News in Depth: Defering the Decision on Ontario’s Nuclear Waste Plans

Back in March, we examined Australia’s efforts to find a site for a new National Radioactive Waste Management Facility. In that report, we also highlighted efforts being made in Canada to find a suitable nuclear waste management site, known formally as the Deep Geologic Repository for Low and Intermediate Level Radioactive Waste (DGR). One of the favoured sites, as of May, was the Bruce nuclear plant in Kincardine, Ontario.

This week, we will explore the recent developments in the DGR project, the story of the Bruce site, and discuss what may come next in this country’s quest to solve our waste management problem.

The Study and Approval Process So Far

In May, a report by the Joint Review Panel of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) approved the Bruce site and recommended it to the federal environmental minister, Leona Aglukkaq, saying that the “project is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects.”

For background, the plan at the Bruce facility to build a repository deep beneath the site where “200,000 cubic metres of low and intermediate level waste from the Pickering, Darlington, and Bruce nuclear plants” could be stored indefinitely. The facility would be more than one kilometre from Lake Huron and over 680 metres underground. The Bruce site was selected after years of consultation and assessment undertaken by Ontario Power Generation (OPG). This project is part of a larger movement in Canada to find safe sites in which we can store used fuel.

In 2002, the Federal government established the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) to help guide this processIn 2011, Ken Nash, the current President and CEO of the NWMO, spoke with the National Post about the ethical motivations to finding suitable long term storage facilities that doesn’t simply leave materials above ground,

We can’t just leave it where it is, it’s up to this generation to look for something better and not pass on the burden…

The Bruce facility planned by the OPG is just such a solution, one that is designed to safely store materials for years to come. However, as the Toronto Star noted, over 152 communities in the US and Canada oppose the site. Local residents that live near the Bruce plant have also voiced concerns. Beverly Fernandez, of the Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump group, has been particularly vocal on the issue of potential contamination of drinking water. In a March report in the London Free Press, she is quoted saying that

There should be no deep geologic repository (DGR) for nuclear waste anywhere in the Great Lakes Basin… locating it beside the drinking water of 40 million people defies logic.

The CEAA report, however, found that the risk of drinking water contamination “would be extremely low relative to current radiation levels in Lake Huron and negligible relative to dose limits for the protection of the public.”

Site proponents and the CEAA report also argue that there are a number of key components to the Bruce site that make it a good choice, including the stability of the rock, the current safety and security infrastructure, and the presence of engineering and construction expertise at the facility.

When the report was released in May, the federal environmental minister was given till early September to make a final approval. However, with federal elections looming in the fall, the decision was recently made to extend that deadline into December.

The Future Challenges Facing the DGR Decision

Some critics argue that the delayed decision is a sign that the Bruce DGR’s future is in peril. Ms. Fernandez, cited earlier as a strong opponent to the plan, thinks that the deferral reflects the fact that “more and more Canadian are expressing deep concern and strong opposition.”

Meanwhile, another local citizen’s group, Save our Saugeen Shores, has filed an application to the Federal Courts for judicial review, asking that the CEAA’s decision to approve the site be set aside. They argue that the panel “failed to consider Canada’s international obligations, was biased and violated the Country’s environmental rules.” 

This recent court challenge, and the continuing public debate, suggests that in the run up to the federal environmental minister’s December decision, every effort must be made to exhaustively discuss both the practical and political, the global and local. This project, no matter where it is located, will have implications on people and the environment for centuries to come, it’s only right that we take our time over the coming months to discuss and dissect the plan piece by piece, so we can make the best decision we can. 

The deferment, as a result, should not be viewed as avoidance. If anything, it is a reflection of the noted complexity of the project. If anything, it gives parties more time to resolve open questions and to hopefully address concerns regarding transparency. These things take time, and more time we now have.


Update (June 29, 2015) – two corrections were made in the article relating to the management of the Bruce DGR project and the to the approval process by the Federal minister. I apologize for the errors and appreciate reader feedback.