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Michigan reps press Biden to stop Canadian plan to store nuclear waste near Lake Huron

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Bipartisan Michigan lawmakers are pressing President Joe Biden to talk to the Canadian government about stopping the proposal for a permanent repository for radioactive waste near Lake Huron. 

U.S. Reps. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township; Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township; and Peter Meijer, R-Grand Rapids Township, spoke out ahead of Biden's recent meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, expressing their opposition to the plans. 

“We are disappointed the Canadian government has proposed building a permanent nuclear waste repository in the Great Lakes basin, threatening the drinking water of more than 40 million people on both sides of the border," the lawmakers said in a joint statement. 

“We ask President Biden to work with Prime Minister Trudeau to ensure that no nuclear waste is permanently stored in the shared Great Lakes water basin."

The representatives pointed out the Canadian government opposed any potential sites for permanently storing nuclear waste located within shared water basins when the United States was investigating sites in the 1980s, noting the Americans ultimately chose another site "out of respect for our Canadian friends."

Ontario Power Generation originally sought to store low- to mid-level nuclear waste less than a mile from Lake Huron near Kincardine, Ontario. The Canadian government is now considering two other sites, including one in South Bruce in the Great Lakes Basin.

"Now, we urge our Canadian neighbors to extend us this same courtesy," they said. 

It was not mentioned in readouts of the Biden-Trudeau meetings this month whether the proposed repository was raised. 

Canadian officials and others have noted that the U.S. has dozens of high-level nuclear waste storage sites along the Great Lakes. 

The nonprofit Nuclear Waste Management Organization, which was set up by the Canadian government, is considering two sites for Canada's first permanent nuclear waste facility — Ignace, Ontario, or South Bruce, which is within the Great Lakes basin.

The organization has said it plans to select one of the two sites in 2023 for a facility that would permanently store high-level nuclear waste deep underground in a network of tunnels and areas to store spent nuclear fuel containers for the long term.

Canada’s used nuclear fuel is currently stored at facilities located where it was produced. 

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization says under its plan the used fuel will be moved from the surface, farther from the lake than where it is now, and placed within a system of barriers "to ensure passive safety for generations."

"The entire purpose of Canada’s plan — the reason we are investing time, effort and money to implement it — is to protect people and the environment, including the Great Lakes," spokeswoman Monica Hudon said.

Hudon said the two potential sites for the repository are both landlocked and miles from any of the Great Lakes, and that the project can only go ahead if it can be demonstrated as safe for people and the environment, including the freshwater lakes.

"It also requires an informed and willing host, and resilient partnerships with municipal, First Nation and Métis communities," she said. "The only areas being considered are those where a community expressed interest in exploring the project and their potential for hosting it."

Hudon cited a global scientific consensus that deep geological repositories "are the safest way to protect people and the environment, including precious water resources."

The NWMO has said its permanent repository would include both engineered and natural barriers to contain the spent fuel containers to protect human safety and the environment. 

This month, the NWMO began a three-dimensional seismic survey in South Bruce as part of its ongoing study to determine the site’s suitability for the deep geological repository. 

Kildee in September introduced a resolution in the House expressing opposition to the site in South Bruce, joined by a bipartisan group of lawmakers from Great Lakes states. 

The measure has 23 co-sponsors in the House including Michigan Reps. Meijer, Levin, Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet; Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn; Bill Huizenga, R-Holland; Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield; John Moolenaar, R-Midland; Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills; Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit; Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph; and Lisa McClain, R-Bruce Township.

It warns that a spill of nuclear waste into the Great Lakes, including during transit to an underground storage facility, could have "lasting and severely adverse environmental, health and economic impacts on the Great Lakes and the individuals who depend on the Great Lakes for their livelihoods."

The resolution, which has not been taken up in committee, asks the president and Secretary of State to work with the Canadian government to ensure Canadian nuclear waste is not permanently stored in the Great Lakes Basin. 

More than 200 local, county, state and tribal governments passed resolutions in opposition to a previous proposal by the company Ontario Power Generation for an underground storage facility for low- to mid-level nuclear waste less than a mile from Lake Huron near Kincardine, Ontario.

That company had sought approval for the project for more than a decade. 

Trudeau's administration had asked Ontario Power Generation to review the possibility of relocating that project, and it did. But it found that alternate sites would have increased environmental impacts and costs, delaying the project up to 40 years and offer no added safety benefits.

OPG ended its pursuit of the project in June 2020. 

mburke@detroitnews.com