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Nuke dump proposal near Lake Huron raises alarm in US, Canada

Published time: October 28, 2013 12:17
Edited time: October 29, 2013 08:03
The Bluewater bridge is seen, joining the U.S (L) and Sarnia, Canada, from a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Blackhawk helicopter in Port Huron, Michigan (Reuters)

The Bluewater bridge is seen, joining the U.S (L) and Sarnia, Canada, from a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Blackhawk helicopter in Port Huron, Michigan (Reuters)

Plans for a nuclear waste facility near the US-Canadian border – less than a mile from one of the world’s largest sources of fresh water – has triggered a public outcry among Americans and Canadians.

A heated debate is surfacing over Ontario Power Generation’s ambitious plans to burrow 2,200 feet underground near Kincardine, a small town of just over 11,000 in the province of Ontario, Canada, to construct a nuclear waste storage facility.

The radioactive waste has been steadily accumulating from Ontario’s 20 nuclear reactors.

A review panel appointed by the Canadian government will issue a recommendation in coming weeks to Canada’s Cabinet, which will in turn decide whether or not to approve the utility’s plan.

Public opposition to the proposal would probably have remained muted if not for one glaring footnote: The site for the planned nuclear waste dump is situated less than a mile away from the sparkling shores of Lake Huron, which, together with Lakes Superior, Michigan, Erie, and Ontario, comprise the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth, with 21 percent of the world's total supplies.

While tens of millions of American and Canadian residents depend upon the Great Lakes for their supplies of fresh water, an increasingly threatened global resource, many others look to the business opportunities connected to the 94,250 square-mile (151,000sq km) body of water.

In the US state of Michigan alone, the fishing industry pulls in $2.4 billion annually, while the tourism industry generates an estimated $13 billion. Given these factors, it’s no wonder that the proposed nuclear dump is generating such hostility.

“I’m up in arms,” Michigan resident Sherry Hummel of Williamsburg, Michigan told the Times Herald. “It’s just a dangerous, dangerous thing to do near 20 percent of the world’s [unfrozen surface] fresh water.”
   
However, Ontario Power Generation (OPG), which plans to bury the nuclear waste 2,200 feet (670 meters) underground in a layer of limestone, capped-off with a 660-foot layer of shale, is confident its proposal poses no risk to the Lake Huron region and beyond.

While most of the disposed items would be low-level waste, the underground facility also would handle intermediate-level waste, “like filters, resins, things that are closer to the nuclear core,” utility spokesman Neal Kelly told the paper.

“They are much more radioactive and need to be handled with a lot more care,” he said. 

Ontario Hydro Pickering nuclear power station (Reuters/Andy Clark)

Despite assurances that the facility will pose no risk to the Great Lake basin, grassroots movements are taking OPG to task over its plans.

“Ontario Power Generation did not consider any other sites for the location of this nuclear waste dump,” Beverly Fernandez, who helped establish Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump, a non-profit organization, told the Times Herald. “A few thousand people in the small town of Kincardine are making this decision on behalf of 40 million people” living in the vicinity of the Great Lakes.

The organization has collected more than 38,000 online petition signatures from both Americans and Canadians who want to see the project canceled.

Meanwhile, Larry Kraemer, mayor of Kincardine, argued in favor of the underground dump to store nuclear waste, which is presently stored above ground in warehouses adjacent the Bruce nuclear plant, for the 500 construction jobs the project is anticipated to create.

At the same time, Kraemer played down the potential risks of the nuclear dump, pointing to the decision of his own residents to continue living in the town.

“These people know nuclear; they know the safety of it, and they choose to live here,” he told the paper.  

Last week, Michigan Senators Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry requesting the US government get involved in the controversy.

“The placement of this nuclear waste storage facility is of great concern given its location near Lake Huron and the importance of the Great Lakes to tens of millions of US and Canadian citizens for drinking water, fisheries, tourism, recreation and other industrial and economic uses,” Democrats Stabenow and Levin wrote in their letter. “Special consideration must be given to the potential environmental impacts of such a large radioactive waste site on the shores of our region’s most important natural resource…

“We strongly urge you to engage the International Joint Commission on this important topic and also encourage the Canadian government to reconsider placing a nuclear waste dump near the shores of Lake Huron.”

If there are no overriding objections to the project, work on the facility could begin in 2014.

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