agree with the Canadian government of the 1980s that the permanent storage of nuclear waste has no place in the Great Lakes basin,” Pavlov said.
On-line petitions against the site in Canada and the U.S. have drawn thousands of signatures.