A federal review panel has given its stamp of approval to a controversial plan to bury nuclear waste on the shores of Lake Huron.
The three-member panel released its report Wednesday, saying the project "is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects" and is the "preferred solution" for isolating low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste.
The proposal, developed by power producer Ontario Power Generation, would see up to 200,000 cubic metres of radioactive waste placed the bottom of a deep shaft at Ontario's Bruce nuclear plant. The material to be stored at the site includes clothing and used parts, but not used fuel bundles. The "deep geological depository" (DSG) would be 680 metres below ground near the town of Kincardine.
The review panel, formed in January, 2012, by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, concluded its last round of public hearings on the issue last fall.
The location at the Bruce site makes sense, the panel said, because it would mean most waste would not have to be transported anywhere else, and the geology of the site is appropriate. There is no threat to the Great Lakes, it said, even though it is only 1.2 kilometres from Lake Huron.
And the panel said that the sooner the waste is isolated from the surface environment, where it is now stored, the better.
Opponents of the project called the recommendations "deeply disappointing."
The project's future is now in the hands of the federal government. If Ottawa gives the go-ahead, the commission will then have to decide whether to issue a licence. Even if approvals continue, it will likely be many years before any facility is built.
The review panel also concluded that there needs to be a detailed mitigation plan for the project to make sure there are no impacts on wildlife, water and air. And the operators would have to be prepared for "any malfunction or accident, not only in order to protect the health and safety of workers, the public and the environment, but also because no matter how small the consequences may be from a science point of view, such an event could negatively affect the public perception of the project," the 457-page report said.
While many critics in both Ontario and Michigan – including several state legislators – have condemned the plan, the Kincardine town council and some local businesses and labour groups have expressed their approval.
A group of independent experts group also concluded the site posed little threat of contamination to the lake, saying that moving the waste to a more remote location would increase the risk of accident during transportation or handling.
Environmental groups, First Nations and many local residents, on the other hand, say there is the possibility of contamination of the Great Lakes. One of the most vocal opponents is a group called Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump, which mounted an intense lobbying and media campaign to raise opposition. Spokesperson Beverly Fernandez condemned the review panel's recommendation Wednesday, saying "it will affect the Great Lakes for the next 100,000 years." It is a mistake, she said, to bury and abandon radioactive nuclear waste "beside the largest supply of drinking water on the planet."
Several U.S. politicians have also publicly denounced the project, saying that Americans would be affected if leaks contaminate the Great Lakes. They noted that the lakes currently provide drinking water for 40 million people. Some Michigan legislators have asked the U.S. State department to intervene in the case.
OPG has said it will not build the facility until it gets approval from the Saugeen First Nation, whose traditional territory is in the area. That support has not yet been negotiated.
The Kincardine site would not be used for high-level nuclear waste – the fuel rods from reactors which remain radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. Another federal organization, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization, is considering locations to store that material.