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Bruce County divided over becoming permanent site to store Canada's nuclear waste

Bruce County calls itself a place "where the smiles are bigger and a little more frequent," but those smiles belie a deepening divide among neighbours over what to do with Canada's growing stockpile of nuclear waste.

Canada has 57K tonnes of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel and nowhere to put it

Canada is exploring permanent options for the storage of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel, which is some of the most dangerous and toxic material in the country. (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images)

Bruce County calls itself a place "where the smiles are bigger and a little more frequent," but those smiles belie a deepening divide among neighbours over what to do with Canada's growing stockpile of nuclear waste. 

The town of South Bruce, on the rim of the sparkling waters of Lake Huron, is one of two sites selected by a federal agency tasked with finding permanent locations to store Canada's nearly three million bundles of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel.

On Thursday, politicians in Bruce County debated whether their community should be home to a place to put that waste, what's called a deep geologic repository, or DGR; a multi-billion dollar high tech nuclear waste dump that would see the material stored in perpetuity hundreds of metres below the Earth. 

At issue in the debate are the ethics of leaving the burden of some of Canada's most dangerous nuclear material to future generations, the possible development and devaluation of prime Ontario farmland and concerns over the potential safety of the drinking water for 40 million people in two countries.

'I am strongly opposed'

Since the late 70s, low to intermediary waste from Pickering Nuclear Generating Station has been sent from this reactor and reactors in Darlington and Bruce County to a temporary storage facility in Tiverton, Ont. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

On Thursday, that politically-fraught debate took centre stage in Walkerton, Ont. before a packed council chamber where politicians debated whether DGRs were "settled science" in an argument that has already played out at dinner tables, arenas and coffee shops in the area for years, dividing neighbours and leaving communities deeply polarized. 

Chris Peabody is the mayor of Brockton. (Bruce County)

"I am strongly opposed," said Brockton Mayor Chris Peabody, whose township includes Walkerton, a place that two decades ago grappled with a tainted water crisis where e. coli killed six people and sickened thousands. 

"The proposal is to bury the waste under the Teeswater River," he told council. "I can't support that. I've got several communities down river that get their drinking water from aquifers along that river." 

Peabody said if a deep geologic repository were to be located west of Teeswater, it would potentially devalue prime farmland and the resulting stigma of burying nuclear waste near his community might affect the ability of local farmers to sell their wares.

"It would make it very difficult for them to market their produce and survive," he said. "I don't think the scientific consensus supports burying nuclear waste in class one farmland in Southern Ontario." 

57K tonnes of used nuclear fuel and nowhere to put it

A diagram shows the vast underground network of chambers that would permanently hold spent nuclear fuel deep below the Earth in a high tech nuclear dump known as a deep geologic repository. (Nuclear Waste Management Organization)

Utilizing a deep geologic repository isn't simply a matter of "burying nuclear waste in class one farmland" as Peabody suggests. The proposed underground project is a highly sophisticated $23 billion nuclear waste disposal site designed to contain and isolate some of the most dangerous materials on Earth for thousands of years. 

The sprawling complex of tunnels and chambers would occupy a footprint of about 600 hectares underground, where nuclear waste would be stored at a depth as low as the CN Tower is tall (500 to 600 metres). The idea is the material would be encased in containers below natural bedrock to keep the harmful effects of radiation at bay for millennia. 

While proponents of the system claim a DGR is a safe way to store nuclear waste, those opposed argue it has a spotty record at best, pointing out that similar facilities in New Mexico and Germany have leaked – and by that token, opponents say a DGR near Lake Huron would potentially put the drinking water of 40 million people at risk. 

It's not the first time the debate has come to the area. Ontario Power Generation recently abandoned a 15-year campaign for a similar proposed facility to store low to intermediary waste at a site not far from the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station. 

The failure to move ahead with the project is part of a larger problem of Canada's struggle to find a permanent home for its growing stockpile of nuclear waste.

As of 2018, it's estimated Canada had some 57,000 tonnes of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel and nowhere to put it.

So far, the federal agency tasked with disposing it, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization, or NWMO, has identified two potential communities with the right geological makeup; Ignace in Ontario's north and South Bruce, in Ontario's Great Lakes Basin. 

'I support the DGR concept'

Rows of chambers holding intermediate level radioactive waste, seen here in 2013 at the Bruce Power nuclear complex near Kincardine, Ont. (John Flesher/AP)

"We have to have permanent safe storage," said Luke Charbonneau, the mayor of Saugeen Shores and the politician whose motion to recognize DGR technology as "settled science" touched off the debate. 

Charbonneau argues that in order to fight climate change and meet future energy demands, nuclear energy is the way forward. It's why he said he made the proposal in the first place, Canada needs a place to put the highly toxic waste power plants such as Bruce Nuclear create. 

Kincardine Mayor Anne Eadie. (Bruce County)

"Deep geologic repositories are the way to do that," he said. "This resolution does not say where that ought to be. I don't purport to be an expert on siting deep geologic repositories. I'm only saying that council should say it ought to be done."

Kincardine Mayor Anne Eadie agrees that where the waste is currently is not a permanent solution. 

"I support the DGR concept," said Eadie, whose township has hosted spent nuclear fuel from Bruce Nuclear Generating Station for the last 60 years as well as low to intermediary waste from GTA nuclear plants at Pickering and Darlington for the last 40.  

"Yes it is safely stored above ground now and this is considered interim storage even though it's been going on since the late 60s early 70s," she said. "What is the permanent solution?"

'This is nuclear waste, not a plow truck'

A jogger runs along the beach past the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, in Pickering, Ont., seen here in January. For decades, low level waste from this reactor and reactors in Darlington and Bruce County have been stored at a temporary facility in Tiverton, Ont. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Janice Jackson, the mayor of South Bruce Peninsula suggested that keeping the waste where it is might be the right choice. 

"Why isn't that the solution?" she asked. "At least we can see it." 

Jackson said the trouble with the proposal is a lack of information. She said even with simple decisions, municipal councils often rely on detailed research to make the right choice. 

 "I know in my municipality, if we were to decide to repair an old truck, I know staff would give us a list of pros and cons." 

"This is nuclear waste, it's not a plow truck," she said. "I would really appreciate some fulsome information on this issue." 

"There are two sides to this story and I find it very peculiar that we're just given the one side and not the other and asked to support it," she said. "I don't think there's any hurry to do this."

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this article misstated that Janice Jackson is the mayor of the town of South Bruce, when in fact she is actually the mayor of the town of South Bruce Peninsula.
    Feb 21, 2020 10:11 AM ET

About the Author

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca

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