Bruce County may house Canada’s largest-ever nuclear waste dump — surprisingly, not everyone minds

Bruce County may house Canada’s largest-ever nuclear waste dump — surprisingly, not everyone minds

Is Jim Gowland a betting man? It seems a reasonable question to ask. “You’re talking to a guy who has farmed for 42 years,” he laughs.

So that would be a yes.

But this bet is tied not to what effect a sodden spring will have on the family’s farm operation, which extends close to 2,000 acres, but whether the agriculturally favourable municipality of South Bruce will be chosen as the host burial ground for more than five million spent fuel nuclear bundles. The highly radioactive waste will come from the nuclear reactor sites at Darlington and Pickering, from Gentilly in Quebec, Point Lepreau in New Brunswick and, closest of all, the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station, which is practically right next door. All in, we’re talking about the toxic legacy of six decades of nuclear power generation, with decades more to come.

The Gowlands make their home in Teeswater, in South Bruce, just a stone’s throw, Gowland points out, from the neighbouring municipality of Huron-Kinloss to the west. The two municipalities share a common border, which is important to know as you get the logistics straight on what will be a monumental undertaking. Huron-Kinloss too is on the short list as an “informed and willing” host site for the deep geologic repository, or DGR, that will encrypt the country’s high level nuclear waste.

Rumours running through the region support the view, or maybe a sense of resignation, that all the spent fuel will be sent here eventually. In mid-May the federal Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) launched a Land Access Process, seeking option agreements from landowners to allow site studies, specifically deep test drilling. Should the geology be amenable, the NWMO is looking to purchase approximately 1,500 acres from one or more landowners to accommodate vast underground containment facilities as well as surface buildings that will spread across a much smaller area.

Farmer Gowland’s position on this may surprise. He heads one of two community liaison committees charged with outreach to the residents. “I think there’s a great opportunity to host a DGR site,” he says. “We’re a nuclear community…We’ve got 60 years of nuclear under our belt.” He acknowledges that there is always a constituency that is not pro nuclear to begin with, and he’s not sure where this consequential conversation will all shake out with that group, “but for the most part we’ve got a pretty good, willing community here.”

A true test of that willingness has not yet been taken. Neither municipality has held a referendum on the matter and it’s a fair assumption that the necklace of cities and towns that ribbons east of the villages of Ripley and Mildmay and Formosa — communities that may bear close witness to the daily transport of radioactive waste across more than four decades — have not a clue that the next step is being taken in a decision that will have import for generations to come.

Last week, Ruth MacLean, minister at Knox Presbyterian in Ripley, attended a water ceremony with friends from Saugeen Ojibway Nation (SON), whose traditional territory reaches across most of the Saugeen Peninsula, from the tip at Tobermory, along the shore of Lake Huron south to Goderich, then reaching east beyond the borders of both municipalities. “We’re living on their territory, which is something we have to be grateful for,” she says. From Bruce Beach, where MacLean has a little cottage, she has a view to Bruce Nuclear, jutting out as it does at Douglas Point. “Twenty miles I think as the crow flies,” she says. “And on clear days it looms for me like Alcatraz.”

She sees the NWMO as smooth operators. Glossy. She wonders about the extent of financial support from the NWMO to the community, almost like a corporate takeover. The organization has been a deep-pocketed benefactor, supporting the Books in Bruce initiative, for example, and the fall agricultural fair in Lucknow. “I’m in complete sympathy that something has to be done with the nuclear waste, but if we really cared about it they would stop making it,” she says. “I think they feel this solution gives them permission to keep on creating it.”

MacLean is witnessing the end of her ministry in Ripley. “We have a faithful, lovely little group of about 10,” she says of her congregation. The church is slated to close at month’s end. At 67 she’s not sure what comes next, both personally and for the region. “We haven’t had any chance to have a voice as a community,” she says. “Why can’t we vote on this now and see if we want it?… I think we need to hear both sides, not just the nuclear industry promoting itself.”

Former chief Randall Kahgee is the Saugeen Ojibway Nation's lead adviser on nuclear issues. They have a deal with the NWMO not to pick a DGR site without their consent.

Former chief Randall Kahgee is the SON’s lead adviser on nuclear issues, a role he has maintained since stepping down as chief in 2014. When the land acquisition process was announced there was concern, he says, that siting the DGR for spent fuel in Bruce County would appear to be a fait accompli. “We were very concerned about that kind of perception,” he says, reflecting on a long history of exclusion from the nuclear planning process, not to mention an exclusion from economic benefits, dating all the way back to the Sixties.

