Canada might put its most dangerous nuclear wastes on shores of Lake Huron

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Canada has narrowed to two communities its list of potential hosts for a permanent national repository for its most radioactive waste — spent fuel from nuclear power generation. And one of those two finalists is on the shores of Lake Huron.

If chosen, Huron-Kinloss/South Bruce, in Bruce County, Ontario, could host a large repository, 1,650 feet or more underground, to which the entire nation's spent nuclear fuel supply would be transported and stored, essentially forever.

"This is the worst of the worst" waste, said Kevin Kamps, radioactive waste specialist with the nonprofit Beyond Nuclear, based in Tacoma Park, Maryland.

"It’s highly radioactive irradiated nuclear fuel. It is dangerous forever."

For perspective, as the U.S. considered a similar underground repository for its spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain, Nevada — a proposal that has since stalled amid backlash from Nevadans — a federal Court of Appeals in 2004 ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to develop standards to protect people and the environment from the site's radiation for up to one million years.

Canada has an inventory of almost 2.9 million used nuclear fuel bundles currently stored above-ground in wet pools and dry containers at the nuclear plant sites where the waste is generated. That's about 128 million pounds of highly radioactive material, a number that is growing.

The site along Lake Huron is in the same county where another underground storage facility — this one for low-to-intermediate-level radioactive waste from Ontario's 19 nuclear reactors — was proposed. That plan, still under consideration, generated loud opposition throughout the Great Lakes Basin beginning about five years ago, especially in Michigan.

Michigan's Democratic U.S. senators, who were among those urging a halt to the lower-radiation waste storage on the Great Lakes, expressed alarm that Canada is now considering putting its most dangerous nuclear wastes along the Great Lakes as well.

“This makes no sense," U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow said. 

"Canada has as much at stake as we do in protecting our Great Lakes. There is no justification for a nuclear waste site so close to Lake Huron to even be under consideration."

Stabenow said she would reach out to the Canadian government regarding the issue.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters noted that the Great Lakes provide drinking water to 40 million people on both the U.S. and Canadian sides.

"That’s why we need to do everything we can to protect the Great Lakes for future generations," he said. "I am extremely concerned about the possibility of hazardous nuclear waste being stored near the Great Lakes. Any accident could have catastrophic and long-term consequences to the health and well-being of Michigan and the country. I urge the Nuclear Waste Management Organization in Canada to reconsider naming a finalist location so close to the Great Lakes.”

The finalist decision was made by the Nuclear Waste Management Organization, which consists of the nation's generators of nuclear power and its wastes: Ontario Power Generation, New Brunswick Power Corp. and Hydro-Québec. Under an act of Canada's parliament in 2002, the organization is tasked with designing and implementing Canada's plan for the safe, long-term management of used nuclear fuel.

The idea for a "deep geologic repository" — an underground storage facility far below the surface and even groundwater — emerged during a process of engaging citizens throughout Canada, said Ben Belfadhel, vice-president of site selection at NWMO.

"It is the safest method we have today to ensure the safe, long-term management of used nuclear fuel," he said. "It is a method that's being pursued by all countries around the world with nuclear programs."