State and federal lawmakers from Michigan on Thursday condemned a Canadian advisory panel's endorsement of plans for an underground storage facility for nuclear waste near the shores of Lake Huron in Ontario.
The recommendation came in a report released Wednesday and submitted to Canada's environment minister, Leona Aglukkaq, who has four months to decide whether the project may proceed.
Canada's Ontario Power Generation has worked for 14 years to secure approval for its deep geologic repository near Kincardine. The facility would store up to 52 million gallons of low- to intermediate-level nuclear waste about 2,230 feet underground inside limestone caverns near its Bruce nuclear plant — a design the company says would safely store the waste for centuries.
The review panel — appointed by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission — said the power company made a "strong ... safety case," and the project poses "acceptable risks under unlikely, 'what if' scenarios" of accidents.
Ontario Power Generation was pleased with the findings, saying it would work with a team of scientists to "closely analyze the panel's conditions, many of which reinforce our commitment to the stewardship of the Great Lakes," Senior Vice President Laurie Swami said.
The panel's assessment drew rebukes from U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, and Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, as well as Reps. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, and Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, among others.
Stabenow said she was "deeply disappointed," noting that, by the number of conditions the panel put forth, it "clearly recognizes significant environmental risks."
"I'm not willing to take chances with the fate of our Great Lakes hoping these recommendations will be followed," she said.
Miller wants the International Joint Commission of Canadian and U.S. officials working on Great Lakes issues to help create "a viable alternate site for their proposed nuclear waste facility."
"Storing radioactive nuclear waste within a mile of Lake Huron unnecessarily puts our magnificent Lakes in danger — posing a threat to both the U.S. and Canadian residents who rely on them," Miller said in a statement.
Kildee said he couldn't understand why a site farther from the Great Lakes wasn't pursued.
"Surely in the vast landmass that comprises Canada, there has to be a more sensible place to bury nuclear waste than right next to the world's largest freshwater source, the Great Lakes," he said in a statement.
A bipartisan coalition of Michigan's delegation has called for the Obama administration through Secretary of State John Kerry to intervene with the Canadian government to prevent the construction of the repository. The coalition includes Reps. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak; John Conyers Jr., D-Detroit; Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield; and Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn. Stabenow, joined by Sen. Gary Peters, last month introduced a similar resolution in the Senate.
"If the Great Lakes were contaminated, it could take tens of thousands of years for highly toxic nuclear waste to decompose to safe levels," said Peters, who intends to work with Congress and the Obama administration to stop the project and find a "responsible alternative location."
The panel said it has confidence in the design of the Deep Geological Repository and the underground rock formations "have remained stable under nine glaciations over the past one million years."
The Canadian panel acknowledged the project would set a precedent as the "first of its kind in North America, and it is the first of its kind in the world to propose using limestone as the host rock formation."
American critics have worried about radiation possibly seeping into Lake Huron through some kind of breech. The Canadian panel views the risk of unsafe radioactive contamination as low, even in worst-case scenarios.
"Even with all of these (and more) conservative assumptions, the maximum calculated dose rate to humans was 100,000 times lower than the limit for exposure to the public, and would occur thousands of years in the future to a family assumed to be living right on the ... (storage) site," according to the report.
"The maximum dose rate to a person living farther away and consuming fish and water from Lake Huron was orders of magnitude lower than for the people living at the ... site — virtually zero."
Spent nuclear fuel would not be stored at the site. Mid-level waste includes used mechanical parts, and low-level waste would be industrial items contaminated during maintenance and cleanup at the generating station.
The panel said there was more of an environmental risk in moving the nuclear waste to an off-site facility, than storing it near the Bruce nuclear facility under an established security framework. The report noted that 80 percent of the waste had low levels of radioactivity.
The reassurances of the Canadian nuclear experts didn't appease some of Michigan's elected representatives, including state Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair Township.
"It is extremely troubling that the Joint Review Panel finds it acceptable to bury 7 million cubic feet of radioactive waste less than one mile from the shore of Lake Huron, threatening the health of the entire Great Lakes region," Pavlov said.
"More than 75 Michigan communities, along with local government agencies in other U.S. states and Canada, passed official resolutions opposing this project, but this unelected panel has turned a deaf ear."
A Canadian group called Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump has gathered more than 75,000 signatures on a petition targeting Aglukkaq, urging her to refuse any proposal to store nuclear waste within the Great Lakes Basin.
Before Aglukkaq issues her decision, the Canadian government will be inviting stakeholders to comment on potential conditions relating to possible mitigation measures and follow-up requirements that could be necessary, if the project is authorized to proceed, according to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.
If the project is approved, any conditions outlined in Aglukkaq's statement would be legally binding on Ontario Power Generation. The next phase would involve the advisory panel's review of whether to issue a construction license. The company has said it hopes to start construction by 2018.