Three years ago, SON, which developed its own community process, secured a commitment from the NWMO not to select a site without their consent. “No longer will we allow ourselves to be parked on the sidelines,” Kahgee says, adding that this puts SON in “a very unique position, and not a very enviable position, as you can imagine. One of the things you will know right away about nuclear is that it’s a very polarized issue. You are either for or against.”

The most difficult territory to navigate is the place in the middle, the place of informed dialogue. Adds Kahgee, “Kicking it down the road for the next generation isn’t necessarily the right answer.”

“Maybe I can give you some background.”

An office tower on St. Clair Ave. E. in Toronto is home to the NWMO. It’s eerily quiet. And visitors are required to read two pages of safety-and-escape guidelines before rounding a corner to the office of Mahrez Ben Belfadhel, vice-president of APM engagement and site selection. APM is Adaptive Phased Management. We’ll get to that.

The NWMO is still young in corporate years, formed in 2002 with a mandate, as Belfadhel says, “to implement Canada’s plan for the long-term management of used nuclear fuel.” Elizabeth Dowdeswell, now Ontario’s lieutenant governor, was its first president. The site selection process started in 2010, initially drawing expressions of interest from 22 communities. That number has since been reduced to five. Just two of those — South Bruce and Huron-Kinloss — are on private, albeit Treaty, lands. The other three — Ignace, Hornepayne and Manitouwadge — are on Crown land.

In announcing the Land Access Process in South Bruce and Huron-Kinloss, the NWMO is seeking option agreements from landowners that will allow for deep borehole testing to 500 metres, the depth at which the waste repository will sit. An option payment of 10 per cent of the fair market value of the property, plus $10,000 to cover ancillary costs, will be made upon signing. Should NWMO exercise the option, the landowner will be paid the appraised value, plus a 25 per cent premium. Land valued at $1 million would reap a total payment of $1.36 million. Drilling is due to commence next year. A final decision on the site selection is expected in 2023. The NWMO calls 2023 a “milestone” year.

Bruce nuclear waste stored, awaiting final disposal.

This past March, the organization released a five-year plan for implementing what it calls Adaptive Phased Management, a term adopted more than a decade ago to reflect a belief in continuous learning and new thinking brought forward by new science. The paramount concerns are safety and transportation, addressed in this report through both the safe isolation of the radioactive waste — prototypes of containment cellars will be manufactured and tested — and the necessity to transport the waste, either by road or by rail, to the chosen central location. The report pledges to engage with communities that “may be on a transportation corridor for used nuclear fuel.”

Public comments on the report — “This is Canada’s plan. This is your plan. We welcome your suggestions and ideas.” — will be accepted until July 12.

“We would like to develop the confidence that we will be able to transport used nuclear fuel from where it is today to the central location in a manner that is safe, secure and socially acceptable,” says Belfadhel, who has been on the road recently seeking input from municipal leaders. “This is why we have a comprehensive engagement program today, to engage people on transportation. We want to understand what are their concerns, what are their objectives, and what are the principles they want us to use when it comes to transportation.”

Numerically, the challenge grows and grows. Canada’s inventory of used nuclear fuel bundles as of June 30 last year sat at 2.9 million. The life cycle forecast, as of 2015, was 4.6 million bundles. That has since been revised upwards to 5.2 million bundles. Each bundle weighs 24 kg. The NWMO likens the bundles in size and shape to fireplace logs, filled with pellets of used nuclear fuel. The spent bundles spend years in cooling pools and then dry storage containers, where they remain today, lethal for tens of thousands of years into the future. It would take a million years, Belfadhel says, for the radioactive uranium to return to its natural state.

At current estimates it will take approximately 44 years to safely transfer that amount of reactor waste to the deep repository, based on one-to-two shipments daily, should the waste be transferred by truck, or one shipment every six days if transported by rail. Belfadhel says a draft transportation framework will be published early next year. “Right now we’re considering rail or road,” he says, adding that standard trucks would do the trick and that any paved road will do. (The total weight per truckload is estimated at 38 tonnes.)

All of this will pull to the surface concerns not just about the safety of radioactive waste buried deep under some farmer’s field somewhere, but anxiety about it being hauled great distances over land. Is it unreasonable to imagine trucks trundling the highest level of nuclear waste along the 401?

Jim Gowland says there's always a constituency that is not pro nuclear to begin with "but for the most part we've got a pretty good willing community here."

