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The Ontario Power Generation's Darlington Nuclear facility near Oshawa, Ont., on April 6, 2011.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The Municipality of South Bruce, an aggregation of predominantly agricultural communities south of Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula, must soon decide whether to accept spent nuclear fuel that will shape its future for centuries.

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) has almost finished a decades-long search for an “informed and willing host” for an underground disposal site known as a deep geological repository (DGR). It will choose between two final candidates – South Bruce and Ignace, in Northwestern Ontario – in 2023, said Mahrez Ben Belfadhel, the vice-president of site selection.

If either community wants it, that is.

Story continues below advertisement

SOUTH BRUCE IS CLOSER THAN IGNACE TO

CANADA’S MAJOR NUCLEAR WASTE SITES

Existing temporary waste storage locations

Candidate sites for proposed deep

geological repository

Man.

Whiteshell

Ont.

Que.

Ignace

Chalk River

Gentilly

N.B.

Pickering

Bruce

Power

Darlington

U.S.

Point

Lepreau

0

350

South Bruce

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN;

OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; NUCLEAR WASTE

MANAGEMENT ORGANIZATION

SOUTH BRUCE IS CLOSER THAN IGNACE

TO CANADA’S MAJOR NUCLEAR WASTE SITES

Existing temporary waste storage locations

Candidate sites for proposed deep geological repository

Man.

Whiteshell

Ont.

Que.

Ignace

Chalk River

Gentilly

N.B.

Pickering

Point

Lepreau

Bruce

Power

Darlington

U.S.

0

350

South Bruce

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN;

OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; NUCLEAR WASTE

MANAGEMENT ORGANIZATION

SOUTH BRUCE IS CLOSER THAN IGNACE TO CANADA’S MAJOR NUCLEAR WASTE SITES

Existing temporary waste storage locations

Candidate sites for proposed deep geological repository

Ignace

Man.

Ont.

Que.

Whiteshell

N.B.

N.Dak.

Minn.

Gentilly

Chalk River

Point

Lepreau

Maine

Bruce

Power

Pickering

S.Dak.

Wisc.

Mich.

Darlington

South Bruce

N.Y.

Iowa

Neb.

0

350

Penn.

Ind.

Ohio

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS

Spent fuel will remain radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. Such an extended period might witness the demise of Canada, Western civilization, possibly even humanity itself. Future civilizations unacquainted with either of the country’s official languages would have to be warned to keep out. A classic 1993 study for the U.S. government suggested erecting ominous monuments such as a “landscape of thorns” or “menacing earthworks.”

South Bruce hasn’t yet revealed how consent will be determined. Public opinion polls show starkly different levels of support. Supporters and opponents accuse each other of spreading misinformation. The NWMO must also convince a First Nation that resoundingly rejected another DGR just last year.

The industry began discussing permanent waste disposal in the 1970s but made limited progress. Now it hopes to build the next generation of nuclear power plants, called small modular reactors (SMRs), that will produce new forms of waste. Failing to establish a DGR could hamstring SMRs against other power generation options such as wind and solar; they will “carry the stigma and perceived risks associated with traditional nuclear” until a solution is found, business law firm Stikeman Elliott argued in a recent commentary.

The hardest sell

By last summer, Canada’s nuclear power plants and research facilities had accumulated three million spent nuclear fuel bundles weighing a combined 58,200 tonnes, enough to fill eight hockey rinks to the boards. They are stored temporarily in pools and dry containers. That inventory could double by the time the last of Canada’s aging CANDU reactors is decommissioned.

The industry wants to bury the waste in tunnels half a kilometre underground, beneath geological formations capable of isolating it from the environment above. Hundreds of truckloads of bundles would arrive annually for repackaging at an above-ground facility, placed in copper-coated steel containers, then encased in clay. Once closed, the DGR would require no human intervention. The whole process might take 150 years and cost $23-billion.

Countries such as Finland, Sweden, France and the United States plan to construct their own DGRs. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published a report last year praising the concept; more than half a century of research had produced strong evidence of a “scientific consensus” that DGRs are the best solution for spent fuel, it said.

Jim Gowland is the chair of the South Bruce Community Liaison Committee, an NWMO-funded body of nine volunteers. His job is to identify the information community members need to make an informed choice – and make sure they get it.

Story continues below advertisement

Safety, he says, is the primary concern. Farmers needs assurances that radiation won’t contaminate their crops or milk and that land values won’t crash. Some residents, meanwhile, worry the DGR might contaminate the Teeswater River or local groundwater.

A final resting place for Canada’s

spent nuclear fuel

A deep geological repository isolates radioactive, spent

nuclear fuel in underground rock chambers. The surface

facilities would be removed, and the DGR sealed,

a century or more after operations begin.

Fuel bundle

Used fuel container

500m

Bentonite

clay

1. Surface facilities

2. Main shaft

complex

Rock

3. Placement

rooms

4. Ventilation

exhaust shaft

THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: nwmo

A final resting place for Canada’s

spent nuclear fuel

A deep geological repository isolates radioactive, spent

nuclear fuel in underground rock chambers. The surface

facilities would be removed, and the DGR sealed,

a century or more after operations begin.

Fuel bundle

Used fuel container

500m

Bentonite

clay

1. Surface facilities

2. Main shaft

complex

Rock

3. Placement

rooms

4. Ventilation

exhaust shaft

THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: nwmo

A final resting place for Canada's spent nuclear fuel

A deep geological repository isolates radioactive, spent nuclear fuel in underground

rock chambers. The surface facilities would be removed, and the DGR sealed,

a century or more after operations begin.

