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Northern communities look to cash in on nuclear waste

When the Municipality of Wawa first decided to explore the possibility of hosting the country's nuclear waste, a group of citizens had what Mayor Linda Nowicki calls an “immediate knee-jerk response.
Wawa, located about seven hours away from Greater Sudbury and memorable for its giant Canada goose statue, is one of the communities looking into hosting a deep geological repository for the country's nuclear waste. Supplied photo.
When the Municipality of Wawa first decided to explore the possibility of hosting the country's nuclear waste, a group of citizens had what Mayor Linda Nowicki calls an “immediate knee-jerk response.”

“I think they had an 800-signature petition,” she said. “But a lot of the signatures were from people out of town and from children. It wasn't really an appropriate petition, but we're taking it into consideration.”

Wawa, located about seven hours away from Greater Sudbury, on the shores of Lake Superior, is one of several communities being courted by the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) as a potential site for its project deep beneath the earth.

In 2010, the NWMO began searching for a community where it can build what's known as a “deep geological repository,” where nuclear waste can be buried deep beneath the ground.

The organization only works with communities interested in potentially hosting the facility – it doesn't approach any communities itself. The process to find a suitable project site is expected to take about eight years.

The NWMO is planning to suspend the expressions of interest phase of the project on Sept. 30 of this year, meaning new communities would no longer be eligible to participate in the project.

Given the consultations, regulatory approvals and construction time lines, the NWMO estimates the earliest this facility will be in place is 2035.

For Nowicki, it's worth it for Wawa to consider the idea hosting the deep geological repository, given the potential economic benefits down the road.

By the mayor's own admission, the town's economy isn't doing well, with the mining, forestry and tourism industries taking a hit in recent years.

“The project has the potential to bring great economic return in the long term,” Nowicki said. “I view it as a business opportunity and an economic development opportunity.”

At the same time, citizens have a responsibility to come up with a long-term solution for the country's nuclear waste, she said.

“Every one of us in this country is benefitting from the production of electricity from the nuclear reactors,” Nowicki said. “We all have a moral responsibility to deal with that waste for future generations.”

Wawa isn't the only northern Ontario community which has expressed interest.

Elliot Lake, Blind River, Spanish and the North Shore, along with Nipigon and White River in northwestern Ontario, are at step two of the site selection process, meaning they're learning more and undergoing initial screenings.

Saugeen Shores, Brockton, Huron-Kinloss and South Bruce are also at step two.

Wawa is one step ahead – at step three - of the site selection process, meaning it's undergoing preliminary assessments.

Ear Falls, Ignace, Schreiber and Hornepayne in northwestern Ontario, along with English River First Nation, Pinehouse and Creighton in Saskatchewan, are also at this step.

The potential environmental concerns associated with the project don't phase Nowicki.

“For the long term, the way they plan to store it, it would supposedly withstand the next ice age,” she said.

In terms of the transportation of the material, Nowicki said she's satisfied the containers are robust and there's very little chance of environmental contamination.

The idea to sign up the North Shore region communities for the NWMO process originally came from the area's economic development agency, according to Brent St. Denis, CAO of the Town of Spanish.

The municipalities of Elliot Lake, Blind River, Spanish and the North Shore, all located roughly two hours west of Sudbury, originally wanted to participate in the NWMO process together.

However, the NWMO has since told them they'll have to go through the process individually.

Community leaders in the region are interested in the potential economic development the project could bring, St. Denis said.

He said he personally hasn't heard from any residents concerned about the impact the project could have on the environment.

Perhaps that's because people in the North Shore region are more comfortable with the idea of the nuclear industry, as uranium used to be mined in Elliot Lake, and the material is still refined in Blind River, St. Denis said.

“The original uranium came from here, right?” he said. “We're not desperate or anything, but I think the attitude is if it came from here, and we can do something for the economy, let's keep our minds open.”

While Nowicki and St. Denis seem comfortable with the idea of a nuclear waste repository — at least at this early stage — Brennain Lloyd's concerns are many and varied.

Last month, the project co-ordinator for Northwatch, a northern Ontario organization focusing on environmental activism, hosted sessions in some of the communities which have expressed interest in the NWMO process.

Lloyd said the sessions covered a lot of the “basics” related to what the nuclear waste is and why their community is being asked to consider hosting a nuclear waste repository.

“I think people have appreciated having the context for the discussion,” she said.

Lloyd said Northwatch plans to hold more detailed sessions on the subject in the involved communities starting this fall.

In general, Northwatch doesn't support deep geological repositories because it doesn't think a compelling technical and safety case has been made for the idea, despite studies which go back to the late 1970s.

“The NWMO is saying we're good enough to go, and we'll solve the problems by the time we get there,” Lloyd said.

“Northwatch's view is you've been at this for decades, and there's still large uncertainties about what we would consider to be basic criteria for a waste containment system.”

She'd rather see the country's nuclear waste stay right where it is right now, although she concedes that's not a perfect solution either.

The lifespan of the containers used to store the fuel needs to be increased, and better security is needed to ensure it's safe from threats such as terrorist attacks, Lloyd said.

In terms of a deep geological repository, Northwatch is worried about what damage the nuclear fuel could cause while being transported to the facility.
It also has concerns about the environmental damage it could wreak once it's buried.

Based on studies done a number of years ago in the United States, those near the containers of nuclear fuel as they are being transported would receive a radiation exposure equivalent to one to 100 chest x-rays, Lloyd said.

She said she's also not comforted when she reads about the tests the container in which the nuclear fuel would be transported have undergone.

“My confidence does not rise when I find out that the safety test is that under normal conditions, the container has to drop one third of a metre onto a flat surface, and it doesn't release any materials,” she said.

“Wow, a cardboard box wouldn't release the materials if it was dropped a foot.”

Other safety tests include submersion in 15 metres of water for one hour and being burned in a fire for 30 minutes.

“Back in the May long weekend when we had so many fires in the northeast, I kept thinking about the NWMO transport safety arguments,” Lloyd said.

“The containers will withstand 30 minutes in a fire. Well, who gets a fire out in 30 minutes? Also, what if a container is dropped into water and it's submerged 15 metres below for eight hours?”

Although it would likely happen far into the future, there's also the potential for environmental contamination once the nuclear fuel is buried, she said.

A Swedish study has shown the copper container in which the NWMO is proposing the material be buried will corrode, even though it was supposed to be resistant to corrosion, Lloyd said.

As well, although the NWMO is looking for an area where geological events such as earthquakes are unlikely, as soon as you start digging into a rock formation, you change its character, she said.

“Once you construct a repository in it, you've created this phenomenon called an excavation damaged zone,” Lloyd said. “There's a zone that the rock functions very differently. It's more fracturing and less cohesive.”

While she said she understands that many of the communities which have expressed interest in the project have poor economies, Northwatch is warning them against hosting the facility.

“We'd like to put a huge caution tape around it and say go no further,” she said.

If a community is being considered by the NWMO as a potential site for the deep geological repository, it might actually “scare away” those who might bring business there, Lloyd said.

“One or two communities may, in the end, be selected for some economic bonus, but at what cost?” she asks.

“It won't be neutral. There won't just be benefit without any losses on the other side of the balance sheet.”

Lloyd invites those who want more information on Northwatch's perspective on the deep geological repository project to phone 1-877-553-0481 or email

More information about NWMO's proposal can be found by visiting

Posted by Mark Gentili


Heidi Ulrichsen

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