Walkom: Lake Huron still preferred nuclear waste site for OPG

Credit Ontario Power Generation for this: When it comes to choosing a place to store nuclear waste, the crown corporation is consistent.

It wants to bury the stuff beside Lake Huron. Period.

And no matter how many times federal regulators ask it to seriously examine other locations, OPG respectfully rags the puck.

It makes a cursory examination and then stubbornly comes back with the same answer: Lake Huron.

It did it again this week.

The Lake Huron saga has been going on since 2005. Ontario’s nuclear generating plants produce radioactive waste that is now stored above ground. OPG was charged with finding a place to bury some of it.

The utility started small, searching for a spot to bury the most innocuous low and intermediate-level radioactive waste – such as contaminated rubber gloves.

OPG ultimately settled on Kincardine, a municipality on the Lake Huron shoreline that already hosts Bruce Power’s nuclear plant.

Many parts of the province might resist a nuclear waste dump. But to a fair number of people in the Kincardine area, nuclear means jobs.

That’s why OPG was able to win the most elusive requirement for its proposed dump – the approval of local municipal politicians.

The utility was also able to argue convincingly that, barring an earthquake or some other unanticipated event, the geology of the region is ideal for containing radioactive waste.

Sure, the proposed 680-metre deep crypt would only be 1.2 kilometres from Lake Huron – a fact which has alarmed communities on the American side as well as many Ontarians who depend on the Great Lakes for drinking water. But OPG was adamant that the waste wouldn’t leak.

Somewhere along the line, the utility announced that it wanted to double the size of the dump. It also said it planned to store dismantled reactor parts there, some of which would remain radioactive for more than 100,000 years.

None of the highly radioactive fuel rods from Ontario’s nuclear generating plants would be stored in this particular crypt. A separate federal agency is looking for somewhere to bury these items.

In May 2015, after two years of hearings and deliberations, a federal environmental assessment panel conditionally approved the OPG project. But with an election in the offing, Canada’s then Conservative government put off any final decision.

With opposition to the dump raging up and down the Lake Huron shoreline, the proposal was just too controversial.

In early 2016, Catherine McKenna, the new Liberal environment minister, announced that she wasn’t entirely satisfied with the Lake Huron choice. OPG was ordered to investigate other potential locations.

The utility took almost a year to come up with a strikingly inadequate report that made no effort to identify specific alternative sites.

It said while the waste could, in theory, be buried somewhere else in the province, Lake Huron’s shoreline was still the best choice.

Since no other specific sites were investigated, it is hard to see how the utility came to that conclusion. But it did.

It is, however, easy to understand OPG’s frustration. The utility has been at this game for years. It even found a willing municipal host – no easy task.

Still, McKenna’s environmental assessment agency was unimpressed. It told OPG its report was far too vague and ordered it to provide more information.

Which it did this week.

The latest report still doesn’t identify specific alternate sites. But as an OPG spokesperson told my colleague Jennifer Wells last year, it wasn’t asked to look at “sites,” only at “locations.”

In OPG lingo, “locations” are different from “sites.” Specifically, a “site” is a location with a willing municipal host. And right now, the only Ontario municipal politicians willing to bury nuclear waste are those in the Kincardine area.

This week’s report says all that is needed to seal the deal is the support of local First Nations.

In short, we have gone around the circle again. OPG is unwilling to look at alternate radioactive dump sites because it has already found one. McKenna can keep asking but all she will get are the same non-answers.

It is a classic standoff between a first-term minister and a canny bureaucracy. We shall see who blinks first.

Thomas Walkom is a national affairs writer.

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