Kincardine Public Consultation Results Concerning DGR

If anyone had asked me just a few months how I thought Kincardine residents would respond to the idea of burying low and intermediate level nuclear waste deep in the rock under the Bruce Nuclear plant I would have smiled and said “it’s a slam dunk.” 

By that I mean I would have regarded it as a foregone conclusion that the vast majority of people in the community would say a resounding “yes” to the $800 Million Deep Geological Repository (DGR) proposal.

The amalgamated Municipality of Kincardine includes the former Bruce Township around the Bruce Nuclear site itself, and the nearby village of Tiverton as well as the former town of Kincardine. That whole area has long been a strongly pro-nuclear community. That’s not surprising, considering 3,500 people work at the nuclear plant. Most are employees of Bruce Power. About 150 work for Ontario Power Generation at its Western Waste Management Facility. They and their families don’t all live in Kincardine, which has a total population of 12,000 people of all ages. But a lot do. And they would surely have to be considered a core constituency in favour of anything that helps secure the continuity of long-term operations at the Bruce site.

The extent to which strong, pro-nuclear attitudes are shared by other people in Kincardine, and in other area communities that have also shared in the economic benefits generated by the nuclear presence, is arguably a matter of public record.

In 1997 the Conservative government of former Premier Mike Harris shut down many of the former Ontario Hydro’s nuclear reactors, including all four at Bruce Generating Station A. Bruce County’s Lake Huron shoreline soon sprouted a forest of signs calling for Bruce A’s refurbishment and restart. It was a grass roots movement that picked up strong support and momentum throughout the Grey-Bruce area, including Owen Sound. It’s no exaggeration to say in retrospect it was a public initiative that started the ball rolling toward the much-improved situation at the Bruce Nuclear plant today: Bruce Power has rebuilt and restarted Bruce A Units 3 and 4, and the rehabilitation of Units 1 and 2 is likely just a matter of time. Meanwhile, Ontario has to come up with an additional 25,000 megawatts of electrical power by the year 2020. Chances that spells major expansion at the Bruce site are looking good.

Yes, there has long been a small but vocal minority of people who live near the nuclear plant, particularly in the nearby hamlet of Inverhuron, who have frequently raised legitimate concerns over the years about how well the nuclear plant has been run. Many of those concerns focused on waste management, backed by solid evidence obtained through dogged persistence, that Ontario Hydro and now Ontario Power Generation’s waste-management track record is far from perfect.

But still, all things considered, I would not have been surprised if the results of the Kincardine public consultation had shown 90 percent or more of the respondents saying “yes” to the DGR plan.

The most astonishing thing, following the announcement of the official results at a Kincardine council meeting Wednesday, is how much lower than that the “yes” response actually was.

In fact, just 60 percent of the 6,778 people who responded to the question posed said “yes.” Twenty-two percent said “no.” Thirteen percent said they were “neutral.” The rest said, in so many words, they didn’t know, or simply refused to respond when contacted.

Yet, Kincardine council somehow managed to claim a 73-percent favourable public response before voting to approve a bylaw giving the green light to the start-up of an Environmental Assessment of the project.

How, you might ask, did 60 percent become 73 percent? The Strategic Counsel was the Toronto-based polling company hired by the municipality to do the survey. I ended up calling their Michael Sullivan for an explanation. It took a few minutes, and Sullivan had to run it by me a couple of times, but I finally got it. It goes like this:

Of the 6,778 people who responded to the survey, 4,054 said a clear “yes,” 1,477 said a clear “no.” The “neutral” responses numbered 874, and 373 people just didn’t know what to think, or refused to answer.

But Kincardine council wanted to boil things down a little more. So the pot was stirred, and the neutral-indecisive responses, totaling 1,247, were taken out of the mix. That leaves a total of 5,531 responses in the survey pot. Do the math again, say a few magic words, and 4,054 “yes” responses become a 73 percent majority instead of 60. “That’s what council basically wanted, just tell us what yes and no were,” Sullivan said.

If that sounds like cooking the numbers to make the results of the survey look better than they really were, you’re not alone. That was my first thought.

And what did Kincardine council want? It’s no secret. Indeed, it was made quite clear in the preamble people heard before they got the actual question. It went as follows:

“The Kincardine council has expressed its support for the long-term management of low-level and intermediate-level nuclear waste in a deep geological repository to be owned and operated by Ontario Power Generation (OPG) at the Western Waste Management Facility located at the Bruce Site.

“Council’s decision was based on the following key points: it provides the highest level of safety of any option; there will be a rigorous environmental assessment and Canadian Nuclear Safety Regulatory process that includes opportunities for public input before construction is approved; the deep geological repository will permanently isolate the low-level and intermediate-level waste stream, much of which is already stored on site; it provides significant economic benefit to the residents of the municipality; and no high-level waste or used nuclear fuel would be allowed in the facility.

“In summary, council believes it is important to solicit the views of residents.”

In summary, council supports the project and wants the residents to fall in line, would have been more accurate.

For the record this was the question that followed the weighted preamble: “Do you support the establishment of a facility for the long-term management of low-level and intermediate-level waste at the Western Waste Management Facility?

The municipality signed an agreement last fall with OPG that requires municipal officials to devote their “best efforts” to support the approval and construction of the project. Otherwise, it risks not getting its $35 million pay-off over the course of the next 30 years. OPG has “sole discretion” under the agreement to decide how well Kincardine is dancing to the “best efforts” tune, though the municipality would be able to appeal any such decision to an arbitrator.

The Oct. 13, 2004 agreement also says OPG is looking for a “clear mandate from the population of Kincardine to Kincardine Council in favour of the DGR” before any money is paid.

Seventy-three percent is clearer than 60 percent. But, either way, is it clear enough for OPG? That’s up to OPG to decide. Like me, OPG officials may be surprised the “yes” response wasn’t a lot stronger.

It wasn’t a slam dunk. Something went wrong, so much so that Kincardine council felt it necessary to play mathematical games with the numbers. What could it be? Why would such a pro-nuclear community end up expressing such lukewarm support for a project that would establish a long-term way of dealing with low and intermediate level nuclear waste, and thus help ensure the long-term future of Bruce Nuclear, including the construction of more reactors?

Maybe it’s not so much that local residents are no longer as pro-nuclear as they used to be. Maybe it speaks more to how they feel about the way they’ve been treated and taken for granted by their municipal representatives. Maybe they would rather be consulted before rather than after the fact.

And maybe they think their municipal council has become a little too cozy with OPG; for example, those fact-finding trips to Europe and the U.S. members of the former council took with OPG officials two years ago to look at nuclear waste management facilities. The European junket, with stops in Switzerland, France and Sweden was fully paid for by OPG. The costs of the U.S. trip was split 50-50, said Kincardine CAO John deRosenroll. He said the municipality’s share of the costs of the U.S. trip were about $1,000 per person. And OPG’s costs for both trips? So far OPG has said I can’t get that information. Stay tuned.

Originally published in The Sun Times in February 2005.

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