A Trip to Kincardine:
Concerns over the storage of Ontario’s nuclear waste
By Eric Stark
On Thursday, September 26 of this year, I travelled to Kincardine with Robert Spencer, general manager of the Bluffs Advocate and treasurer of the Beaches Renewable Energy Cooperative. Robert was scheduled to speak before the Joint Review Panel reviewing the application by Ontario Power Generation (OPG) to dig a 680-metre-long shaft with accompanying underground cavern, otherwise known as a deep geologic repository (DGR), less than mile from the bottom of Lake Huron, in order to store Ontario’s growing stockpile of nuclear waste. Currently this proposal is being considered only for intermediate and low-level nuclear waste—objects contaminated with radioactivity including old parts from refurbished reactors, not the high-level spent fuel reactor cores. Where the high-level radioactive waste will go is still an open question, likely to stir up much controversy in the future. In fact the current proposal is controversial enough, especially given the site’s proximity to Lake Huron—part of the Great Lakes system that provides millions of residents of Canada and the United States with their drinking water. The proposal, if implemented, would cost in excess of a billion dollars—and more if unforeseen problems arise.
OPG makes the claim on its website that “the solid rock formations around the DGR will limit the movement of radioactivity to extremely slow rates.” The so-called “solid rock formations” referred to are the shale and limestone strata the cavern will be hollowed out in. The limestone in this area is known as Lindsay Limestone. As Mr. Spencer pointed out in his presentation to the review panel, Lindsay Limestone has a number of unique aspects:
“Firstly, carbonates and anhydrite in the Lindsay Limestone may be susceptible to dissolution and can therefore be responsible for the development of cavities within the rock mass. Furthermore, the reaction between anhydrite and water to form gypsum will result in an expansion that may open cracks. Also, the thin shaley limestone inter-beds and black shale partings may exhibit swelling or time-dependent volume increase involving physico-chemical reactions with water.” [Quoted from a thesis by McGill University student Luc Jenner, which refers back to a report by R.S. Read published by the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) TR-2008-16.]
But surely OPG used sound scientific methodology to evaluate the safety of its proposal? Not according to Peter Duinker, professor of resource and environmental studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, and an expert in environmental impact assessment. Dr Duinker found that OPG’s environmental impact statement has “significant flaws of approach and method,” the work was “not credible,” the methods used “not defensible” and the conclusions “not reliable.” [Steven Goetz, Kincardine News Oct 4, 2013]
Hydrogeologist, Wilf Ruland has further concerns, labeling the Information Request process as “dysfunctional” and “a major impediment to obtaining the necessary information to properly review and understand the DGR proposal.” In his submission to the Joint Review Panel he claims that “carefully formulated questions that we submitted were modified by the Panel before being submitted to the proponent [OPG] … so that the proponent’s responses were of no benefit in addressing our original questions.”
Ruland notes that the pressure conditions under the DGR “may be sufficient to push groundwater and DGR-related contaminants up to the ground surface…” Improperly sealed boreholes of undocumented oil exploration wells could provide effective pathways for contaminated groundwater to flow, and the sealing of the main shaft and ventilation shaft after operations are completed is not likely to guarantee the prevention of vertical groundwater flow. And if the upper groundwater is contaminated, it will flow towards Lake Huron—only about a kilometre away from the main shaft.
So the obvious question arises: was the OPG-proposed DGR site chosen on the basis of scientific merit, or because it is conveniently located on the Bruce Power property, surrounded by “willing host” municipalities? It’s not surprising these municipalities support the DGR, as the Bruce nuclear generating station, currently the largest in the world, provides them with their major source of revenue as well as well-paying local employment opportunities. However, the relationship between the municipalities and the nuclear industry is just a little too cozy for some.
The appointment of the 3-member Joint Review Panel was announced in January 2012 by federal Minister of the Environment, Peter Kent and Michael Binder, President of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC). Questions about the impartiality of the review panel process were examined in an article by Shawn McCarthy, published in the Globe & Mail on September 23. The article quotes Rod McLeod, a former deputy minister of the environment and deputy solicitor-general in Ontario: “CNSC president Michael Binder has fundamentally undermined the process by meeting with OPG and local mayors in 2009 and speaking in support of the project.” Notes taken at that meeting indicate that Dr. Binder warned about growing opposition to the project. “You haven’t seen anything yet,” he exclaimed. And as he left, he said he hoped their next meeting “would be at a ribbon-cutting ceremony” for the DGR.
