A Canadian company wants to start dumping its nuclear waste next to Lake Huron

AP

You can't see them, but they're there: chambers of radioactive waste buried deep beneath the earth's surface, hiding out of sight as time slowly defuses their deadly contents.

Known as deep geological repositories, they're the underground storage facilities nuclear power companies build to house the toxic byproducts they produce. The deeper down they're buried, the more radioactive their concealed troves are likely to be. And now, a Canadian nuclear plant is hoping to receive approval to build the deepest one ever proposed in North America, less than a mile from the shores of the Great Lakes.

Shallow pits containing nuclear waste at the Bruce Power facility in Kincardine, OntarioSource: John Flesher/AP
Shallow pits containing nuclear waste at the Bruce Power facility in Kincardine, Ontario  John Flesher/AP

The deeper, the deadlier

The Canadian government-owned Ontario Power Generation is currently seeking approval to build a deep geological repository, or DGR, at an existing power facility near the town of Kincardine, Ontario. If constructed, the site would serve as a vault for low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste roughly 2,230 feet underground, nearly deeper beneath the earth's crust than the height of two Empire State Buildings stacked on top of one another.

The vault would also be situated less than a mile from Lake Huron — the freshwater source that supplies drinking water to 40 million Canadians and Americans.

The fate of the nuclear waste has hung in the balance for years. In 2007, the plans were kicked to a joint review panel for investigation amid public concerns about the potential environmental disaster that would ensue if the repository were to begin leaching its radioactive contents into the Great Lakes. Although the panel released its report in 2015 recommending that the plans move forward for approval, private citizens have only gotten more vocal in their desire not to see the vault built.

As the spokesperson for Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump, a Canadian nonprofit dedicated to halting the construction of the site, Beverly Fernandez is one of the loudest dissenters. 

Fernandez said the decision to build a nuclear waste repository beside the large freshwater body is more than risky — it's in knowing disregard for the health of millions of people.

"Of course, no scientist or geologist can provide us with a 100,000 year guarantee that this nuclear waste dump will not leak and contaminate the Great Lakes," Fernandez said. "We won't know until after it happens."

Fernandez and the other members of coalitions trying to raise public awareness of the dangers the waste repository poses have good reason to be concerned: According to Fernandez, only three deep nuclear waste facilities of the scale that Ontario Power Generation is proposing have ever been built in human history. All three of them have leaked.

A history of failure

In the late 1960s and early '70s, at least two underground salt mines in Germany were converted into vaults to house nuclear waste. These types of facilities were safe, scientists reasoned, because the salt rock would form a protective seal around the waste, protecting it from groundwater.

But by 2009, researchers discovered that around 12,000 liters of corrosive groundwater were penetrating one of the mines daily, intermingling with and transporting its radioactive contents as it went. The second facility has also been challenged by water infiltration, and faces a cleanup effort estimated to cost $1.6 billion

In the United States, in 2014, a drum of nuclear waste began spewing radioactive materials at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico, due to it being improperly packed with kitty litter. A subsequent federal investigation found the dump to be in violation of more than two dozen safety measures. It's not expected to resume full functionality until 2021.

A worker stands outside the locked gates of the leaking Asse II mine in Germany.Source: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
A worker stands outside the locked gates of the leaking Asse II mine in Germany.  Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The history of failure among these existing deep nuclear waste vaults is enough to cause concern among the residents of the towns that dot the shores of Lake Huron on both its Canadian and American coasts.

And while they've been showing up to public hearings and passing resolutions and signing petitions to signal their anxieties about the construction of the OPG's proposed nuclear waste dump for years, the company reasons that their voices have not been enough to stall the project.

"There is little interest among the general public regarding the DGR project," an OPG report released in January states, according to the Canadian Press"Ontarians are not looking for information on nuclear waste disposal in large volumes. This topic is not a popular one nor is it generating large volumes of curiosity."

A worker drives down a tunnel at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico.Source: Eric Draper/AP
A worker drives down a tunnel at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico.  Eric Draper/AP

"We need the public to care"

As a child who grew up boating, water skiing and fishing in Algonac, Michigan, Annette Gilbert has always considered the Great Lakes to be an inextricable part of  life.

"I have always stayed along the water. ... I utilize it and I love it," Gilbert said. "I mean it's beautiful. I have great attachment to [the Great Lakes]."

In September 2015, Gilbert joined up with the Great Lakes Environmental Alliance — a group who, like the Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump, makes it their business to prevent the approval of OPG's proposed nuclear waste site.

She had been attending the Port Huron Float Down, the Michigan tradition that sends rafters floating down the St. Clair River on dinghies and inner tubes, when she spotted the Alliance's booth by the river's edge featuring a live band and volunteers handing out fliers.

Gilbert remembers being struck by the organization's patience and dedication to informing the public about the planned nuclear waste repository.

"Everybody floating down the water and enjoying our Great Lakes was privy to any information if they chose to be," she said. "They could stop and listen, and there were different tents set up with information — so much information I couldn't believe it."

Two twelve-year-old girls yell at an officer overseeing nuclear waste transport to the WIPP facility in 1999.Source: Sarah Martone/AP
Two twelve-year-old girls yell at an officer overseeing nuclear waste transport to the WIPP facility in 1999.  Sarah Martone/AP

And yet, unlike the movement to oppose the Dakota Access pipeline, whose snaking path would have bisected the sacred land of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and threatened the water supply from the Missouri River, the proposed OPG nuclear waste site hasn't been able to ensnare the public's attention.

According to Gilbert, though, public engagement is exactly what the success of the Great Lakes Environmental Alliance's efforts hinges on.

"If people don't know what's going on and they can't voice their opinions and tell Canada 'we don't want this and we're not going to allow it,' and our government doesn't step up and say 'our people don't want this', then nothing's going to happen, they're going to do what they want," Gilbert said. 

"We're not against big energy, we're not against big corporations and making your money, but we are against putting the world's largest natural resource at risk when it's such an important time to make sure that we're preserving this and protecting it."

In its January 2017 report, OPG submitted research on alternative build sites it had been asked to provide: Yes, it had assessed other zones for the nuclear waste disposal site, it wrote in the report, and yes, those zones were viable options, but its original location was still the most environmentally — and financially — sound choice. As the joint review panel on the project vowed in 2014, the Lake Huron-adjacent location was safe, and would be "not likely to result in any significant residual adverse effects to human health or the environment."

But for the time being, the resistance movements aren't convinced.

"Water is life," Fernandez said. "The last place to bury radioactive nuclear waste is less than a mile from the Great Lakes, the drinking water for 40 million Canadians and Americans."