By Lindsay Potter
After 10 years, Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) still seeks a “willing” host for the latest planned deep geological repository (DGR), a vault designed to hold over 5.5 million used reactor fuel bundles 2,200 feet below ground for thousands of years. Though there are no DGRs operating currently, the first has been constructed in Finland and potential sites are being surveyed in Switzerland. The NWMO is dangling “job creation” and short-term economic stimulus as boons of the $24 billion project, but environmental groups, concerned residents, and activists decry the threat to watersheds and local health.
The argument over the DGR’s viability is déjà vu for opponents of the similar Ontario Power Generation project, which sought approval for 16 years before scrapping plans in June 2020, capitulating to scientists, community and political leaders, and an overwhelming dissenting vote by the Saugeen Ojibway First Nation.
The newly proposed DGR site in the South Bruce community of 6,000 sits below 1,500 acres of farmland, 25 miles from Lake Huron and 30 miles inland from the Bruce Nuclear Station, where radioactive waste is currently stored in aboveground casks on the lake’s shore. Ignace, the other potential host, is a town of 1,200 in northwestern Ontario roughly 150 miles from Lake Superior on Indigenous treaty land.
The South Bruce community is divided between those against the DGR, largely lead by the group Protect our Waters (POW), and those in the self-titled “willing-to-listen” camp who tow the NWMO’s line that radioactive waste is safe and skeptics are fear-mongers. The latter want to delay a decision in order to learn more about the DGR, contradicting the more than 1,700 signatories to POW’s petition demanding a 2022 referendum. The campaign to persuade local residents features speakers selected by the NWMO who overwhelmingly find DGR and nuclear to be safe “best-practices.” Despite October’s local election of a slate of relatively pro-DGR candidates, including mayor Mark Goetz, there is bi-partisan support for holding a binding community referendum on the question. However, many Canadians and experts stipulate that leaving the decision up to a single provincial township puts tens of millions who rely on the lake for drinking water and southern Ontario for agricultural products at risk without consent, not to mention fails to consider the dangers posed by moving this waste across Canada to its chosen resting spot.
Indigenous activist and author Tanya Talaga describes Ignace-area tribal chiefs’ “vehement opposition” to hosting the DGR on the traditional territories of Treaty 9, Treaty 3, and the Robinson-Superior Treaty of 1850, on land near the Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation and the Ojibway Nation of Saugeen, in an area also home to the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) which represents 49 First Nations in northern Ontario close to the Arctic Watershed. “The NWMO appears to consider ‘agreement’ … to mean a decision made by the few while ignoring the many,” Talaga writes, confirming a “complete lack of consent” among NAN leaders. NAN Grand Chief Derek Fox said “if I have to be the one there, getting hauled away to jail … I will be there to make sure this waste does not enter into our territory.” The NAN chiefs collectively agreed their nations will resort to any means necessary and intend to protest and take legal action. A DGR in Ignace would violate Article 29 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Canadian Parliamentarians adopted in 2021, though Ontario refuses to enact matching provincial legislation.
For now, the Canadian nuclear industry seems determined to park its accumulated radioactive waste on the shores of the Great Lakes without regard for redundancies. It is hard to imagine how advocates of nuclear energy can consider this clean or green when the global failure to determine a safe way to store the constantly accumulating waste continues to prove unresolved.