Final approval, or not, of OPG’s nuclear waste DGR coming soon

(Phil here, with a note as I prepare to post this 2015 “Counterpoint” column on the Finding Hope Ness blog: I’ve been following Ontario Power Generation’s Deep Geological Repository (DGR) proposal for the storage of low to intermediate radioactive-level nuclear waste for a long time. It should not be confused by the way with the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) proposal for a DGR to store highly-radioactive used nuclear fuel. They are two separate things. But there has been a lot of confusion about that because OPG and the NWMO are co-operating on both. The change in government after the Oct. 19, 2015 election has delayed a final federal government licence-approval decision. It’s now expected by March 1, this year. It could go either way, but I’m inclined to think, conditional approval is likely. The project has a number of unresolved issues related to it. They include the fact OPG gave a written guarantee to the Saugeen Ojibway First Nations in this area that it would not go ahead without their approval. That guarantee was given just before a panel of federal regulators began public hearings in 2014. There is strong opposition on the U.S. side of Lake Huron in Michigan to the idea of burying nuclear waste so close to the shore of a Great Lake. But it’s a multi-billion project Canada’s new Liberal government may see as fitting well into its massive infrastructure plans, but one that won’t cost the feds much, if anything, financially.)

The possibility  Ontario Power Generation’s proposed Deep Geological Repository (DGR) for the long-term storage of low and intermediate-level nuclear waste will get final federal government approval and a license to be built before the end of 2015 is looking less likely all the time.

And with the regulatory approval process already behind schedule, from OPG’s point of view, that could put its annual payments to five local, Bruce County municipalities under a 2004 DGR hosting agreement in serious doubt.

OPG warned the municipalities in October of 2014 not to count on the annual payments for budgeting purposes this year (2015). They were also warned that if a license to construct the facility was not issued this year the payments could again be “deferred.”No wonder Bruce County Council requested a special meeting with (now-former) federal Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq so quickly after the Joint Review Panel that held a long series of public hearings into the project issued its final report and recommendations this past May 6. The panel recommended final approval of the project.

Within a day, sitting as the Corporate Services Committee, council approved a motion to ask Aglukkaq to meet with a county delegation “to discuss the project and the position of the county.”

I was able to obtain a copy of the May 8 letter signed by County Warden Mitchell Twolan, requesting the meeting, with the help of the county’s Access to Information process. It was otherwise made public to lesser mortals in the agenda of the July 2 Corporate Services Committee meeting posted on the county website.

County council, and the committee, consists of the mayors of the county’s eight local municipalities.

The county delegation would have included Twolan, the Mayor of Huron-Kinloss, and Chief Administrative Officer Kelley Coulter. Huron-Kinloss is one of the five municipalities that have received DGR hosting payments from OPG under the 2004 agreement. The others are Kincardine, which has received by far the largest amount, Saugeen Shores, Arran-Elderslie, and Brockton. Over a period of 30 years the five municipalities were supposed to receive a total of $35 million.

The agreement also requires them to use their “best efforts” to help the project get final approval or risk losing their payments, with OPG being the sole judge of what those “best efforts” should involve.

If those “best-efforts” included requesting the special meeting with Aglukkaq, it was in vain, and may have done more harm than good.

The county initially received verbal notice from Huron-Bruce Conservative MP Ben Lobb’s office that no such meeting could be held.

Then on June 9 the county got a letter from Aglukkaq herself explaining why. The Minister noted the Joint Review Panel’s report is currently being reviewed by the federal government. That review includes a public comment period during which Aboriginal groups and “other interested participants” will be asked for input regarding possible conditions that could be attached to any federal approval, if that should happen.

That comment period is to last until Sept. 1. A final decision to approve the project, or not, is now scheduled for Dec. 2 of this year. (As we now know the election results changed things again)

“Given that the project is before me for a decision,” Aglukkaq said in her letter to the county, “it would not be appropriate for me to discuss any matter relating to the Project with any participant to ensure fairness to all parties interested in the review.

“I encourage Bruce County to participate in this public comment period,” the Minister said.

Of course.

It’s possible county council did not realize there would be yet another opportunity for public input after the Review Panel’s report went to the Minister. I suggest it might have been a good idea to ask a question of someone in the know – something like what happens next in the approval process instead of just making assumptions – before acting with what now appears to have been unseemly haste, judging by the Minister’s reaction.

In his May 8 letter to Aglukkaq requesting a meeting, Warden Twolan noted “Bruce County supports the primary recommendation (of the report) that the project would not risk the environment and ultimately human safety including water.

“Appreciating the timeline that your ministry faces, Bruce County is requesting a formal meeting with yourself to discuss the project and the position of the county.

“I look forward to hearing from your office in the very near future to arrange a suitable time to meet,” Twolan said, providing the minister with his real-estate business address, as well as county phone and email contact information.

Who was in a hurry, one might ask? Not Aglukkaq, apparently.

There are, after all, aspects of this DGR project near the Lake Huron shoreline of the Great Lakes that go far beyond the financial well-being of five local municipalities in one southwestern Ontario county. I think it’s fair to say some of the “interested participants” who may have something to say to the Canadian government about the project will be people and political leaders in the U.S. We share the Great Lakes with them, after all.

Meanwhile, there is a federal election coming in October. Increasingly, there are signs, including public opinion polls, and no end of tea-leaf-reading pundits who see a change of government coming.

If indeed there is a change you can be sure the proposed DGR will be up for further public review. And no amount of “best efforts” will change that.

Originally published in The Sun Times in July, 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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