Will Bruce County become Canada's Yucca Mountain?
The proposed Canadian site for tens of thousands of tons
of American radioactive waste is raising controversy on
both sides of the border
Tens of thousands of tons of high level radioactive waste
from America's defense and nuclear energy industries is
destined for permanent storage deep inside Yucca Mountain,
Nevada. But across the border in Bruce County, Ontario,
Canada, more than 18,000 tons of high level nuclear waste
materials from the Bruce nuclear plant will be stored
for most of this century, on-site and above ground, on
the south east shoreline of Lake Huron.
News of the nuclear waste site came as a surprise to
many US environmentalists, including officials from the
EPA and the Michigan Office of the Great Lakes who were
gathered in January, 2002 at Port Huron, Michigan, for
a Great Lakes Workshop.
The waste site is called the Western Waste Management
Facility (WWMF). It's part of the Bruce nuclear power
generation complex in Kincardine Township, Ontario. With
its 9 reactors -- 4 on line, 2 more about to come on line
and 3 which are closed or decommissioned -- as well as
waste storage and other facilities, the site is the largest
of its kind on the planet.
The WWMF and Yucca Mountain are similar in many ways,
and quite different in others. Both are in the final stages
of construction. Both will house materials which remain
deadly for hundreds of years, and radioactive for thousands
But while the Nevada site lies deep underground in a
dormant volcano, far from major population centres, lakes
and rivers, the Ontario site is above ground and on the
Lake Huron shoreline. Yucca Mountain tunnels are designed
to contain high level radioactive waste permanently, but
the WWMF will provide only temporary storage, starting
as early as 2002-03. For despite decades of effort, Canada
has yet to select a permanent storage site.
The WWMF already stores low and medium level waste from
Ontario's 21 nuclear powered reactors. An incinerator
burns low level waste on site. Cooling pools contain hundreds
of thousands of used fuel bundles taken from the cores
of the reactors. But it's the latest addition to the WWMF
which is getting the attention.
It's an above ground dry storage complex that will eventually
house three quarters of a million highly radioactive used
fuel bundles. Through the lifetime of the Bruce nuclear
facility, as many as three quarters of a million more
bundles could be added. And while the search for a permanent
storage site for high level nuclear waste goes on, records
indicate such waste could still be in storage at WWMF
Terrorism, Accidents and Other International Concerns
The Western Waste Management Facility has never undergone
an independent environmental assessment. The plant operators
have done their own assessments, and they insist that
the site is safe and the chance of a major accident is
very slim. Planned radioactive emissions from the plant
occur on a regular basis, facilitated by guidelines and
limits set by Canadian regulatory authorities. Just what
the effect of the build-up of those emissions in the lake
might be is a question which brings speculation from all
sides. But other jurisdictions are taking action on emissions
from nuclear plants.
Late last month, Norway's foreign affairs committee asked
the Norwegian government to bring economic sanctions against
Britain. Norway wants radioactive emissions from the U.K.'s
Sellafield nuclear plant to cease. Traces of the radioactive
compound technetium-99 originating from Sellafield have
been found along the entire Norwegian coastline. Norway
wants an international agreement which would make polluting
countries liable for the clean-up of spills wherever they
Then there is the record of unplanned spills at the Bruce
plant. While minor so far, there is the fear of a major
spill or accident. Norm de la Chevrotiere is an insurance
actuary and President of a volunteer citizen's group called
the Inverhuron and District Ratepayers' Association (IDRA).
The IDRA has filed an application with the Supreme Court
of Canada requesting, among other things, an independent
environmental assessment of the WWMF. "We're not
anti-nuclear. But we are concerned about the concentration
of nuclear related risks in the Great Lakes basin,"
says de la Chevrotiere, noting that 21 of Canada's 23
reactors are on the shores of Lakes Huron and Ontario.
"The chance of a major accident or terrorist attack
is hopefully very small, but the severity of such an event
could be catastrophic for Canada and the US."
Security has greatly increased at the Bruce facility
since September 11, 2001. A three mile "no-fly zone"
and strict front gate inspection procedures are now in
place. But despite these security upgrades, two swamped
fishermen managed to go under the lake-side perimeter
fence, break into a building on the site and call 911,
without being detected. And while plant management insisted
at a recent public meeting that it wants to keep the facility
accessible to the public for such emergencies, there are
concerns about the conflicting goals of complete security
on the one hand and emergency public access on the other.
Where to put the waste?
Canadian environmental groups wonder if the WWMF site
is being expanded to house high level waste from all of
Canada's nuclear power plants. They point to new federal
legislation as paving the way.
But Canada's nuclear regulators and operators flatly
deny such claims, and say the search for a permanent site
is still very much ongoing. In the meantime, high level
waste is contained as per the present waste industry credo
of "store it where you make it." And while the
piles get bigger, a permanent solution seems no nearer.
A February 2, 2002 Globe and Mail article quotes an Atomic
Energy of Canada, Ltd. official working at Yucca Mountain
as saying, "Canada is at least 10 years behind the
United States on (long term storage)."
Norm de la Chevrotiere says the IDRA is all too aware
of the situation. "Everyone understands something
has to be done with the waste. Our concern is that this
temporary WWMF site has all the appearance of becoming
much more permanent."
The Western Waste Management Facility is operated by
Ontario Power Generation (OPG), a public utility and one
of a number of smaller entities created from the government's
break-up of the former giant public electric power monopoly,
Ontario Hydro, the corporation which has been described
as "a run-away freight train." OPG has taken
over ownership of the 9 nuclear reactors on the Bruce
site, as well as 12 reactors at two other sites in Ontario.
But OPG doesn't operate the Bruce reactors. The operator
is a private sector firm called Bruce Power. As part of
its move to reign in the electric utilities, deregulate
the sector and open the Ontario electricity market to
competition, the provincial government ordered OPG to
drastically reduce its provincial market share by 2012.
So, last year, OPG leased the Bruce nuclear power generation
facilities to Bruce Power, which is 82.4% owned by United
Kingdom electrical giant, British Energy. British Energy
operates nuclear power plants at home and abroad, including
in the United States as part of the AmerGen program: Bruce
Power has announced plans to increase sales of its electricity
into the U-S market.
All of this means that while federal regulators continue
to seek a permanent site for Canada's nuclear waste, and
the WWMF acts as a "temporary" Yucca Mountain,
Bruce Power sits alone at the leading edge of the new
electricity marketplace in Ontario. Thus it should have
come as little surprise to anyone when, late last year,
Bruce Power announced a $90 million profit for its first
six months operating the Bruce facility.
Little wonder that British Energy president Robin Jeffrey
has declared Canada "a great place to do business."
For further information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Bruce Centre for Energy Research and Information
is a not-for-profit corporation located in Inverhuron,
Bruce County, Ontario. The Centre conducts research into:
1) safety, cost and accountability issues related to the
world's largest nuclear power complex, also located in
Inverhuron, Bruce County, and 2) issues related to alternative
energy production (including wind, solar, hydrogen, cogeneration,
etc.) The Friends of Bruce project is the public information
component of the Bruce Centre.