Thunder Bay·In Depth

Small northwestern Ontario town considers if it's willing to house nuclear waste from across Canada

Ignace, Ont., faces a big decision: How to determine if the small town wants to be home to nearly 5.5 million spent nuclear fuel bundles from across Canada. CBC visited the northwestern Ontario area and asked residents what they think of the possibility.

Decision on whether Ignace will have nuclear waste repository will come in the next year

Janet Griffiths, William Marsh, Brad Pareis and Sheila Krahn, left to right, have mixed feelings about a plan to store nuclear waste in northwestern Ontario. (Jeff Walters/CBC News )

A small town in northwestern Ontario is facing a big question: How to determine whether people in the community want to host a site that would store nearly 5.5 million spent nuclear fuel bundles from across Canada. 

The issue's been ongoing for years in Ignace, with a population of about 1,300, located 250 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay.

But now, it's one of two communities left in the search by Canada's Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) to find a host community for its proposed deep geological repository.

Canada's nuclear electricity producers created the non-profit in 2002. It's responsible for coming up with a long-term management plan for Canada's used nuclear fuel. 

The fuel bundles are about the size of a fire log, and each bundle holds about 20 kilograms of uranium. The final two sites for the proposed storage facility are in Ignace and South Bruce, about 100 kilometres from Kitchener. 

A spokesperson for the NWMO said that unless the community is willing to host the site, the project won't go ahead. Organization officials have repeatedly said they welcome public discourse and debate, while promising a safe solution in line with international best practices. 

Right now, a consultant is in the process of determining what criteria need to be met to prove the community does, in fact, support the project. 

The entire process to gauge whether Ignace could be the site of the facility started a decade ago. 

Within the last few years, drilling has taken place at six sites surrounding the community, some of which are halfway between Dryden, the closest major centre, about 100 kilometres away, and Ignace.

For many, the saga has dragged on, but it is nearing the finish line. A final decision is expected in about a year.

In the meantime, CBC News visited Ignace and nearby Dryden to talk to residents about the project and what they're looking to see from officials going forward. 

An 'informed and willing host'? 

"Ignace is the community that said, 'We want to be involved, we want to be an informed and willing host,'" said Brad Greaves, chair of the Ignace Community Nuclear Liaison Committee.

"But the actual engagement outside of our community is the [nuclear waste management organization's] responsibility."

The community liaison committee was established by the Township of Ignace as a go-between for townspeople and the local government. It's made up of people who live in the community and has representatives from nearby Wabigoon and Dryden. 

Greaves said his committee will determine if the community is willing to have the town affiliated with the nuclear waste site.

He said the site is an opportunity for a community with little industry and a shrinking population. 

"Anything, whether it be a mine or forestry, when industry comes to a town, a real spark of life come back," he said. "Socioeconomics is a big part of this project too. It's not just the fact that there's going to be nuclear fuel put underground for long-term storage. And, it's not just Ignace — it'll be the whole area."

But Greaves's opinion on the project is far from the consensus needed. The decision to bury nuclear waste is contentious, and he said it is probably the biggest decision ever made by the township.

Marsh, outside his home in Ignace, is concerned the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) is taking advantage of a small community, with a struggling economy, by offering to create jobs in exchange for burying nuclear waste. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

William Marsh has lived in Ignace off and on for a number of years, and feels moving the waste to a small town in northwestern Ontario would be an out-of-sight, out-of-mind decision for the nuclear waste organization. 

"Why should they have to put it here?" he asked. "Because we're in the middle of nowhere? Right?" 

Why should they have to put it here? Because we're in the middle of nowhere? Right?- William Marsh, Ignace, Ont., resident 

He said he doesn't trust the information coming from the NWMO and does not support the project. 

"Just because they say it's not going to leak, doesn't mean it's not going to leak." 

Marsh, like others who have worries about the project, is concerned about a potential leak or spill and what could happen to ground and surface water, despite assurances the proposal is safe. 

"We believe in this project. We believe in the safety of this project, and that's why we're here," said Alexander Blyth, a section manager with the NWMO.

"We need to show and demonstrate the quality of this rock and our understanding of the area to demonstrate to the community and to our regulators, because the site will have to go to an impact assessment, and we'll have to prove how good this site is."