Retired lawyer and Saugeen Shores resident John Mann concludes that “because of Dr. Binder’s biased comments in support of the DGR, Dr. Binder and CNSC have proven to be strong advocates for OPG in this process that requires independence, neutrality, and impartiality, without bias. A reasonable person would find Dr. Binder and CNSC have failed in their roles as Canada’s independent regulator watchdog.”
McCarthy’s article further notes that “Opponents of the project accused the mayors in the local communities of jumping into bed with OPG several years ago when they signed community benefit agreements that provide $35-million over 30 years to municipal coffers in lieu of taxes, on the condition of their support for the DGR.” Since then, OPG and the federal Nuclear Waste Management Organization have met regularly with the mayors in closed-door sessions. Mr. McLeod criticized those meetings as “secret and illegal” because they did not provide public notice or keep minutes. A powerful array of corporate interests is deeply involved in the nuclear industry, from uranium mining and processing, nuclear engineering, construction, and component manufacturing to plant operations and waste management—companies like uranium mining giant Cameco, and pipeline company TransCanada, each of which owns close to a third of Bruce Power, engineering giant SNC-Lavalin, and manufacturer GE-Hitachi, which also owns the uranium processing plant in Toronto. (One should note that should there be a catastrophic nuclear accident, all these companies are heavily protected with limited liability.) And then there are the entrenched bureaucracies in government agencies like OPG and the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO). The Canadian Nuclear Association lists over a hundred companies and organizations on its website, each with a stake in Canada’s nuclear power sector. All these interests are stacked against a disparate alliance of concerned local residents, cottage owners, First Nations groups, mayors and councillors in municipalities in the Great Lakes basin outside of the Kincardine area, along with numerous environmental organizations and anti-nuclear activists on both sides of the border. The two U.S. senators from Michigan have also voiced their concerns, calling on Secretary of State John Kerry to refer the matter to the International Joint Commission.
Deep Geological Repositories have caused problems everywhere they have been implemented. Probably the most notable example is in Germany, where the Asse salt mine was used since 1967 to store low and medium-level nuclear waste. Scientists assured the public there would be no danger of water or brine leaks. However, since 1988 there has been a continuous unstoppable flow of brine solution into the site. In 2008 it was discovered that the brine was contaminated with tritium and radioactive cesium for some 20 years. The whole region around the mine is now under threat of groundwater contamination. The technically challenging operation to remove the 126,000 rusting drums of nuclear waste from a mine in danger of collapse will cost the German government upwards of 5 billion dollars and take at least 30 years to complete. This fiasco certainly contributed to Germany’s decision to phase out all nuclear operations in the country.
Transporting nuclear waste is also an area of concern. The federal government is currently looking for a second DGR site to store the high-level waste from all the nuclear reactors in Canada. This would translate into more shipments of hazardous radioactive materials across our roadways and an increased likelihood of a serious accident that could contaminate land and waterways along the way. Recently Montréal’s city council unanimously passed a resolution “protesting the planned transport of 23,000 litres of highly toxic radioactive waste from Chalk River, Ont. to a site in South Carolina, 2,000 kilometres south by transport truck” as reported by Rene Bruemmer in the Montreal Gazette on August 26. “Considering that just one spilled shipment would contain enough toxin to poison the drinking supply of an entire city, executive committee chair Josée Duplessis said Montréal was in favour of joining the more than 100 Québec municipalities that have already signed declarations protesting the plan.”
Angela Bischoff, speaking on behalf of the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace at the Joint Panel Review hearings called for an alternative approach that would minimize the need to transport nuclear waste. Hardened On-Site Storage (HOSS) involves surrounding dry-cask nuclear waste containers in reinforced concrete and steel structures, and further protecting them by mounds of concrete, steel and gravel. Each of these mounds would be spread apart by about 60 to 70 feet—much farther apart than is currently done. This ought to provide a reasonable amount of security from a terrorist attack while keeping the waste on-site to prevent the vulnerability it would have during transport.
Cooling pools for spent fuel rods are another concern. David Lochbaum, director of nuclear safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, has noted that spent fuel pools are among the most vulnerable spots at a nuclear plant. Spent fuel rods need to be stored in these pools for about 7 to 10 years before they can be put into dry-cask storage. If somehow the water were drained from such a pool and the fuel rods caught fire, the disaster would have worldwide implications.
So does it make sense to continue with such a risky form of energy production? Wouldn’t the easiest solution to the problem of nuclear waste be to stop producing it in the first place?