David Suzuki: Lake Huron is no place for a nuclear waste dump

Is dilution really the solution to pollution—especially when it’s nuclear waste that can stay radioactive for 100,000 years? A four-member expert group told a federal joint review panel it is.

The panel is examining an Ontario Power Generation proposal to bury low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste from the Darlington, Pickering and Bruce nuclear plants in limestone at the Bruce site in Kincardine, beside Lake Huron. According to the Toronto Star, the experts reported that 1,000 cubic metres of contaminated water could leak from the site, although it’s “highly improbable.” But even if it did leak, they argued, the amount is small compared to Lake Huron’s water volume and the quantity of rain that falls into it.

If the materials were instead buried in Canadian Shield granite, any leaking waste would be diluted by active streams and marshes, the experts claimed: “Hence, the volumes of the bodies of water available for dilution at the surface are either immense (Great Lakes) or actively flowing…so the dilution capacity is significant.”

Others aren’t convinced. The Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump group has more than 62,000 signatures on a petition opposing the dump. Many communities around the Great Lakes, home to 40-million people, have passed resolutions against the project, including Canadian cities Toronto, Mississauga, Hamilton, Niagara Falls, Kingston, Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Windsor, and more, and local governments in the states of Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New York and Ohio. The United Tribes of Michigan, representing 12 First Nations, is also opposed.

Michigan’s Senate recently adopted resolutions to urge President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Congress to intervene, and for the International Joint Commission, the Great Lakes Commission and all Great Lakes States and Ontario and Quebec to get involved.

According to Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump, burying such highly toxic wastes in limestone next to 21 per cent of the world’s fresh water “defies common sense.” The group’s website notes, “There are no precedents anywhere in the world for burying radioactive nuclear waste in limestone. The repository must function to safely contain the nuclear wastes for over 100,000 years. No scientist or geologist can provide a 100,000 year guarantee.” The Great Lakes are only 12,000 years old!

On top of that, retired Ontario Power Generation research scientist and chemist Frank R. Greening wrote to the review panel stating that OPG has “seriously underestimated, sometimes by factors of more than 100” the radioactivity of material to be buried.

Greening says the company acknowledged his criticism but downplayed its seriousness, which he believes raises doubts about the credibility of OPG’s research justifying the project. “Their response has been, ‘Oops we made a mistake but it isn’t a problem’ and that really bothers me as a scientist,” he told Kincardine News. “It is rationalizing after the fact.”

According to the newspaper, “a radiation leak at a nuclear waste site in New Mexico — cited by OPG as an example of a successful facility — is further fuelling criticism of the project.” In February, radiation was detected in vaults and in the air a kilometre from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, where radioactive materials from the nuclear weapons program are stored. The facility, the world’s only deep geologic repository, had only been in use for 15 years and is closed for now. The cause of the leak isn’t yet known.

Those and other factors led the joint review panel to re-open hearings beginning September 9. They initially ended October 30, 2013. A federal cabinet decision is expected sometime next year.

This “out of sight, out of mind” mentality must end. We can’t continue to dump garbage into the oceans, waterways and air or bury it in the ground and hope it will disappear. If we can’t find better ways to use or at least reduce waste products, we must stop producing them.

In the meantime, this project must be halted. The Great Lakes are already threatened by pollution, agricultural runoff, invasive species, climate change and more. We can’t afford to add the risk of radioactive contamination to one of the world’s largest sources of fresh water.

Comments (11) Add New Comment
Fear Monger
Once again, we see critics and media dead set against letting facts get in the way. This article and David Suzuki's understanding is severely misinformed.
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John Tauxe, PhD, PE
In response to David Suzuki's article on radioactive waste, nobody wants to admit it, but indeed dilution is the inevitable result of concentrating any type of material and introducing it into the natural world. As a physicist, Dr Suzuki knows all about entropy, the driving force behind it all. I am a radioactive waste professional, and study the long-term fate and transport of radioactive wastes in various environments, and the subsequent effects of human health and the environment.

Dr Suzuki seems to be bemoaning the possibility of disposing of wastes near large bodies of water, but in fact this may not be as crazy as it seems. If concentrations are kept low enough, then the resultant health effects will be minimal. After all, we have evolved with radiation in our environment.

All waste repositories, be they for municipal wastes, hazardous wastes, or radioactive wastes, necessarily leak. It is a simple fact that there is no designing a leak-proof repository. Nature will have her way with any such attempt. The goal, therefore, is to design such a site in concert with natural forces, and understand their effects. This influences the design, and the introduction of radioactive materials into the environment can be controlled to keep it at such a low level as to not be a concern. And it is important to point out that such low levels do exist. We live with them every day.

In short, a radioactive waste repository that leaks slowly into a large sink, taking advantage of huge dilution factors, actually makes sense. And as a physicist, Dr Suzuki should understand this.
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Boris Moris
Dr. Tauxe is ill informed. Dr. Suzuki is a geneticist, not a physicist. Of course the general tone of his post suggests that he is baiting Suzuki so any claims Tauxe makes about the inevitability of leakage, given the advancements in materials technology, is highly suspect.
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Guv'nor
We can see where the nuke industry and its proponents are going now: radiation is no longer harmful. We've evolved to take it. Put it in your drinking water! Don't worry. Be happy.
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Inevitability
Leakage is inevitable as Dr. Tauxe says. This, however, is not an argument for locating radioactive waste dumps near large bodies of water. Instead, it is an argument for stopping the concentration of nuclear materials altogether.

