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Nuclear agency aims to ease safety fears over waste site near Lake Huron

Scott Berry from Ontario Power Generation stands beside “in-ground” structures for storing intermediate level nuclear waste.


Officials at Canada's nuclear regulatory agency have sought to reassure the public about the safety of Ontario Power Generation's plan to bury nuclear waste near the Great Lakes, which has sparked growing opposition on both sides of the border.

A federal review panel is wrapping up this week its hearings into OPG's contentious plan to construct a deep disposal site less than a kilometre from Lake Huron, a plan that is widely supported by local municipal officials but has provoked vehement opposition from some residents.

It has also raised concerns in Michigan, where several politicians, including the state's two senators in Washington, are urging Secretary of State John Kerry to assert U.S. interests in the issue and refer the proposal to the International Joint Commission, a binational body that protects joint waterways.

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In a hearing in Saugeen Shores, Ont., on Monday, staff from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission told a three-person review panel that the provincially owned utility has clearly demonstrated the safety of the deep geological repository (DGR), in which OPG would bury 200,000 cubic metres of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste about 680 metres underground. While 80 per cent of the material would be relatively benign, low-level waste, up to 20 per cent would have dangerous levels of radioactivity that would persist for thousands of years.

"The DGR is a suitable site and has a design that provides adequate protection of workers, the public and the environment," CNSC's director-general Peter Elder said during the webcasted hearing.

He said the CNSC would verify that OPG meets all licence conditions and commitments during the building phase. The utility would have to obtain a new licence to begin operation, or to expand the site or raise the volume of intermediate-level waste above 20 per cent.

Beverly Fernandez, founder of the Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump coalition, said neither the CNSC nor OPG can offer guarantees that radioactive waste won't leak into the nearby lake, especially given the long time span involved. She said the review panel has refused to consider new information that has arisen since the hearings started in mid-September, including a report from one geologist that questions OPG's safety assumptions.

Several municipalities in southwestern Ontario, including London, Sarnia and Essex County, have passed resolutions opposing the project.

Last week, Michigan's U.S. Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow wrote to Mr. Kerry urging him lobby the Canadian government to block the plan, and to refer it to the binational body. However, a spokesman for the IJC said Monday that both governments would have to refer the matter for the commission to review it.

State Senator Hoon-Yung Hopgood – who appeared before at the hearings this month – said Monday that he remains hopeful the panel will take into account opposition in his state, where the senate passed a motion opposing it. He said Canada appears to be violating the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, which requires proper notification for issues that may affect the health of the Great Lakes.

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