Blyth, a hydro geologist, said he's heard the concerns people have about their fears of groundwater contamination.

"From a technical standpoint, ultimately, the water issue is a really important one, and it ties into the safety assessments that are done, it ties into the engineering work that is going to be done underground, so it is all about the water."

Pareis, who lives in Dryden about 45 kilometres from the proposed nuclear storage facility, says he thinks his community should have just as much of a say about the site as Ignace, which is only five kilometres closer to the proposed deep geological repository. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

The debate has spread from Ignace to Dryden, about 100 kilometres away.

People in Dryden, which has nearly 8,000 residents, are concerned about the proposed site too, and want a greater say on the matter. 

"We have a river here in town, the Wabigoon that's been rendered basically a dead river by industrial waste already, so it surprises me that people aren't taking the example of that and extrapolating," said Brad Pareis, who lives in Dryden.

Pareis said he's only learned in the last few months how close the proposed site is to his home community.

"We're told by our council that this isn't our [Dryden's] decision to make, and that seems a little ironic," he said. "We are a neighbouring community, we have about eight times the population of Ignace, so I think it should be partially our decision. It should be a provincial decision, because it's going on Crown land."

Pareis said he is uncomfortable with the way the NWMO is able to easily distribute its information without challenge. He said his children were taken on a field trip a couple of years ago to one of the borehole sites and were given information by the NWMO, but not opposing environmental groups. 

"Politically speaking, it really is a hot topic. Nobody really wants this in their backyard."

Mark Zimmerman, who owns a camp about 15 kilometres north of the proposed repository site, said he's heard nothing from the nuclear waste organization regarding the proposal. He said he wasn't even told when the organization was drilling a test hole about five kilometres from his doorstep.

"Why are we even thinking of bringing this nuclear waste up here? It's got nothing to do with northwestern Ontario. Keep it down there where it belongs."

Krahn, who is opposed to the idea of burying nuclear fuel near Ignace, stands on the deck of her home, complete with signs opposing the the NWMO site. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

Back in Ignace, Sheila Krahn, who has lived in the community for more than 30 years, said she's totally opposed to the concept. 

"Ignace should ask, 'What are they going to get?' I don't see anything coming to Ignace from this," Krahn said. Her concerns are environmental and worries about what will happen to water in the area if there is a spill or accident.

Ignace should ask, "What are they going to get?" I don't see anything coming to Ignace from this- Sheila Krahn, Ignace resident 

The opinion in the community is mixed, she said, with some for, some against, and some indifferent to the project.

Just down the street from Krahn, Naomi Peters sees the site as an economic boom, and it's an opportunity too good to pass up. 

"It's the economic stability that this project will add to this area that's been economically depressed for years. It's important for Ignace not to be a one-horse town," Peters said.

Still, she too has worries about the project, and wants the township to hire an independent nuclear expert to ensure all questions regarding safety can be answered. 

Naomi Peters relaxes along with her three dogs at her home in Ignace. She believes the NWMO project brings opportunity to the community. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

"The foundation of the project is informed consent," Peters said. "That word informed is important. It means that the vocal minority needs to sit down and take nuclear 101. They need to go through all of the training, all of that, and understand what, how and where this whole project entails."

Janet Griffiths, who has lived in Ignace for decades, is more indifferent to the idea of burying nuclear fuel. She remembers the so-called "good times" in the community, when a nearby gold mine employed hundreds and the township was booming.

Griffiths, who has lived in Ignace for decades, says she believes economic opportunities will come from the proposed NWMO nuclear site. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

"It needs to be moved from the shores of Lake Ontario, and needs to be put into an area that is bedrock and is secure. We have that here," Griffiths said.

If the plan proceeds in Ignace, "It's not going to happen in my lifetime," she figures, as it would take a decade for all the licensing and environmental approvals to the completed, plus another decade for construction of the repository itself.

"But the actual movement of that stuff, I'm going to be long gone," Griffiths said.


Jeff Walters

Former CBC reporter

Born and raised in Thunder Bay, Jeff worked in his hometown, as well as throughout northwestern Ontario.