Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Points North: Canadian North Shore Community Questions Nuclear Waste Storage

Will a nuclear waste storage facility be constructed in the Lake Superior Basin? The answer is: possibly. Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) is presently looking for a site to construct a storage facility where nuclear waste will be buried in rock 500 meters to one kilometer underground. Based on geological features, areas near Lake Superior are suitable for such a facility and some communities on the Canadian North Shore have expressed interest in the project.

Recently, officials from Nipigon, Ontario, traveled to Toronto and met with representatives of NWMO for a detailed briefing and a tour of the Pickering Waste Management Facility where nuclear waste is currently stored on an interim basis. The visit was called a “Learn More Opportunity.” Mayor Richard Harvey emphatically states this does not mean Nipigon tossed its hat in the ring as a potential nuclear storage site.

“Nipigon has not in any way said we want the nuclear waste here,” said Harvey in a recent interview. “We want to learn more about the process and inform our citizens. The fact we are asking questions doesn’t mean we are moving forward.”

Nipigon leaders decided to learn more about nuclear waste storage after discovering that two neighboring North Shore communities, nearby Red Rock and Schrieber, which is about 60 miles to the east, were investigating the potential of hosting the nuclear waste facility. While it was determined Red Rock did not have the proper geology for a storage site, Schreiber remains in the running. Other northwestern Ontario communities, such as Ignace, about 100 miles west of Thunder Bay, are interested in the project, as are several communities in Saskatchewan.

Their interest concerns Nipigon, which is located at the northernmost point of Lake Superior. On the edge of town are two bridges over the mighty Nipigon River, one for the TransCanada Highway and the other for the nation’s railroad. There is no other river crossing, so nearly all of the goods and people moving across Canada must pass this point. If the waste storage facility is located further west, nuclear waste will cross these bridges, too.

The NWMO wants the underground storage to be secure for 100,000 years. The storage site must have stable geological features, preferably solid granite with no fractures, ground water or mineral deposits. Fractures or ground water could lead to eventual leakage or contamination. Any minerals may someday be mined, which could also fracture the rock.

For northern communities, becoming the site of the nuclear waste facility could be an economic windfall. Sluggish demand for forest products has led to the closure of many northern Ontario mills and logging operations. Harvey said the entire industrial base of Nipigon and Red Rock was wiped out in the past six years. He was told the nuclear waste facility could bring 400-500 full time jobs for the next 30 years and beyond. However, he doesn’t think communities, particularly his own, should decide to enter the site selection process solely on a promise of jobs.

“The big issue is perception,” he says. “How does it fit with the vision of who we are and where we are going?”

The Nipigon area has been a tourism destination since the 1800s. Not long ago the Canadian government established a Marine Conservation area that encompasses much Lake Superior, its wild shores and islands near Nipigon. The community is in the early stages of developing a master plan for its marina and waterfront, in part to take advantage of new tourism opportunities. Tourism development and nuclear waste storage may not be compatible for the community.

Harvey says some community members are adamantly opposed to even considering nuclear waste storage, but many are staying neutral until they learn more about it. While the jobs would be welcome, Nipigon is starting to recover from the loss of its industrial base through new jobs provided by health care, education, government services and entrepreneurs. This is not necessarily true in other northern communities.

“Other communities may say yes to entering the selection process and economics will be the deciding factor,” he says.

Ultimately, the Canadian government is leaving it up to communities to decide if they want to host the nuclear waste facility. Without overwhelming community support, the project will not move forward. And, even though it seems Nipigon is an unlikely candidate, Harvey thinks the facility could end up somewhere on the north side of Lake Superior. If that is the case, he wants to makes sure his community is well-informed and has a voice.

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