Tauxe's comment that "After all, we have evolved with radiation in our environment." is laughable coming from a scientist. The fact that existing humans evolved in the context of background radiation levels says nothing about whether we will be able to survive as those levels increase due to our concentration and disposal of radioactive materials. An increase in radiation levels may cause the evolution of species more resistant to such levels, but that won't do existing humans much good and whatever species evolve to deal with raised levels of radiation may not even be human at all.

Tauxe also ignores the effect of bioaccumulation. Even a little increase in radioactive elements in our fresh water sources will accumulate through the food chain.
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Boris Moris
I should have expanded on my reference to materials technology advancements in my previous post. We wouldn't even be entertaining the horrific prospect of trying to contain nuclear waste in dubious geological formations if government and industry had the integrity necessary for spending the trillions of dollars it will take to contain a byproduct of historical warmongering. The reality is that those trillions have been spent waging war in order to force the planet to maintain a petroleum based economy. And let's not forget that choosing toxic uranium for fusion over thorium has led to this sad state of affairs.

If you can't deal with toxic waste (of any description) except by storing it long term then you have to spend whatever the cost to contain it in casks made of the most impervious materials known to science. It's up to governments to make sure this is done. This is what we elect them for and pay them to do. If they can't force industry to do and spend what is necessary then our so called democracy is exposed as a sham which I'm sure will surprise very few. How does this happen, you ask? Look no further than mass media..the purveyors of lies and the tool of the corporate agenda masquerading as news and information
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as much as things change, they stay the same
protested the shit out of nuclear testing at Amchitka Island but see what happens...can't bury this crap deep enough or far away enough. those that produce this toxic substance already know that. irresponsible to put it anywhere let alone the great lakes.

http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/BLAST-FROM-THE-PAST-Researchers-worry...

http://arcticcircle.uconn.edu/SEEJ/amchitka/

http://www.fws.gov/contaminants/DisplayNews.cfm?NewsID=C54AE9AA-CED8-490...

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Inevitability
There is no such thing as being able to properly, design, build, operate and maintain any facility for any length of time. Mistakes are always made and conditions always change. In a radioactive waste disposal facility, these mistakes can and eventually will be catastrophic. One only needs to look at Fukushima.
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Dave Geary, Saskatoon
Regarding comments above: - thorium is not fissionable. It must be transmuted into uranium233 before it can undergo a fission reaction.

Also: terrestrial background radiation is not safe or benign...it is very harmful to human health... Just one example: Radon222, a decay product of uranium238 via radium226, is the leading cause of lung cancer in Canada after tobacco smoking - 16%. It is the cause of approximately 3,200 deaths in this country annually. Polonium210, a decay product of radon222 is believed now to be the main cancer-causing agent in tobacco. It gets in the leaves through the phosphate fertilizer which is used. Polonium acts in a synergistic way with dangerous chemical additives in the product to cause cancers.

"Natural" uranium (and its dust) is also known to be highly carcinogenic and to cause deadly respiratory and other diseases, because of uranium's radioactivity and its actions as a heavy metal.

However, the topic at hand is not natural background radiation but man-made radiation - over 200 fission & activation products (cesium137, strontium90, plutonium239, etc.) which do not normally exist in the earth's biosphere. The human organism has no long-term experience with these very toxic carcinogenic, mutagenic, and teratogenic substances , many with extraordinarily long half lives.

It is only since the dawn of the "Atomic Age" in 1945 - with fallout from thousands of nuclear weapons tests and then emissions from nuclear power plants - that science has had to address how to contain and manage these hazardous fission products. Unfortunately, as this debate illustrates, there has not been much progress to date.
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Lewis S
Has the the Ontario Provincial government, who owns Ontario Power Generation, jumped from the frying pan into the fire when they shut down their coal fired electrical facilities with a return to nuclear power? Do they plan to sell these facilities to pay down their debt and also hope to escape the liability associated with ownership?
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Jeremy Price
In September 1994, AECL released a report "Environmental Impact Statement on the Concept for Disposal of Nuclear Waste (AECL-10711, COG-93-1. I remember at that time that Dr. Joseph Cummins, Professor Emeritus of Genetics at The University of Western Ontario made similar remarks about this concept over 20 years ago where the concept of retrievable storage was favoured over the idea of deep geologic disposal. The obvious advantage of retrievability had to do will making an allowance for technological change that might allow us to treat this waste to render it to a benign substance. It seems that nothing has been learned in the last 20 years when this tired old idea is trotted back out. The simple solution is for Ontario to satisfy its future needs by importing from Hydro Quebec. Sadly though, because the USA needs Ontario's tritium to keep their missiles operative,
no environmental or economic arguement will win out over Canada's committment to its military cooperation with the USA on the tritium supply issue. The tritum export issue should be fact checked but if I remember, tritium supply from Ontario to the USA is a highly sensitive subject but needs greater focus because in a sense, Ontarians are bearing most of the ecological costs related to ongoing supply of tritium to the US Dept of Energy for nuclear weapons tritium replenishment program.
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