White River, Northern Ontario: Flirting with Nuclear Waste

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The Mayor of White River, Angelo Bazzoni, is encouraging the town of 1,000 or so folks, and neighbouring communities, to keep calm and continue learning. The sentiment is issued in regards to an ongoing process that could determine Winnie-the-Pooh’s hometown to be an appropriate host for a nuclear waste repository- should it be willing.

“There’s a lot of fears. I understand exactly why individuals or communities say right off the bat ‘no, we don’t want it in our backyard’,” commented Bazzoni.

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) was established as the result of federal legislation passed in 2002 that required broad consultation with Canadian citizens regarding the appropriate long-term management of nuclear waste.

Mike Krizanc is the Communication Manager at NWMO.

“It’s important to note that at this point the only thing we’re asking of White River and other communities involved in the site selection process is to learn,” stated Krizanc. “We were working with communities very early on in this process to provide them with information about the project and the process for identifying if they would be a willing host to a nuclear waste repository.”

Canada produces nuclear waste in New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario. Radioactivity of all nuclear waste diminishes with time though certain radioactive elements can remain active for millions of years. NWMO is an industrial association of the generators and owners of nuclear fuel waste – New Brunswick Power, Hydro Quebec and Ontario Power Generation. The site selected to host a nuclear waste repository would store up to 2 million bundles of irradiated nuclear waste 500 meters below the earth’s surface. The waste would be transported by rail or truck.

According to Krizanc, there would be a construction period lasting about 10 years, creating 1,000 jobs. Around 600 direct jobs would be created over the 40 to 60 years the repository is in operation. Monitoring jobs would be ongoing upon the facility’s eventual cessation.

NWMO began the site selection process in 2010 and since, have narrowed their search to nine communities. Krizanc expects it will take “several years” to identify an appropriate and willing community to host the project.

“At this point people certainly don’t have enough information to make an informed decision on whether or not that this is something that would be in their best interest,” commented Krizanc. “It’s very apparent that there is a stigma associated with nuclear waste and that it conjures up things in people’s minds that they would do well to better understand.”

In the meantime, Bazzoni has expressed that there are undeniable perks derived from participating in the site selection process.

“For communities that are engaged in the learning exercise there are some financial benefits,” remarked Bazzoni.

White River received $400,000 for their involvement in the site selection process and have gained almost as much value through community reports footed by NWMO.

“We have access to all the reports right from revisiting the Municipal Plan to Employment Readiness reports,” commented Bazzoni. “There are several hundred thousand dollars of consulting reports that will be beneficial to our community. Revisiting the Community Strategic Plan alone is a $50,000 exercise and if we can get that funded by an outside agency that is very beneficial to our small community. Labour market studies that were done are now being used for our tourism industry and sawmill industry.”

According to Krizanc, the financial contribution to the participating communities came as an afterthought.

“None of the communities that got involved in the site selection process had any idea that there would be a contribution to a Community Well-Being Reserve fund. We didn’t have any idea that there would be a contribution to a Community Well-Being Reserve fund,” remarked Krizanc. “However, when we narrowed down our site searches, we had recognized that these communities demonstrated leadership on behalf of all of Canada in advancing this plan. And they needed to be recognized for advancing this leadership. So we said to them if they set up a Community Well-Being Reserve fund we would make a $400,000 contribution to it. So that was not an enticement or an inducement to get them involved in the process.”

But the word that NWMO was awarding large amounts of cash to participants must have got around because Chief Johanna Desmoulin of Pic Mobert First Nation decided to check things out for herself.

“We invited NWMO to come talk to us because I heard a nice story that they’ll give you money to learn about it and there is no commitment. You can opt out at any time,” shared Chief Desmoulin. “So I did that upon hearing that they have a lot of money to offer but it’s nothing compared to life and the earth and our children. So we opposed it. They are taking advantage of poverty.”

Although any one site to host the project has not been identified in White River, or any other community, the areas of NWMO interest are located on Pic Mobert First Nation traditional territory. On February 19th, 2015, Pic Mobert passed a resolution opposing the repository.

“We look at ourselves as caretakers of the land and it’s just recently that we have begun to assert ourselves to the land,” stated Chief Desmoulin. “I don’t like to always go into the history of residential schools and what the government has done to us, but we’re just beginning to mend ourselves and proceeding with the life that belongs to us. Our ancestors hunted, trapped, fished and gathered in this area and you’re going to come in here and put nuclear waste here? I don’t think so. Not if we have something to say about it. We have to protect our land. Not only for ourselves today. I’m going to protect this for my grandchildren and great- grandchildren.”

White River and Pic Mobert First Nation have enjoyed a co-operative relationship over the years. White River Forest Products was conceptualized and founded by both communities who purchased the sawmill assets from Domtar in July 2007.

Bazzoni expressed concern that White River’s ongoing participation in site selection may create divisiveness between the two communities.

Of their relationship Bazzoni commented, “I don’t want to see it torn apart because we’re looking at nuclear waste. I think if the $400,000 wasn’t on the table it wouldn’t have been quite as appealing to us. But right now it would be harder to watch that go by.”

winnie and kid

(photo courtesy, Jennifer Jacques) “They’re staking areas where we hunt and fish and trap. This stuff is around for millions of years. My husband and son trap together and we want to pass that on to our grandson as well. This is terrible for tourism too.” ~ Jennifer Jacques speaking of the possibility of White River hosting a nuclear waste repository.

For one White River resident, Jennifer Jacques, the site selection process has gone on long enough.

