Canada’s “Yucca Mountain” on the Lake Huron Shore

IR 2002-01
INVERHURON, Ontario – February 6, 2002

Canada’s “Yucca Mountain” on the Lake Huron Shore:
Security and Safety Concerns Raised 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 U-S 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 of years.

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 in 2088.

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 occur.

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 U-S.”

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.”

Responsible Parties

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.”

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