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Test drilling begins for controversial nuclear disposal site near Lake Huron

Test drilling has begun at a site in Teeswater, Ont., to evaluate whether the area could potentially support a proposed disposal site for the nation's 57,000 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel.

Teeswater, Ont., is one of two prospective Ontario sites to store nuclear waste

Martin Sykes is a geologist with the Nuclear Waste Management Organization and the project manager of the South Bruce drilling site in Teeswater, Ont. (NWMO)

Nuclear industry officials have begun test drilling deep into the bedrock below southwestern Ontario to determine whether the small town of Teeswater, Ont., a community about 40 km from Lake Huron's shore, could be the future home of Canada's first spent nuclear fuel repository. 

Teeswater is one of two potential sites for the proposed underground facility. Geologists are also looking at the northern Ontario community of Ignace, about 243 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay, where drilling is already underway. 

The nuclear industry's plan is to eventually entomb some 3-million bundles of spent fuel from the country's nuclear power industry, some 500 metres below ground in one of those two communities.

In Teeswater, drilling began on Friday, according to Martin Sykes, a geologist with the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) and the project manager for the drilling site.

He over the next nine months, scientists will be taking core samples extracted from nearly a kilometre below ground.

"The borehole drilling is a very important first step in our subsurface studies in the South Bruce area," he said. "With the information we're going to get from the borehole drilling to give a complete picture of the geology of the safety and suitability of this geology site."

Project will take $23B, 40 years to complete

What Sykes is looking for in both Teeswater and Ignace is bedrock solid and stable enough to store some 57,000 tonnes of highly radioactive waste, sealed inside copper canisters and encased in cement.

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)

Once the facility is built, the cement blocks will be lowered 500 metres below ground and buried inside a network of tunnels and holes burrowed in the rock. Once full, they'll be filled with clay and then sealed, the nuclear industry says, safely out of the way of future generations for millennia.

The plan will take some 40 years to complete and cost $23 billion, but before construction crews can even begin, officials with the Nuclear Waste Manage Organization (NWMO) need to decide which of the two prospective sites offers the best natural barriers to contain what's widely considered to be some of the most dangerous and toxic material on the planet. 

Currently, the waste is being stored on the surface at operating nuclear reactor sites across Canada, in pools or in containers that, in some cases, have been in what's considered temporary storage for the past 70 years.

What to do with waste a matter of debate

Given the long-lasting and highly toxic nature of nuclear waste, what to do with it is a matter of some debate. While some believe the present generation has a moral imperative to secure a safe disposal facility for the material, others argue the Teeswater site is not an appropriate place to do it. 

Canada's nuclear waste is currently being stored on the surface, at operational nuclear reactors across the country, such as Bruce Nuclear Generating Station (pictured) near Kincardine, Ont. (John Flesher/AP)

They say the town's proximity to the lake, which is the drinking water source for 40 million people in North America and the historic failure of other similar disposal sites around the world should push the NWMO to look elsewhere. 

The debate has divided families, neighbours and communities over whether Teeswater and the surrounding region of South Bruce is the right place to dump the nation's nuclear waste. 

The NWMO already believes the known geologic makeup of the site at Teeswater, plus its proximity to a number of large Ontario reactor sites, makes it suitable.

"We have historical data from well and boreholes from other industries that we can look at, so there's a very good understanding of the 3D geology," Sykes said.  

Understanding groundwater 'important' part of project

The drilling, Sykes said, is an exercise in making sure the known data is consistent with what's actually down there. It also gives his team an opportunity to understand how groundwater interacts with water deep underground as well as how much and how quickly it moves through the bedrock.

This drilling site north of Teeswater, Ont., will allow geologists with the Nuclear Waste Management Organization to better understand the makeup of the rock and water deep below ground. (NWMO)

"The groundwater is an important part of our project." 

Drilling is expected to take nine months, while studying the core samples and the hole itself is expected to take several more. Sykes said crews also plan to open a second test borehole later this summer. 

The end game, according to the NWMO, is to stop used nuclear fuel bundles from piling up at reactors across the country and to find an ideal resting place for the decades-old toxic byproduct. 

Sykes said the work of he and his team will ensure the nuclear industry finds the ideal site, one that will provide the best natural barrier to help keep people safe for centuries to come. 

"Safety is our number one priority and all of the work we're doing is to understand that," he said.

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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