Plans to bury nuclear waste near Lake Huron face binational opposition

The Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station was supposed to return to service before three other Candu reactors. Instead, it will now finish behind two Ontario reactors and a Korean reactor. (CBC)

It may be a case of 'NIMBYism,' but you can hardly blame people in Sarnia, Ont., for their hesitation at the prospect of hosting a new site for nuclear waste, however benign the proposal sounds.

The backyard in this case includes not just Sarnia but the state of Michigan, whose politicians have also raised concerns about the proposal by Ontario Power Generation to bury low-level waste from the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station on the shore of Lake Huron.

CBC News reports the plan calls for the waste, which includes things like workers' protective clothing, mops and towels used to clean up spills of contaminated water, to be sunk into a "deep geologic repository" 680 metres deep in "stable rock formations" that are more than 450 million years old.

The site in Kincardine, Ont., would be about 1.6 kilometres (one mile) from the lake.

Not good enough, says Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley.

"You know, the reality is that this material is being stored at that site now above ground," Bradley told CBC News. "But the concern is, do we really want to take the risk of putting it in a hole in the ground, so close to Lake Huron?"

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Michigan state senators also passed a resolution last week voicing their concern about the dump site and proposing the comment period for the project be extended, the Toronto Star reported last week.

The resolution points out the site is upstream from the main drinking water intakes for southeast Michigan.

The resolution noted Michigan regulations prohibit low-level nuclear waste from being stored within 10 miles (16 kilometres) of lakes and rivers in the Great Lakes system.

"We encourage Canada to consider similar siting criteria," the resolution says, according to the Star.

Ontario Power spokesman Neal Kelley, who called the Michigan resolution "benign," said the company has met with Michigan officials and members of the public to explain its rationale behind picking the site.

“We based it on international best practice, we based it on scientific data,” Kelly said. “The (site) isn’t located on the shore of Lake Huron; it’s about a kilometre inland.”

Sarnia's mayor is encouraged by the Michigan senators' resolution.

“This helps," he told the Sarnia Observer. "We need more time for debate."

The low-level waste, as well as spent nuclear fuel rods, have been stored on the surface of the Bruce site for years.

Kincardine volunteered to host the site but a number of local residents now say they're concerned.

Regulators have received up to a thousand submissions in response to the environmental-impact statement and other document supporting Ontario Power's application in advance of a public hearing later this year, the Observer said.

The group Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump has been opposing the project for six months and recently bought a billboard on Toronto's Gardiner Expressway to make its point, CBC News said.

"Burying radioactive nuclear waste beside the Great Lakes — 21 per cent of the world's surface fresh water, and the supply of fresh drinking water for 40 million people in two countries — defies common sense," Beverly Fernandez told CBC News.

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The dispute over the nuclear-waste site may draw in national governments. Michigan's legislators are calling on the U.S. Congress to press the state's case.

“Lake Huron and the Great Lakes are some of Michigan's most vital natural resources, containing 95 per cent of North America’s surface fresh water and providing drinking water to tens of millions of people,” state Sen. Yung Hopgood, who introduced the resolution, said in a statement, according to CBC News.

“This type of nuclear waste repository, planned within water-soluble limestone, is unprecedented and could present a danger to our lakes and our environment.”