'Goodwill' money from proposed nuclear waste site pours into declining Ontario farm town. What if it stops?
Funds from $23B NWMO project has upgraded wells, helped find doctors, bought firefighting equipment
A citizens' group is accusing Canada's nuclear industry of using its financial might to groom a declining Ontario farm community into becoming a willing host for the country's most dangerous radioactive waste.
In a pamphlet about the proposed disposal site that was published last year, the Ontario municipality of South Bruce —which encompasses the farming communities of Teeswater, Mildmay, Formosa and Salem — says it's "on the decline."
The pamphlet tells of a shrinking population, where rural towns and village "downtowns are fading from what they used to be," with vacant store windows, big infrastructure bills and few prospects for new economic growth.
Protecting Our Waterways – No Nuclear Waste, a grassroots citizens' group, accuses the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) of taking advantage of the decline by spending millions of dollars on "goodwill" projects the community couldn't afford on its own.
Bill Noll, a resident of Teeswater and the vice-president of Protecting Our Waterways, said the money has done a lot of good — it's helped find small-town doctors, boosted senior care, upgraded wells, and even bought local firefighters lifesaving new safety equipment.
Money 'divorced' from project, group says
"Its strictly a goodwill gesture," said Noll. "That money is not tied to anything to do with the project. It is completely divorced. Why would you spend one and a half million dollars on a community if you didn't expect something back in return?"
The project Noll is referring to is a $23-billion nuclear disposal site where the NWMO wants to inter some three million spent nuclear fuel bundles in a sprawling network of tunnels and holes 500 metres below the ground.
South Bruce is one of two Ontario communities — the other is Ignace, about 2½ hours northwest of Thunder Bay — under consideration for what the NWMO is calling the "deep geological repository." The NWMO says it's working with local communities in selecting the site in 2023.
In the case of South Bruce, test drilling recently began north of the dairy town of Teeswater to see if the ancient bedrock is viable enough. But funds from the NWMO have been flowing in since 2012, when the local council volunteered to be considered as a host.
According to a March 2021 report from South Bruce Treasurer Kendra Reinhart, the community has received more than $3.2 million from the NWMO since 2012. It's been used to pay for everything from St John Ambulance training, to offsetting extra costs of the pandemic, to the salaries of municipal employees.
The report didn't include all the money, and noted several sources of NWMO funding were omitted. For instance, left out were requests for additional support, such as the $1.5 million the municipality is seeking from a $4-million NWMO-sponsored investment fund to help offset the cost of expanding a local sewage treatment plant.
Michelle Stein, another Teeswater resident and president of Protect Our Waterways, said the money has become so ubiquitous that on March 23, the same day the treasury report was presented to South Bruce council, NWMO appeared on the council agenda 121 times.
Mayor says community 'foolish not to' take money
"If you look through our council agendas, its commonplace now to see an organization now like a community centre or fire hall to put in a request for a project, and included in their request is, 'Could we please have some money from the community well-being fund?'"
"Our community has really started to rely on the money from the NWMO," said Stein.
Stein and Noll said the more the municipality of South Bruce becomes intertwined financially with the NWMO, the harder it will be for the community to disentangle itself by saying no to the nuclear disposal site, lest it cut off the community's newfound source of wealth.
"We are not depending on the money we get from the NWMO to run the municipality. I can't stress that enough," South Bruce Mayor Robert Buckle told CBC News on Wednesday.
Buckle said that aside from the expense of exploring the proposal, the community is using the money for other projects he described as "not necessary to have, but are nice to have."
Critics say by taking the money, the municipality is undermining its official position, which has neither been for or against hosting the nuclear disposal site.
Buckle disagrees, saying the municipality is open to explore any and all opportunities that come its way and, if an organization such as NWMO is willing to pay the expenses, then the town should take full advantage.
"You are foolish not to," he said. "That's just business."
In the end, Buckle said, it should be the people who decide, but only if and when the NWMO picks Teeswater as its preferred location, and the decision should go to a referendum.
"This is my personal view," he said, noting council has yet to take an official position.
Until then, he said, the community will continue to take the money until the NWMO is set to make its official announcement sometime in 2023.
Nuclear industry wants to build 'positive legacy'
The NWMO said it is fully prepared to help shoulder the cost of the project as well as help build infrastructure capacity in South Bruce, if the community decides it's willing to host the project.
"We are committed to leaving a positive legacy in all the communities in which we engage," said Lise Morton, vice-president of site selection for the NWMO.
Morton said all of the documentation for the spending as well as the financial agreements with communities participating in the site selection process are fully transparent and available online.
Still, critics charge that communities with few prospects for economic development may grow dependent on NWMO money, something Morton said she wouldn't speak to.
"That's really not for NWMO to determine or comment on. Really the municipality needs to ensure they're following their requirements under the Municipal Act."
She said the main objective of the NWMO, which is a non-profit organization, is to leave the potential host communities better off than when the process began, even if they say no.
But for Stein and Noll, who co-chair Protecting Our Waterways – No Nuclear Waste, no isn't the answer they worry about when it comes to the $23-billion project or the 700 jobs that would come with it.
"With such a large influx of employees and such a large influx of traffic going on, we're going to see a significant change to the culture of the community," said Noll.
"The population of South Bruce is only 5,600 people. When you bring that amount of people, there's going to be major changes going on."