Ontario Power Generation still favors DGR nuclear waste option


A concept image of Ontario Power Generation’s DGR for the permanent storage of low and intermediate-radioactive waste at the Bruce Nuclear Site

What are they doing now at Ontario Power Generation (OPG) headquarters in the wake of the recent vote of Saugeen Ojibway Nation (SON) members who voted NO to OPG’s plan to bury nuclear waste deep underground at the Bruce Nuclear site?

Are they asking each other, where did we go wrong? Because they did, go wrong.

Are they adding up the huge waste of time, energy and many millions of dollars at public expense in the past two decades? That includes a lengthy and expensive series of public hearings conducted by a joint federal review panel. The hearings were an important part of a Government of Canada approval process that was unexpectedly pre-empted by a side deal commitment OPG made with the SON in 2013 not to build the proposed deep geological repository without their support. That “amounted to a requirement of SON consent,” OPG says.

The joint federal review panel went ahead with the hearings that same year, and had to schedule more to meet the public demand to be heard. In 2015 the panel presented its report to the former Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. But there was an election coming and the Harper government decided to delay making a final decision, leading to the issuing of a permit for construction by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

Then, the newly elected Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also put off making a final decision and asked OPG for more information. To this day, the decision has not been made. It’s not clear what the government will do, now that OPG, an Ontario Crown Corporation, has said it will honour its commitment to SON. But it certainly appears OPG’s application for a permit to build the DGR as planned will be withdrawn.

Is OPG prepared to say something like, sorry, we blew it? Because it did, time and time again, as far back as 2004, when in October of that year it signed a hosting agreement with Kincardine and other municipalities near the Bruce Nuclear generating station. The agreement required the municipalities to use their “best efforts” to support the proposed DGR or risk losing millions of dollars worth of payments, “at the sole discretion” of OPG. Thus, did the publicly-owned corporation show the extent it was prepared to go to get what it wanted.

OPG was prepared to offer the SON communities a compensation package reportedly worth $150 million if the result of the recent vote had been YES. But SON members, 1,058 of the 1,232 who voted, were not so easily bought off.

In the immediate aftermath of the vote OPG said it will look for “an alternate solution” for the permanent storage of low and intermediate-level nuclear waste that takes many thousands of years to lose its radioactivity.

If anybody had asked me, before or after the SON membership vote, I would have said the idea of burying nuclear waste anywhere near the shores of Lake Huron, one of The Great Lakes share between Canada and the U.S., was always a bad idea. And that’s no matter how many scientific studies were done and concluded it was an okay thing to do. The optics were terrible, and the scope of the adverse public reaction largely predictable; except for the Town of Kincardine and other municipalities bought off by OPG in 2004, and sentiment elsewhere in the Grey-Bruce area where over the years nuclear has become a sacred, economic cow. There were also clear signs, literally, the DGR was bound to become a serious thorn in the side of U.S.-Canada relations if construction had been approved.


A map prepared by Michigan Radio in 2015

A mischievous mind might ask, is this truly the end of OPG’s plans to build a deep geological repository somewhere, possibly even elsewhere in the SON territory, farther away than 1.2 kilometres from the shores of a Great Lake?

A closer look at OPG’s January 31 media release shows OPG is still committed to the DGR concept, as an integral part of nuclear energy’s role as a “vital tool in fighting climate change,” as a, wait for it, “non-emitting source of electricity.”

Under the heading of “Key Facts on OPG and the DGR project” the media release says “The DGR project, as submitted to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission in 2005, would have been built 680 metres below the Bruce site, in strong, dry and impermeable rock that has been isolated from the lake or any groundwater for hundreds of millions of years.

“High-level waste, or used fuel, in Canada is destined for a separate DGR for which a site selection process is underway, managed by a separate company, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO),” OPG also notes. It does not mention that the Municipality of South Bruce, near Bruce Nuclear, and in the SON territory, is one of the two communities left on the NWMO’s host-site short list.

Nor does, the OPG release say anything about OPG’s long-time, senior-partner connection and working relationship with the NWMO.

The “Key Facts” part of the release also says, “The Municipality of Kincardine was a willing hosting community for OPG’s DGR since 2005. Four adjacent municipalities also passed resolutions to support the project.” It does not say how they were financially obligated to show that support.

Under the heading, “Frequently asked questions.” another OPG document poses a question about the role of SON and other indigenous communities may play in developing an alternate solution for the permanent storage of low and intermediate-level nuclear waste:

“Over the years, OPG and SON have been building a relationship based on mutual respect, collaboration and trust. OPG looks forward to continuing this relationship, and committed to remain in dialogue with SON regarding permanent disposal of the waste in its territory,” (my italics) the prepared answer says.

Getting back to the NWMO and OPG’s connections to it, the Canadian government set up the NWMO in 2002 with a mandate to find a permanent solution for the permanent, long-term storage of the highly radioactive used fuel. At the time it was widely thought the most likely solution would be burial deep in the very hard and very old, igneous rock of the vast Canadian Shield. Indeed, a research centre in the shield area of northern Manitoba had already been set up to look at that idea.

The NWMO’s board of directors is composed of representatives from all the owner/operators of nuclear reactors in Canada. Because most of them are in Ontario, OPG is in effect NWMO’s senior partner. In 2003 OPG began to raise concerns at the NWMO about the Canadian Shield assumption and suggested there were sedimentary rock formations in southern Ontario that merited further study.

In July 2004 OPG received a report from Martin Mazurek of the Institute of Geological Sciences, University of Bern, Switzerland and shared it with the NWMO. The geo-scientific assessment examined “the suitability of Palaeozoic sedimentary rock occurring beneath southern Ontario to host a Deep Geological Repository (DGR) for used nuclear fuel.”

