Nuclear waste bid poses risks and rewards for Ontario town

The remote Ontario town of Hornepayne is weighing a difficult question: are the economic benefits of a multi-billion dollar project worth the risk of putting some of the most dangerous material on earth in its own backyard?

Hornepayne one of 21 communities considering storing radioactive fuel rods underground

Hornpayne, Ontario is just one of many towns wanting to be the eventual burial site for nuclear waste. Margo McDiarmid explains why. 2:52

The current and former mayors of Hornepayne, Ont., agree on one thing when it comes to the idea of storing nuclear waste in their community: Their town's location is remote.

"We've got fresh air, fresh water. We're kind of on the edge of the wilderness," says Art Swanson, who headed up the town council from 2000 to 2003.

"We're in the middle of nowhere," says Morley Forster, the current mayor of this town of 1,050 people, located about 300 kilometres north of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont,

Those few words aside, there is a wide gulf between the two men — one is pitching hard for his town to become the site of Canada's first nuclear waste facility, and the other is warning just as strenuously against it.

The remote town of Hornepayne, Ont., is putting itself forward as a possible location for Canada's deep geological repository - an underground storage site for spent nuclear fuel rods. (Loozrboy/Flickr.com)

For Mayor Forster, his town's isolation is a plus. "What better place place to put a deep geological repository for Canada's spent nuclear fuel."

But former mayor Swanson foresees a poisoned inheritance for all who come after. "The risk of ruining that [fresh air, fresh water] to me, it's something. The problem with this is, this is permanent."

Hornepayne has another problem, though. Its economy is dying a slow death. Fewer and fewer people are living there and the town's young residents are moving away.

"Economic opportunities that exist, usually exist in the bright lights of the big city. So they go there and don't come back," explains Forster. The chance to host Canada's deep geological repository for nuclear waste is an opportunity that can't be ignored, as far as he is concerned.

Choosing a waste site

Hornepayne is one of 21 communities that has approached the Nuclear Waste Management Organization — the group charged with managing Canada's spent nuclear fuel — and expressed an interest in hosting an underground storage site known as a deep geological repository. That got Hornepayne started on the NWMO's nine-step process.

Hornpayne and seven other communities are the furthest along that process — at step three, essentially the learning phase. The NWMO is adamant about getting buy-in from the entire community that will eventually be the home of 4 million CANDU nuclear fuel bundles.

"Our approach is to provide information because we are looking for an informed and willing host community," says Mahrez Ben Belfadhel, NWMO's director of geoscientific evaluations.

He explains that the NWMO will provide funds for the towns to hire consultants to examine and explain NWMO's proposal. The organization holds information seminars and open houses in the communities, all in an effort to ensure NWMO eventually finds a willing town.

"We want to make sure that this project will have positive impacts on the communities. And it is up to the communities to decide that for themselves," explains Belfadhel.

Debate over benefits and dangers

So what are those benefits? For one, the project will cost anywhere from $16 billion to $24 billion. It will take 10 years to build the repository and that will mean 800 construction jobs. There will be spin-offs from that: cafes, groceries, maybe even a McDonald's, hopes Forster.

"Schools will be built. Houses will be built. Not an endless supply of things, but everything would be increased," says Forster.

Once the repository is in place, he says, there will be the people who manage and operate the facility: PhDs.

Forster could imagine a theatre troupe setting up shop in Hornepayne because of them.

Art Swanson doesn't buy it.

Mayor Morley Forster, left, says a nuclear waste site could provide jobs and benefits for years to come. Former mayor Art Swanson says it isn't worth the risk. (CBC)

"I see that as a used car salesman trying to sell you a car and he will tell you anything," Swanson says. "What kind of nuclear scientist is going to be in Hornepayne watching it [nuclear waste] go into the ground?"

Swanson points out that CN Rail runs a train through town but all their managers are in Montreal.

"This nuclear scientist isn't going to live in Hornepayne. I can almost guarantee you. Why would he?"

Swanson has support for his doubts. It's from an obvious voice, but a loud and influential one.

"What they [nuclear power generators] really want to do is bury their biggest public relations problem," says Shawn-Patrick Stensil of Greenpeace. Stensil is not convinced by the science that an underground facility will be safe for the environment and the people living near it.

"For the betterment of that community, I think it's best that they be very skeptical. Ask hard questions. And also think of what the political motivations of the industry are in offering them these sites," advises Stensil.

Mayor Forster points out that Hornepayne is just in the information gathering stage and there's no harm in investigating.

"So here comes a lot of money and a lot of jobs for a century. We'd be fools and irresponsible not to inquire," he says.

Julie Roy-Ward, a lifelong Hornepayne resident, echoes that sentiment. "Let's explore this possibility. We have nothing to lose from joining the process."

Bonnie-Lee Claveau, who owns a hardware store in the town, goes further. "As a business owner here, I think it [nuclear waste repository] is a fabulous idea. The economies in northern Ontario are mostly in decline."

The NWMO is a long way from building their nuclear waste repository. It will take another seven to 10 years of finding a host community, followed by  about three years of regulatory approvals and 10 years of construction. The earliest Canada's deep geological repository will be up and running is 2035.

In the meantime, two men in Hornepayne, Ont., have their fingers crossed. One hopes they don't get it, one hopes they do.