The Nuclear Waste Abandonment Issue in Northwestern Ontario

For more than 40 years, nuclear power companies in Canada have been creating highly radioactive nuclear wastes that will be dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years. Now they want to bury it.

Pink Lady's Slipper

According to the nuclear industry’s plan, an estimated 132 thousand tonnes (132 million kilograms) of highly radioactive nuclear waste will be shipped to their selected site, repackaged and buried. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) is studying Northwestern Ontario. At their candidate site in the Revell Lake area between Ignace and Dryden, NWMO is drilling the rock and collecting information they will use to apply for a licence to construct a deep geological repository (DGR). Construction could begin in 2033.

  • For over ten years, NWMO has been courting First Nations and municipalities in the north, spending tens of millions of dollars as they seek support for their plan to bury nuclear waste.
  • Since 2009, the Township of Ignace has participated in NWMO’s program, and has received millions of dollars for their cooperation.
  • The study site is 40 kilometres west of Ignace.
  • When water is contaminated, the effects are experienced by the downstream communities.
  • Dryden, Kenora, and many Treaty #3 communities are downstream from the NWMO study area.

Our concerns fall into three broad categories:

We conclude with a preferable strategy:

NWMO strives to give the impression that informed consent is essential to their project. Yet, there is little definition of what this means, either from NWMO, or even legally.

NWMO often refers to “the willing host community” – but, how is “willingness” defined? NWMO has conducted polls (of dubious value, containing leading questions, and offering prizes to participants) among the residents of Ignace, 40 km away from the proposed site. NWMO offers their own “educational” materials (promoting the safety of the proposed project) at their “Learn More Centre” in Ignace, and among neighbouring Indigenous communities.

Learn more about the Revell Lake area.

Even if consent could be satisfactorily defined, how is consent to be expressed, and by whom? Keep in mind that the NWMO’s candidate area is more than 40 km outside Ignace’s municipal borders, that downstream communities are also put at risk, and that residents and communities along the transportation corridor will be directly affected. Disturbingly, there are no answers from the NWMO on how they will measure consent or how community will be defined. A “vote” has been mentioned by NWMO, as early as 2024 – although in 2022 Ignace Council declared that Council itself would express willingness or lack thereof on behalf of its citizens. In the end – who will be allowed to respond?

Consent from the affected Indigenous communities is especially important. According to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP):

States shall take effective measures to ensure that no storage or disposal of hazardous materials shall take place in the lands or territories of indigenous peoples without their free, prior and informed consent.

UNDRIP, Article 29, para. 2

What is free, prior and informed consent?

We the Nuclear Free North actively seek the answers to these questions of consent.

APTN Investigates

In late winter 2020, the Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN) in Northern Ontario aired a two-episode investigative report entitled “Nuclear Courtship,” about steps NWMO had taken to encourage consent to their project among members of local First Nations. View both episodes here.

Lack of scientific evidence of safety

There are no deep geological repositories (DGRs) storing high-level nuclear fuel waste anywhere in the world. If approved and constructed, the DGR in Northwestern Ontario’s Revell Lake area could be the first.

The nuclear industry likes to portray the use of deep geological repositories as an accepted practice, asserting there is an “international consensus” about their use. But that “consensus” reflects agreement among proponents, not the public or independent experts. In fact, there is a list of technical and scientific uncertainties (click to download PDF), ranging from lack of peer-reviewed studies, to uncertainties related to the ability of the buffer materials and of the rock to effectively block radionuclides, and pointing to over-reliance on computer modelling. 

The “area of study” for these possible geological repositories spans the headwaters of two watersheds: the English/Wabigoon watershed and the Rainy River/Lake of the Woods watershed. Combined, these watersheds connect with Kenora’s water supply, Winnipeg’s water supply, many northern Ontario First Nations communities, and eventually Hudson Bay – and every precious lake and waterway in between.

The “Detailed Map Area” on the first map is depicted in the second map.

watersheds map: english-wabigoon and rainy river-lake of the woods
Watershed Map of English/Wabigoon system and Rainy River/Lake of the Woods system – Click here for a larger PDF
Detailed Map of Watershed in the Revell Lake Area – Click here for a larger PDF

Read more at Know Nuclear Waste – Geological Repositories

Dangers of transportation

In the current proposed plans, all of Canada’s high-level nuclear waste would be “disposed of” in one location, in a Deep Geological Repository (DGR). If this waste were transported to Northwestern Ontario, it would entail 2-3 transport truckloads per day, and possibly rail shipments as well, for 50 years. Below are the production sites from which the waste would be shipped (note that the bulk of the waste would come from the facilities in Southern Ontario):

Canada's interim storage sites for high-level nuclear waste

Approximate highway distances from these facilities and the proposed site in Northwestern Ontario are as follows:
From Whiteshell: 332 km
From Bruce/Douglas Point: 1,684 km
From Pickering/Darlington: 1,665 km
From Chalk River: 1,502 km
From Gentilly 1&2: 1,936
From Point Lepreau: 2,517

Dr. Gordon Edwards‘ document, “Questions and Answers About Irradiated Nuclear Fuel in Canada,” gives excellent information on why used nuclear fuel bundles are so very dangerous. For instance,

There is no doubt that people who drive behind, beside, or in front of any truck carrying used nuclear fuel will receive a radiation dose from highly penetrating gamma rays and neutrons emitted by the radioactive waste materials inside the used fuel bundles. Smaller radiation doses will be received by those that are in cars travelling in the opposite direction.

We the Nuclear Free North also have questions around the safety of the casks containing the spent nuclear fuel bundles, in the event of a highway accident that damages them – or, in a more complicated scenario, causes them to roll into any waterway, including Lake Superior.

On the likely highway route for most of the spent nuclear fuel shipments, from Southern to Northwestern Ontario, the ratio of truck accidents to auto accidents has increased in recent years. The sheer numbers of such accidents are sobering.

The following table gives recent yearly truck collision figures for the stretch of highway between Shabaqua, northwest of Thunder Bay, and Ignace, near the proposed disposal site. It is notable that the numbers of truck collisions have been increasing.

Statistics from Ontario Ministry of Transportation, via a Freedom of Information (FIPPA) request

Read more at Know Nuclear Waste – Transportation

Dr. Gordon Edwards’ paper, “Transporting Nuclear Waste Over Public Roads”

Transport truck accident near Shabqua, Ontario, October 26 2019
Transport truck accident near Shabqua, Ontario – October 26, 2019

The alternative: rolling stewardship

There are many other valid concerns about the management of nuclear waste. Environmental responsibility is one. Another is social responsibility. Plans for the NWMO Deep Geological Respository (DGR) include its eventual decommissioning, the sealing of its entry points, and the return of the surface of the site to its “natural” state. In short, the waste is to be abandoned in the rock. What does this mean for those who come after us?

Alternatively, nuclear waste can be maintained and monitored, as it is today, near the sites of its production. This removes the long-distance transportation risk, and makes simple abandonment much less likely. In the best scenario, waste would be managed in long-term, hardened facilities somewhat inland of the Great Lakes. Even better management strategies may be arrived at over time.

In his essay, “Nuclear Waste: Abandonment vs. Rolling Stewardship,” Dr. Gordon Edwards of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility provides this useful summary:

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