Belfadhel addresses these concerns in two ways. First, that the transportation of dangerous goods “is happening every day on our highways” adding that used nuclear fuel “has been transported around the world for at least 50 years.” His second point: robust containers have been certified by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the federal agency that regulates the nuclear industry, following test parameters set by the International Atomic Energy Agency and carried out by Ontario Power Generation.

The design of the bunker itself is still evolving.

Belfadhel responds to the concern expressed that locating the repository in Bruce County is a done deal. “That’s absolutely incorrect,” he says, emphasizing that initiating the land access process in southern Ontario does not mean that southern Ontario has been selected. His recent road trip meeting with numerous mayors was meant to emphasize the point.

Brockton’s Chris Peabody was one of those mayors. Five years ago, when Peabody was a councillor, he turned the NWMO site selection process into a referendum: at the time, Brockton was on the list of 22. “I was about to make a motion to remove them from town, but they pulled out the day before,” Peabody says. “It was quite a divisive election as you can imagine, because the council in Brockton that supported it was defeated.”

Peabody was elected mayor last fall. Does he believe the NWMO has made up its mind? “I think I have a good feel for where they’re at. They definitely want to locate in Bruce because there’s eight reactors here in Bruce,” he says. “Bruce County has both the workers who are used to working in that industry as well as the community acceptance for nuclear power.”

Belfadhel suggests that any such talk overlooks the NWMO’s commitment to partnership. “We want to have the confidence that we will be able to develop the partnerships that will be required to implement the project in an area,” he says. “At the end of the day we made it very clear that in order for us to go to a location we would need to see a compelling demonstration of willingness.”

That appears to be a trip wire, as Belfadhel elaborates on the definition of “willingness.” Such an expression “should not come just from the leadership … it should come from the grassroots, the people,” he says.

Belfadhel says they are not there yet. “When we are ready to select the site we will ask people to demonstrate their willingness in a compelling way.”

One might think that putting the issue to a vote, as Ruth MacLean advocates, would be an obvious route. So the question to the site selection executive is obvious: will it be put to a vote? “We haven’t defined what a compelling demonstration of willingness is,” Belfadhel responds. “We will leave it up to municipalities to decide how they want to do this.”

The Bruce Nuclear Generating Station looms over the surrounding landscape on Douglas Point.

Les Nichols sits on the Community Liaison Committee with Jim Gowland. Nichols says that by far the majority of people he has spoken with about digging a 500-metre hole and placing spent fuel rods in a containment room see it “almost as a non-issue type thing…Maybe I’m just running into the wrong ones. The negativity has been far less than what I would have expected.” Nichols’s son works at the Bruce. “It sort of helps,” he says of the extended worker community. “There’s some comfort with the nuclear industry.” Asked whether there will be a referendum to truly test the mood of the people, he says that’s a question to ask NWMO. “It has to be a willing host,” he says. “At this point I’m not sure we’ve arrived at a solution to that request.”

Former chief Randall Kahgee, who now practises law in Toronto, commends the NWMO’s open communication with the Saugeen Ojibway Nation. Being empowered to grant, or deny, consent is historic. Reaching consensus is another matter. In December of this year SON will be voting on a separate project, the burial of low and intermediate waste, or what has come to be known as DGR-1. The planning for that repository has been contentiously plugging along for years. The waste to be interred includes such low level radioactive items as mops and shoe coverings and higher level waste, such as ion exchange resins that can stay radioactive for 100,000 years. There has been wariness, Kahgee says, that DGR-1 was just a Trojan horse for the highly radioactive waste. Let’s call it DGR-2. “That’s a big concern,” Kahgee says.

There are, as Kahgee notes, immovable facts: that the generating facilities are not going away and that Ontario is not going to abandon its plans for nuclear energy. Refurbishment and life extension programs at Bruce Power, by example, will see the reactors there powering through to 2064.

Ruth MacLean takes issue with the “mantra” of the NWMO. That “we’re the generation that produced this waste, so we have to take care of it. We can’t leave it for our children. But I don’t think that really holds water. If we really care about the children we should not keep making more of it.”

MacLean unearths an interesting word as she signs off: invincible. The NWMO is promising to come up with a solution that’s invincible. But what if a better solution arrives, decades down the road? Ben Belfadhel says the “adaptive” part of the process means not sealing the crypts forever, but making the spent fuel available should some smart kid come along with a better solution. That still means trucking it all to the Bruce, or wherever. With the support of a fully informed public, he says.

Maybe as of now we know just a little bit more.

Jennifer Wells is a Toronto-based business columnist and feature writer for the Star. Reach her on email:

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