Why more than a dozen towns are considering hosting Canada’s high-level radioactive waste – by Tom Spears (Ottawa Citizen – December 16, 2011)


Who would want a pile of used fuel from nuclear reactors that will be radioactive for millennia? William Elliott does. Badly enough to fight for it.

The boss at the economic development corporation serving the Elliot Lake region sees the upside of something that usually provokes gut reactions of not-in-my-back-yard. “There’s the obvious economic impact of 700 to 1,000 permanent full-time jobs (and) $16 billion to $24 billion of direct investment,” he says.

“It’s going to be one of the biggest economic development projects in Canadian history.” Put that way, maybe it’s not so hard to see why Elliot Lake and its neighbours are campaigning to become the place where Canada buries all our high-level radioactive waste.

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization is looking for a site to sink thousands of tonnes of used reactor fuel forever, replacing the temporary storage that Canada has used for 60 years. This concept, called deep geological disposal, offers major economic development, and people in Elliot Lake and nearby Blind River are listening.

So are hard-hit towns farther west such as Wawa and Hornepayne, where the regional population has fallen since the early 1990s from 15,000 to less than 12,000. The same all the way to Pinehouse, Sask. Everyone wants the hundreds of permanent jobs that a waste site would bring.

Wherever it ends up, “it’s going to have a net positive impact on the whole region,” says Elliot Lake Mayor Rick Hamilton.

His city, a former uranium mining town whose mines have all shut down, is halfway between Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie. The population has fallen from 14,000 to 11,500, and the main industry today is retirement living.

A massive project to bury used uranium half a kilometre down in the Canadian Shield could change that.

“You talk about transformational!” says Elliott.

And he means it’s transformational in a good way.

“If you know any of the Elliot Lake history, we mined uranium. We were the uranium capital of the world. And in our region, just down the highway (in Blind River) is the Cameco uranium refinery. And Cameco was once named one of the top employers in the country. They have an absolutely stellar reputation.”

Having spent decades digging uranium out of the ground, the workers of Elliot Lake aren’t bothered so far by the prospect of putting it back underground.

One resident posting comments on the Elliot Lake Standard’s website says his home’s value rises a little with each step toward a waste site.

“If we finally win this sweepstake, held among so few competitors,” it will bring high-paying jobs for engineers and doctors, he wrote. “You want to see downtown revitalization? Get out of the way.”

Another commenter responded: “How do you then sell cottage lots in a pristine area where a nuclear waste storage site is to be located?”

Opposition does exist, but so far there isn’t the type of massive protest that would explode if someone wanted to dump the waste in Ottawa.

“People are inquisitive, they want to know what it’s all about, which is a good thing,” says Mayor Hamilton, a former uranium mine worker.

“People are very comfortable that it’s a very regulated industry, that the people who work in the industry are very conscientious, and there are real opportunities,” adds Elliott.

“Economically there’s a huge potential positive impact. We have a comfort with the industry, based on our current experience and our history.”

Elliott says there’s also a moral view that the town that grew from uranium should take care of the waste.

“The people who say, geez, why don’t we just wait (and) leave it in temporary storage for 50 years — philosophically I don’t agree with that,” he says. “The temporary facilities are temporary.”

Fuel today sits for about 10 years under water, until it cools enough to be packed in containers above ground. All this storage is at Canada’s five nuclear plants — one reactor in each of New Brunswick and Quebec, and 20 more in Ontario at Darlington, Pickering, and near Kincardine.

Vying for the waste — or at least considering it — are nine towns in Northern Ontario (Ignace, Ear Falls, Wawa, Township of the North Shore, Elliot Lake, Hornepayne, Nipigon, Schreiber, and Saugeen Shores) and three in Saskatchewan (Pinehouse, English River First Nation, and Creighton).

For the first time, there are also two towns in southwestern Ontario.

Brockton, which takes in the former town of Walkerton, says it wants to “learn more” about possibly hosting the disposal site.

Nearby Saugeen Shores, on Lake Huron, has gone a step farther. It has asked for a screening of its geology, to see whether it is suitable.

The town shows up on many maps as Port Elgin and Southampton; these towns and one township amalgamated under the new name, and the area sits just north of the Bruce Nuclear Power Development and its eight reactors.

Many Saugeen Shores residents work at the Bruce A and Bruce B plants.

Mayor Mike Smith cautions that the town is just at the start of a potentially long journey: “The first step is (to) learn more about the process.” Still, “there’s some interest in seeing whether we potentially could be a site.

“We’ve got about 40 per cent of the workers from the present (Bruce) nuclear site living in our community, so I think that’s where the interest came from,” he says.

Councillors toured the site where Bruce waste is temporarily stored last month, and a committee wants the Nuclear Waste Management Organization to screen the local geology.

“We haven’t made decisions other than that, to this point,” Smith says.

He also says other communities in the region, marketed to tourists for the sandy beaches of Lake Huron, are privately showing interest.

For the rest of this artilce, please go to the Ottawa Citizen website: http://www.ottawacitizen.com/business/more+than+dozen+towns+considering+hosting+Canada+high+level+radioactive+waste/5874591/story.html