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Saugeen Nation May Be Final Word in Nuclear Waste Storage Next to Lake Huron

Saugeen Ojibway Nation may hold the final veto power on a plan to bury nuclear waste a half-mile deep, less than a mile from Lake Huron.
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Lots of voices have been heard about whether to dig a deep geological repository for storing low- and medium-level nuclear waste about half a mile down and less than a mile from Lake Huron.

Canadian and U.S. environmental groups and even members of the U.S. Congress have registered protests; some local municipality councils voted support, and a federally appointed joint review panel recommended licensing it. A decision, originally scheduled for mid-December, has been delayed until March 1, when Ontario Power Generation may get a decision from the Ministry of the Environment about proceeding with its multimillion dollar, multi-decade project.

But whether a repository is constructed at that site could come down to just one voice —that of the people of the Saugeen First Nation.

“Ontario Power Generation had given us their commitment that they will not proceed unless they have community support. That’s a letter that we have on file,” Saugeen Chief Vernon Roote told Indian Country Today Media Network. Roote publically expressed his opposition in the November 2015 Saugeen News, and also noted that he was concerned about simply moving the facility near other First Nations. “We might not be the best of friends when we push nuclear waste on our brothers’ and sisters’ territory.”

Saugeen leaders are determining how to gauge the community voice—by vote at public gatherings or perhaps at the polls—and whether they will favor the facility or not. They’ve held engagement sessions on the issue.

“There’s a big gap between now and then in terms of communicating with the community,” Roote said of any final decision. “The community needs to be educated before they can understand. I can’t say what the community will provide for an answer.”

“We will not build this facility without their support. We are on record with that; we’ve been very clear about that,” agreed Ontario Power spokesperson Neal Kelly. “We’re learning about the Saugeen Ojibway Nation, we’re learning about their history, about their way of life. And on the flipside, they’re learning about Ontario Power Generation. Hopefully there will be a positive resolution, but we’re very much in the learning phase.”

Ontario Power is pursuing a permanent storage solution for waste generated in the past 50 years by its three nuclear power operations, including the Bruce Power Plant, where the repository would be located.

“We have a long list of fears, legitimate fears in our community about these facilities, interaction with our rights, our interests and our way of life,” then–Saugeen Ojibwe Nation Chief Randall Kahgee told Indian Country Today Media Network in 2013.

RELATED: Saugeen Ojibwe and U.S. Politicians Oppose Nuclear Waste Burial Near Lake Huron

Still the lead negotiator on the project, Kahgee echoed Roote.

“These are early days, and we are starting to build some momentum on the community engagement process,” Kahgee said via e-mail. “The communities will have to have trust and confidence in the process going forward. They will be instrumental in its design. There is an incredible amount of work to be done.”

The proposed deep geological repository would be dug about 2,230 feet into what are considered stable, 450-million-year-old sedimentary shale and limestone layered formations using two shafts. Nearly 100 acres of rock would be removed, and storage containers of waste would be placed into the cavern created to handle about seven million cubic feet of waste. The site would not hold high-level waste, such as spent reactor fuel, but low- and intermediate-level wastes, described by Ontario Power as: including Low-level waste includes items used at nuclear facilities, like mop heads, gloves, clothes and floor sweepings. Intermediate?level waste includes used filters and resins, and reactor components.”

Ontario Power has developed a comprehensive website with graphics, videos and documents to explain and support its proposed project. Kelly said that the earliest the facility would be ready to receive waste would by the 2020s and it then could handle 35 additional years of waste at the current rate, closing for good in the 2060s. The waste would remain there for “hundreds and thousands of years.”

For now, low- and intermediate-level waste has been stored above ground, sometimes after being incinerated. All the waste is solid, not liquid.

“Above 70 percent of the material that will go into the DGR is low-level waste,” Kelly said.

Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization also continues its search for a place to store spent nuclear fuel.

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Opponents of the deep underground repository point to its proximity to Lake Huron—less than one mile.

For the Saugeen and other nearby First Nations, water is the point. “It’s a natural reaction to say no to anything dangerous like nuclear waste, so there is a lot of negative,” said Roote. “We live so close to the lake that there’s going to have be some studies done in regards to the water and the dangers to water. That’s an example of how much work is needed.”

Extensive testing and assessments of the site have been done, Kelly said. “The water is very much at the surface, the first few meters. This is 680 meters deep into the ground; there’s no water down there.”

Regardless of how people view the facility itself, Kelly added, they should see that Ontario Power has been thorough. The utility developed 12,500 pages of studies as part of its Environmental Assessment, Kelly noted, research that was reviewed by scientists and geologists around the world.

“The peer reviewers came to the same conclusion as we did,” Kelly said. “You can safely store this material deep in the ground at 680 meters in rock that is 450 million years old.”

He said they are working hard to find a storage method that will last.

“We are looking at a permanent solution,” Kelly said. “We have been studying this for about 14 years and are nearing the end of an environmental process, the most rigorous form of environmental assessment that you can go through in Canada.”

Roote said the Saugeen Nation might do its own studies and that other First Nations should be consulted. The Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke, for example, has come out against the proposed DGR and in a May press release supported a Saugeen fight against the proposal.

“We’ve been keeping close watch on this situation, since the failed plan to ship the nuclear waste through the Seaway was announced a few years ago,” Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke Environment Portfolio Chief Clinton Phillips said in the statement. “While the Bruce Power plant is hundreds of kilometers from Kahnawà:ke, any potential nuclear contamination problem could nonetheless affect not only us but also the 40 million-plus people who use the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence River for drinking water.”

RELATED: Mohawks to Bruce Power: You’re Going to Transport What? Where?

Roote added that one nation also needed to be considered.

“Half of that lake borders on the U.S.A.,” he said. “It’s not only the concern on the one-half side of Canada, there’s also the concern on the other half of that as well, by the U.S. side.”

Indeed, several members of Congress—both Democrat and Republican—have expressed concerns. U.S. Senator Mark Kirk, a Republican from Illinois, expressed his concerns about the DGR in a May letter to the president while in mid-November, U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, asked the Canadian ambassador to arrange a meeting with the minster of the environment under the newly elected Canadian government headed by Justin Trudeau.

“They don’t need to do it right next to Lake Huron or any other part of the Great Lakes,” Stabenow said, according to Michigan Public Radio.

For Kahgee, who is representing the Saugeen in negotiations with Ontario Power, the questions go beyond the Not in Our Backyard adage.

“For the communities this not just about the deep geological repository but also about the nuclear waste problem within our territory,” he told ICTMN. “We have always insisted that while this problem is not of our own design, we must be part of shaping the solution. Gone are the days when our people, communities and Nation are left on the outside looking in within our own territory. These are complex issues that will force us to really ask ourselves what does it mean to be stewards of the land. The opportunity to be able to shape the discourse on these matters is both exciting and frightening at the same time.”

As for the Saugeen Ojibway Nation, its voice will be heard when the time is right, Roote said.

“It’s something that we have to wait out before the community is ready to decide,” Roote said. “When time is appropriate, when it’s needed to be heard to proceed.”