Grey mountains of snow and rock-hard sand indicate it’ll still be a few weeks before the shores of Lake Huron’s Station Beach are warm enough to draw flocks of tourists to the quaint port town of Kincardine, Ontario. If you squint toward the north on the pebbly beach, past the lighthouse and boardwalks, you’ll be able to make out the Bruce Nuclear Generating Site a few miles up the road, letting out a steady stream of vapor from the depths of its nuclear reactors.
By this time next year, the plant’s parent company, Ontario Power Generation, hopes to break ground on construction of a 2,200-foot deep facility to house radioactive waste at the Bruce Site— less than half a mile from the shore. Plans for the mine-like structure, known as the Deep Geologic Repository, have been in the works for nearly a decade.
These plans have drawn bipartisan concern from citizens and politicians who fear that the proximity of the site to the shore could lead to an eventual leak of nuclear material into Lake Huron. According to a 2006 Center for Disease Control report, some nuclear waste can cause cancer or death within hours, and have a half-life of millions of years. In 1999, the Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office reported that a small release of nuclear fuel wastes at Yucca Mountain could cost over $650 million to clean up.
But Fred Kuntz, the Communications Manager for Ontario Power, says that what his company plans to store differs from the high-level waste stored in similar underground repositories in Germany and other European countries. “You could put a bucket of this stuff in front of you, and your skin would protect you from it,” he says. The company has sought construction of the new facility only for low-to-intermediate level nuclear waste, comprised of the incinerated remains of valves, clothing, and equipment that have been exposed to radiation.
Jim McLay, the Senior Geoscientist of Ontario Power’s Nuclear Waste Management Division, has overseen the company’s search for a suitable location to dig the repository. He believes that the area underneath the Bruce Site is nearly ideal. “Our geology here is very predictable,” McLay says. “We don’t have any major folds in the rocks, or faults, or fractures that would create pathways between the deep geosphere and the biosphere where we live.” His team has sent over 12,500 pages of reports to the Canadian federal government since the inception of the project.
Despite the research Ontario Power has conducted, as the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change draws nearer to the date by which it will either approve or deny the power company’s plans, citizens and politicians concerned that the facility’s proximity to Lake Huron might lead to an environmental disaster have begun ramping up their efforts to lobby the Canadian government to forbid construction.
A coalition of US congresspeople, including Michigan Senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, have urged President Trump and the Canadian Government to ask Ontario Power to find a new site. “Permanently burying nuclear waste close to the drinking water of nearly 40 million people is just too risky,” they stated in a joint letter released at the beginning of February.
Beverly Fernandez, a spokesperson for environmental action group Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Waste Dump, says that Ontario Power hasn’t taken the necessary steps to find a location that carries with it reduced risk of water contamination. “The province of Ontario is the size of France and Spain combined, and yet OPG continues to insist that this location less than a mile from the Great Lakes is the best site.”
186 local, county, and state governments in the US have signed resolutions that oppose the construction of the Geologic Repository. But the Municipality of Kincardine has elected four successive councils of representatives that have supported the facility, often voting to approve after hearings and panels that occur several times per two-year term.
Kincardine Mayor Anne Eadie says that though Ontario Power employs 4,000 people in the community, the municipality’s ultimate interests lie in protecting the environment. “Safety trumps everything else. We all live here. We drink the water out of the lake, and we love the recreation the lake affords us.” She recalls working on a farm as a child and visiting Lake Huron after a day of hard work. “It’s an emotional attachment,” she says.
The same environmental objective, protecting the Great Lakes, is echoed by both those in favor of and opposed to the Deep Geologic Repository project. In a statement released earlier this year, Michigan Senator Gary Peters said that the facility could “undermine the progress we have made in cleaning up the water quality in the Great Lakes basin.” In the conclusion of the joint congressional letter, the concerned politicians wrote “[The US and Canada] have long partnered to protect the Great Lakes.”
Hal Fitch, director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Oil, Minerals, and Gas Division, has been involved in peer review of Ontario Power’s research. In his opinion, the Geologic Repository is preferable to the current situation. “The waste [Ontario Power] is talking about is stored in secure containers, but it’s right near the surface, close to Lake Huron. If they’re gonna put it in the underground repository, they’re gonna get a lot better isolation than they have right now.”
Across the border, Kincardine locals have a similar take. Resident Eileen Dunn says, “It’s our waste, and it’s our responsibility to protect it.” Ontario Power’s Kuntz also sees the project as an environmental benefit, rather than a risk. “You know, I would not go work for the tobacco industry, I wouldn’t work for the mafia, I wouldn’t work for the Hell’s Angels. I’m not gonna do things I don’t believe in. I like to sleep at night.”
On April 5th, the Canadian Ministry of Environment and Climate Change announced that further research must be conducted in order to make an informed decision on the Deep Geologic Repository project, delaying the decision window, previously Fall 2017, by several months.