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The shadow side of nuclear energy

Nuclear energy promises lots of electricity with minimal greenhouse gases. Its waste `footprint' is a different matter, though.

By Mike Milne

Located about halfway up the Lake Huron coast of southwestern Ontario, the village of Inverhuron is known for its kilometre-long crescent of white sand beach, incandescent sunsets, tidy cottages, homes and farms. A popular summer spot, it's also next door to Canada's most productive nuclear power complex, not to mention the nation's largest collection of nuclear waste.

Bruce Power's reactors are so close to Inverhuron you can't see them from the beach. For many in the area, nuclear power blends unobtrusively into the local landscape -- so familiar it goes unnoticed. That's often the way with nuclear power plants in Canada, partly because since the first one came on line in 1967, Canadian-designed CANDU commercial reactors have produced few serious concerns about safety. We haven't suffered any Chernobyls or Three Mile Islands.

Today, the bigger threat seems to be global warming. As the debate over how to save the planet heats up, Canadians are taking a fresh look at nuclear energy and its promise of plenty of electricity with no greenhouse gases.

Hydro-Quebec is considering renovating its 675-megawatt Gentilly-2 reactor near Trois-Rivieres, Que. New Brunswick Power starts overhauling the 680-megawatt Point Lepreau Generating Station next year and is also looking into a new reactor. Ontario Power Generation (OPG) wants to build a new nuclear plant on the shores of Lake Ontario, and Bruce Power (a corporate consortium that leases two power plants from OPG) is in the midst of a $5.25-billion project to refurbish four of its oldest reactors and to conduct an environmental assessment for a new plant.

Nukes are on a roll, and the Canadian Nuclear Association is making the most of it. Aggressive advertising campaigns highlight nuclear energy's comparatively benign "carbon footprint" -- it's just slightly larger than water-generated hydro-electricity but less than wind and solar power.

Its waste footprint is a different matter. What to do with the toxic byproducts of nuclear power generation has dogged the industry from the start. While technologies for dealing with waste are improving, none could be called clean. New plans for disposing of waste may put it out of sight, but for many, it will never be out of mind.

At the moment, Ontario compacts and incinerates its low-level trash -- mainly contaminated cleaning and maintenance supplies -- at a waste-management facility on the Bruce site. Intermediate-level waste, including mounting piles of highly radioactive parts from Ontario's refurbished nuclear plants, is also stored there. Quebec and New Brunswick take similar approaches. Highly toxic spent fuel is held in plant fuel bays for at least six years before being placed in sealed steel containers with two feet of concrete shielding. The used fuel is dangerous for 10,000 years, give or take a millennium or two. The volume of used uranium fuel in Canada is now enough to fill three hockey arenas up to the top of the boards. Awaiting a longer-term solution, each nuclear plant stores its own spent fuel on site.

Ontario Power Generation thinks the answer lies deep below the Earth's surface. It wants to dispose its low- and intermediate-level waste in a permanent subterranean dump called a deep geologic repository, 660 metres below the Bruce nuclear site. All sides of the Canadian nuclear question are watching the plan carefully -- none more so than those who are concerned about living with it under their backyards.

Bob MacKenzie, a business consultant, Inverhuron native and longtime resident, has helped a local ratepayers association monitor Ontario Hydro and its successor for about two decades. "Every dump we've had over here has leaked like a damned sieve," he says, citing information uncovered through Freedom of Information Act requests. "Why wouldn't this one?"

I visited the Bruce waste management site last summer. Armed guards stood at the ready to repel terrorist attacks, but the only thing that triggered an alarm was the radium-coated face of my old Omega wristwatch.

The used fuel from Bruce Power's reactors, stored in 297 innocuous-looking 10-foot-high containers, is well sheltered for the time being. No one on staff will cite a precise number, but all generally agree that, even without human intervention, the used fuel will likely be safe stored as it is now for about 100 years.

However, a wide variety of containers and systems used for lower-level waste suggests that today's technologies have taken a lot of trial and error to develop. I saw core samples of the 450-million-year-old limestone bedrock far beneath the Bruce site where Ontario Power Generation wants to store its low- and intermediate-level wastes. Planning and building the underground facility will cost $850 million. Plans call for high-level spent-fuel waste to be stored underground, too, but a location hasn't been determined yet. What is certain is that it will be extremely expensive to undertake and hard to sell.

Ask former United Church moderator and retired senator Very Rev. Lois Wilson. She served for nine years on a federal environmental panel considering the concept of storing nuclear waste 500 to 1,000 metres deep in Canadian Shield bedrock. The panel's 1998 report said the disposal plan was technically the best available, but neither socially acceptable nor widely supported.

Looking back, Wilson says the government had already decided to go with deep geological storage "and we were just a showcase." These days, she holds a position similar to one taken by the United Church's 1996 presentation to her panel -- that safe storage rather than permanent disposal is the best alternative.

A resolution passed by the General Council in 2000 went further, calling for a moratorium on nuclear expansion and creation of an arm's-length nuclear waste management agency. Neither has occurred.

In addition to the right kind of rock, another factor required for the low- and intermediate-level deep geologic repository is a willing host community. Kincardine, the municipality that includes the village of Inverhuron, is certainly that: it has signed a "hosting agreement" with Ontario Power Generation and will share $35 million in compensation with four other area municipalities.

Bruce Power is a local economic titan, employing 3,700 regular workers and 1,700 construction workers. A healthy Bruce Power means healthy local real estate values and small businesses. Since leasing the plants in 2001 and bringing two mothballed reactors back into service, Bruce Power has been very healthy: it sold $2 billion worth of electricity in each of the past two years.

Those who owe their jobs and business profits to Bruce Power or Ontario Power Generation are not inclined to question nuclear expansion or the safety of waste storage. Others not tied to the plants are more dubious. The waste-storage plan hits close to home, literally, for sheep farmers and fair-trade wool merchants Eugene and Ann Bourgeois. Theirs is the closest farm property to the waste site.

Eugene, a philosopher-farmer-entrepreneur, and Ann, a retired teacher, moved to their 16-hectare farm in the early 1970s. Since then, they have turned down several Ontario Hydro offers to purchase their property and refused compensation for health problems and lamb losses brought on by hydrogen sulphide releases from the heavy-water plants. The offers all came with gag orders.

Eugene was the lone questioning voice at a recent Bruce Power licensing hearing, where the utility had the backing of three local mayors and its usual retinue of technical experts. He has applied for "interested party" status and hopes to intervene in upcoming environmental panel reviews considering both the underground disposal plan and Bruce Power's proposed new reactors. Those panels will likely hear from a variety of NGOs, Native groups and individuals over the next four years.

The Bourgeoises say they are prepared to dip into their retirement savings to fund their participation. "There's no way we would rather spend the money," says Ann. As he walks around a storehouse, retail outlet, house and barns he built himself, Eugene explains his motivation.

"Let's assume that our children and their children are going to live and that this planet is going to support human activity," he says. "Then let's live in a way that leaves our planet a better place when we die, instead of a big garbage dump.

"OPG's plan may be the best one. I'm not trying to prove they're wrong. I'm just trying to get some answers as to why this is the ideal site."

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