The report concluded there were many good reasons why the shales and limestones beneath southern Ontario “provide a highly suitable environment to host a deep geological repository for spent fuel . . . From a geo-scientific perspective, the chance of success to complete a convincing safety case is substantial,” the executive summary said. The body of the report also cited the “Bruce Megablock” as a specific area worthy of further consideration.

Soon after that, the NWMO shut down the Canadian Shield research centre in Manitoba because it was no longer necessary. Clearly, there had been a big turning point in the approach being taken in Canada to the deep-rock burial of nuclear waste.

At the time, I found the OPG-commissioned report amid numerous background materials on the NWMO website. Someone in that organization thought it was important enough to show to a Nuclear Waste Management Regional Forum for southern Ontario aboriginal communities in Toronto in the fall of 2004. Copies of the executive summary were distributed to the 19 First Nation Chiefs and other representatives of aboriginal communities on hand.

The Assembly of First Nations submitted a report about the results of the southern Ontario forum to the NWMO on Dec. 17, 2004. The deep geological repository idea was heavily criticized: “There was strong opposition to the idea that nuclear fuel waste can be ‘isolated’ from the environment in this way,” There was also a lot of suspicion, an “underlying” feeling that the NWMO, the nuclear energy industry, and even the government, already favour that approach, the AFN said.

I don’t know for a fact that the Chiefs and perhaps other members of the two SON First Nations at the time were at that meeting, but it seems more than likely.

I don’t say that qualifies as fulfillment back then of a “duty to consult” when that was long before the Supreme Court of Canada made that ruling. But I do say OPG knew as early as 2004 that a DGR in southern Ontario was going to be a hard sell in any First Nation traditional territory

The hosting agreement between OPG and Kincardine and other municipalities near Bruce Nuclear had already been signed that same year. As mentioned above, a section of the agreement obligates the municipalities to use their “best efforts” to support the proposed DGR and its approval; otherwise, they would risk seeing the payments cancelled, at “the sole discretion” of OPG. At the time those grants were estimated to total up to $35 million. A timeline for “milestones” in the agreement anticipated 2017 would be a reasonable date to expect a licence for construction of the proposed DGR would be finally approved and issued.

Section 2.2 of hosting agreement says the payments “shall terminate immediately” and any money, including interest, still set aside in special accounts will “immediately be returned … if the DGR can’t be advanced or constructed because of events outside of the reasonable or actual control of the parties.”

So, it appears those payments, or any continuation of them, are finished, with OPG’s decision to honor the results of the SON vote. But OPG has said municipalities would be consulted as part of the development of a new DGR proposal.

It also remains to be seen how the SON vote against the OPG deep-geological project could affect the NWMO`s consideration of South Bruce as a site for its proposed DGR for highly radioactive used, nuclear fuel. South Bruce is, after all, in the SON territory. The only other potential site under consideration is Ignace, in northern Ontario`s Canadian Shield region.

Canada’s growing stockpile of used nuclear fuel is currently being storied in above ground facilities regarded as “temporary” at nuclear facilities, including OPG’s Western Waste Management Facility at Bruce Nuclear, near the Lake Huron town of Kincardine.

While the two DGR’s are supposed to be separate proposals, not surprisingly, they have often been confused in the public mind.

The press release announcing the results of the SON vote described it as an “historic exercising of our Aboriginal and Treaty Rights and free, prior and informed consent in our Territory. The Communities have voted against the DGR.”

It said 170 votes were cast in favor of the development, while 1,058 were opposed, and four ballots were spoiled, for a total of 1,232. There were four spoiled ballots.

The release quoted Chief Lester Anoquot of the Chippewas of Saugeen First Nation speaking to the importance of the vote as an “historic milestone and momentous victory for our People.”

Chief Anoquot said, “We worked for many years for our right to exercise jurisdiction in our Territory and the free, prior and informed consent of our People to be recognized,” he said. “As Anishinaabe, we didn’t ask for this waste to be created and stored in our Territory, but it is here. We have a responsibility to our Mother Earth to protect both her and our Lands and Waters. Today, our People have voted against the DGR; tells us that we must work diligently to find a new solution for the waste.”

That doesn’t like SON is anxious to keep its DGR options open.

OPG isn’t going to give up on the DGR concept easily. It has a lot of time, energy, and money — public money — invested in it. At times OPG was so eager to get what it wanted it went too far to manipulate outcomes, for example, in its dealings with municipalities in Bruce Nuclear area. It used its place as senior partner in the NWMO to open the door wide to the deep burial of nuclear waste in southern Ontario’s sedimentary rock formations, highly radioactive used fuel, as well as its own low and intermediate level nuclear waste. That concept, with the possibility of two DGRs somewhere near the Bruce Nuclear site, appears to be still in play.

In fairness to OPG, the deep-rock burial idea for the long-term storage of nuclear waste (500 to a million years) has been around for a long time. Atomic Energy Canada Limited (AECL) came up with it in 1988. AECL suggested burial in what it called the ‘plutonic rock’ of the Canadian Shield.

The Canadian government reacted by setting up an environmental review panel, the ‘Seaborn Panel,’ to study that concept in more detail, and travel the country to gauge public attitude toward the idea. The panel found a lot of skepticism. It the Seaborn panel 10 years to present its final report. One of its main recommendations was for the government to set up a Nuclear Waste Management Organization. But the panel said it should have an “arm’s length” board of directors representing key stakeholders, but not including the owner/operators of nuclear facilities, like OPG. But the Liberal government of former prime Minister Jean Chretien did exactly what the panel said should be avoided.

And the rest is history, I guess one could say.

(As of this writing the SON has not been able to say how many of its more than 4,500 members were eligible to vote, other than to say that number includes members under age 16. As a result, it is not possible to say what percentage of SON members actually voted.)

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