Jacques is a spokesperson for Concerned Citizens of White River who oppose hosting a nuclear waste repository in their town. In a memo dated April 10, 2015, Jacques writes that to date a local petition with 250 signatures from folks against the project has been generated and expresses that they no longer wish to continue with NWMO’s site selection process. “We believe that storage of nuclear waste in the area is not a fit with the values of people in White River; we are a community that lives here because of the abundance of wild country foods and natural recreational values”.

Jacques expressed distrust in the process and has been instrumental in organizing a ‘No Nuclear Waste’ protest in White River this Saturday.

Of the NWMO’s search for a ‘willing host community’ Jacques commented, “They say they want a willing host community but they won’t define what that is. When I asked the question at an information session NWMO said that it would be up to the community to decide what that is when the time comes. They define everything else, why can’t they define what that is? They asked if I was happy with their answer and I told them ‘no’.”

According to Krizanc, the perception of a ‘willing host community’ was one that was discussed in great length with a broad scope of Canadians over the course of a three year dialogue. It is a concept within a plan referred to as Adaptive Phased Management.

“It’s a community driven process and communities themselves will decide how they want to express willingness,” stated Krizanc. “We have said that there needs to be an indication of a super majority in favour. So if there was a referendum there would have to be a substantial majority.”

So what is a substantial majority? Well, as explained by Krizanc, that’s up to the community too.

Jacques isn’t convinced that the decision to establish a nuclear waste repository in White River, or any other community, is dependent wholly on the desires of the citizens. And neither is Chief Desmoulin who stated, “It is a big concern that this will go through regardless of what we say. That’s why we have to stand up today. There are many things government have done without our approval. They’re going to have a fight. They’re going to hear our voices. We oppose this. The First Nations are supporting concerned Canadians that are taking a stand against nuclear waste.”

However, Krizanc maintains that the process has been established to ensure that a nuclear waste repository is not forced upon unwilling communities.

“Yes, the government of Canada passed the Nuclear Fuel Act and the government can change the legislation,” acknowledged Krizanc. “But that is why citizens said that they didn’t trust the government, industry or NWMO to make decisions about where nuclear waste will be stored. This is why Adaptive Phase Management was approved by Parliament. This is so citizens can be engaged at every step. And the citizens also recognized that they were the guarantee that could ensure the government of Canada acted as they were held accountable to act by citizens.”

In her part to hold the government accountable, as well as entities that act in the interests of generators and owners of nuclear fuel waste such as NWMO, Jacques has taken an interest in pursuing the potentially negative outcomes of storing nuclear waste 500 meters beneath ground level.

“They kept pushing us to lean more but they weren’t giving any of the negative effects so I started flushing out some of the risks,” said Jacques. “And then Northwatch did some presentations here after NWMO came in. I’ve been reading quite a bit of their material too. So that’s where you learn about the negative side of things.”

The Northern Hoot was unable to connect with spokes persons from Northwatch – “a regional coalition of environmental organizations, community groups and individual members in northeastern Ontario”. Following links from the Northwatch site directs one to Nuclear Waste Watch – “a network of organizations concerned about high level radioactive waste and nuclear power in Canada.”

NWW lists myriad concerns with the storage of nuclear waste and with the industries making it.

Regarding deep repositories or ‘geological disposal’ of nuclear waste NWW asserts, “There is no geological repository for nuclear fuel waste operating anywhere in the world. Despite decades of study, the technical case has not been made for geological disposal, and numerous technical challenges persist.”

And, “Given that waste continues to be generated while the case for a socially accepted or technically proven long-term management option has not been convincingly made, nuclear waste management should be based on surface and/or near-surface monitored and retrievable storage at or close to its current location.”

However, Krizanc believes that nuclear waste is never given the benefit of the doubt.

“This is an easy subject to take lightly and run roughshod over because people’s knee jerk reaction doesn’t align with the facts,” remarked Krizanc.

Continuing Krizanc spoke in length about the safety of transporting radioactive nuclear waste via rail or truck.

“There is a long history of safely transporting nuclear materials in Canada and internationally. What makes it so safe is that transporting is highly regulated and the containers that we move the waste in are incredibly robust. Even if the contents are released it’s simply a matter of picking them up.”

Radioactive nuclear waste is stored in ceramic rods or pellets.

“We’re dealing with a solid- not a liquid or a gas. It can’t leak and it can’t explode,” explained Krizanc. “The fuel pellets don’t dissolve in water. In fact water is a barrier – radioactivity cannot move through it. Neither can it move through steel and large amounts of concrete which is why we use those properties in containment and storage of nuclear waste. So if the pellets spill out of their containers, water or the land doesn’t become radioactive. And recovering these pellets is incredibly simple because they’re highly identifiable using a Geiger counter.”

The nuclear waste that is to be stored in the new deep repository – wherever and someday, has been sitting around above ground for the past 30 to 50 years. Of the longevity of the waste, the production of it and what to do with it Krizanc expressed a neutral position.

“Our organization isn’t here to promote or penalize nuclear power. Those are energy policy decisions that are made by government and power utilities. We’re here because the used fuel exists. Even if you stopped making nuclear power tomorrow we still have the waste that we produced and it has to be managed. This fuel exists and Canadians have been very clear that our generation which has benefitted from this nuclear power must take responsibility for the long-term management of the waste. We can’t leave this as a legacy for future generations.”

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*A Community Liaison Committee has been established to “learn and to be the liaison between NWMO and the township, and getting information to the community,” commented Randi Cooper, member of the CLC. Beyond that clarification Cooper declined to comment stating, “We are not authorized to comment on behalf of CLC.”

*Winnie-the-Pooh could not be reached for comment.

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