Fuel

bundle

Used fuel

container

500m

Bentonite

clay

1. Surface facilities

2. Main shaft complex

3. Placement rooms

Rock

4. Ventilation exhaust

shaft

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: nwmo

Protect Our Waterways – No Nuclear Waste, a local opposition group, formed last year after news broke that the NWMO had secured land north of the small town of Teeswater. It alleges Mr. Gowland’s committee has both feet in the NWMO’s camp.

“Out of all their meetings in the past eight years, they’ve only brought in one speaker who talked about the risks and dangers of this proposal,” said group president Michelle Stein. “Everybody else has been from the NWMO – and in favour.”

The dissenting speaker was anti-nuclear activist Gordon Edwards. During a presentation last fall, he portrayed the NWMO as a “branch plant” of Ontario Power Generation (owner of the province’s three nuclear power plants) that glosses over negative implications.

“They’re salesmen, basically,” he said.

Story continues below advertisement

With 300 spent fuel bundles arriving daily, Dr. Edwards warned, it would take decades to repackage them using robotic arms in hot cells, which are specialized compartments for handling radioactive materials.

“In all that time, there’s bound to be accidents,” he said. “There’s bound to be releases.”

Kevin Kamps, a nuclear-waste specialist with Beyond Nuclear, an anti-nuclear group, told Protect Our Waterways during his own presentation that, owing to nuclear stigma, property values near the DGR and transportation routes would likely fall even without accidents – and even before construction begins.

In the United States, he alleged, DGR proponents target Native American reservations and small, low-income communities, offering charitable donations and other inducements.

“When they don’t get away with it in one place, they set up shop in another,” he said.

Mr. Edwards advocates “rolling stewardship,” which would see spent fuel monitored for many generations to come and kept where it can easily be retrieved in case of contamination.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Belfadhel said Canadians benefitting from nuclear energy today should not leave the burden of dealing with its radioactive waste to future generations.

“The method we have today, storage at the surface, requires ongoing maintenance,” he said. “The lifetime of the containers that are used today is between 50 to 100 years.

“As a society, we cannot guarantee that we will have the means, or the stability, to take care of those facilities in perpetuity.”

Another man’s gold

“South Bruce is on a downturn,” noted a brochure distributed by the municipality in December. “It has not happened overnight, but slowly, and steadily we are on a decline.” It portrayed the DGR as an antidote to vanishing farming jobs, vacant shops and a declining, aging population.

“A project of this size is likely to never knock on our door again, and the least we can do is give it fair and honest consideration,” residents Dan and Sheila Whytock wrote in a recent letter to council.

The NWMO has a significant budget – it has earmarked $2.8-billion for site selection alone – and the municipality has already had a foretaste of its bounty. In June, 2020, the NWMO agreed to pay the municipality more than $1.4-million a year for three years to cover related expenses. There’s also an “annual community benefit payment” of $300,000. The NWMO has funded playgrounds, community centre renovations, well upgrades, food banks – even an equestrian club.

Story continues below advertisement

“They have just about touched every organization inside South Bruce by giving them some level of money,” said Bill Noll, vice-president of Protect Our Waterways.

Chris Peabody, elected mayor of nearby Brockton in 2018, opposed DGRs in Bruce County as a councillor for almost two decades. Years ago, when Brockton participated in the site-selection process, it received cash payments from the NWMO for soccer fields and baseball diamonds.

“That money was very useful, especially in a small town where the tax base is very low,” he said.

Last fall, South Bruce published a resolution outlining the price of its continued co-operation. Along with numerous studies of the DGR’s safety and environmental impact, it demands a program to compensate property owners should their land lose value, as well as campaigns to promote local agriculture and tourism. It wants scholarships to dissuade young people from moving away. And it expects most NWMO employees to relocate to South Bruce.

Consent

Protect Our Waterways has demanded a referendum requiring a two-thirds majority for the DGR to be approved. The municipality’s lawyer, Patrick Duffy of Stikeman Elliott, responded by pointing out that any referendum must comply with Ontario’s Municipal Elections Act, which states that referendums are binding when more than 50 per cent of the votes are in favour. The local council hasn’t decided on a method to determine community consent, he added, but it’s working on that with a consultant.

Rejection is hardly an abstract possibility – it happened to Ontario Power Generation just last year.

Story continues below advertisement

OPG had planned to build a DGR below the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station, on the shore of Lake Huron, to house low- and intermediate-level waste such as floor sweepings, mop heads and reactor components. In 2013, it announced its plan wouldn’t proceed without support from Saugeen Ojibway Nation (SON), on whose traditional territory the nuclear plant is located.

Trouble was, SON had a difficult relationship with OPG, in part because nobody had consulted its members before building the plant. Their referendum was decisive: An overwhelming majority (86 per cent) voted last year against OPG’s DGR.

The South Bruce site is also within SON’s territory. At least two Bruce County mayors (Mr. Peabody being one of them) say the NWMO should consult with the First Nation pronto.

The band council did not respond to inquiries from The Globe and Mail. But in a 2012 letter, Chief Scott Lee and Chief Randall Kahgee were firm.

“SON is not prepared even to have our Territory considered for the used nuclear fuel repository,” they wrote. “For this reason, SON will oppose any continuing work by NWMO.”

Asked about the NWMO’s ‘Plan B’ should neither site pan out, Mr. Belfadhel didn’t offer one. Rather, he pointed to the organization’s ongoing efforts to educate residents.

“We are confident that we will be successful,” he said.

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