Farmland versus nuclear waste

Farmland is often taken over for industrial uses, but the debate goes a bit deeper in southern Bruce County

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A proposal to use Bruce County farmland to build a deep repository for spent nuclear fuel bundles has some area farmers worried.

The southern part of the county is one of two sites left on the list developed by the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), the national agency created to manage Canada’s nuclear waste.

The NWMO started looking for a repository site for what is known as the Deep Geological Repository (DGR) in 2010. By 2012, 20 communities from across Canada had expressed interest in hosting the DGR.

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Many of them dropped out after local opposition, or they were declared unsuitable.

Two remain, one on purchased farm land in South Bruce at a proposed site just northwest of Teeswater and the other, on Crown land near Ignace, Ont., a tiny community located north west of Lake Superior. A final decision is expected in 2023.

“I would like council to let people vote. Stop wasting money and dividing the community, let’s have a vote and see what people actually want to do,” says Michelle Stein, who raises beef and milks sheep with her husband Gary on the edge of the 1,500 acres needed for the site. Neighbours have sold or optioned their land to the NWMO.

Stein says she’s worried that there hasn’t been enough information passed on to the community. Her own research convinces her she wants no part of the DGR near her farm.

“I’ve learned that my water is at a high risk of being contaminated. I’ve learned that nuclear perception of food will damage my livelihood, the repackaging plant and rock pile will be a source of radiation. Every time I learn more, I like it less. I know enough to know I don’t want it.”

One of Stein’s Toronto customers has already told her that he won’t take her lamb if it is raised near a nuclear waste facility.

Seepage risks

She cites a 2003 paper produced for NWMO by Kinectrics, an engineering firm that specializes in waste disposal as causing her great concern. The paper discusses the inevitability of water incursion into a DGR and the degradation of the structures housing the fuel bundles.

The report says that spent fuel would best be stored in an arid desert area or, as that’s not available in Canada, in granite in the Canadian shield.

A growing number of signs are popping up in opposition to the DGR in the community, as the deadline gets closer. Test holes are expected to be drilled this year in South Bruce. They were drilled several years ago in the Ignace area as that land is Crown land and as a result doesn’t have the access challenges of land in South Bruce.

The NWMO and members of local council encourage people to be involved and to let the consultation process play out.

“The questions we are hearing now will be addressed over the next three years as we complete community well-being studies,” says Becky Smith, of the NWMO.

Photo courtesy Michelle Stein.

Mark Ireland, a South Bruce councillor runs a busy dairy farm with his family. It has been recognized as a national leader in its management numbers by Lactanet (formerly Canwest DHI).

“There’s a whole lot of work to be done yet to assess the impact on the community and that work is just starting,” says Ireland.

South Bruce council identified the project years ago as a potential economic benefit to the community, says Ireland, who was elected in the October, 2018 municipal election.

He says that continuing to work to educate local citizens is important.

“The focus has been on education for close to eight years. Since it was narrowed down to just two municipalities, the focus is still on education,” he says.

“The NWMO said from the start it will only locate in an informed and willing community. Informed has to be number one. You have to be informed before you can be willing.”

Living in the shadow of a nuclear plant isn’t new for anyone in Bruce County. Trust in nuclear power has been earned and it’s a fact of life for people close to the Bruce Power plant. The power plant is about 50 km from Teeswater and many people in the area work at the plant.

“We’ve lived almost our whole life here under the shadow of Bruce Energy,” says Ireland. “When you think about nuclear safety I’m not sure when you’re not ‘just down the road’ from a nuclear facility.”

Ireland acknowledges that land will be taken out of farming to provide space for the potential facility, and says he always has a “bit of a grrr” when he goes to the city and sees the volume of land being turned into houses. However, the volume of land for the waste facility is small compared to the farmland being paved over elsewhere in the province.

“I’d really like people who are negative to have answers to their questions so they can be fully informed. With any large issue, there will be people opposed. It’s hard to satisfy everyone.”

Both Ireland and Stein worry about the schisms the controversy is creating in the community.

“We have a great fair in Teeswater, a smaller and good fair in Mildmay,” says Ireland. “These are just two of the many great community events in Mildmay, Teeswater, Formosa, Carlsrue and Belmore. We all need to work to preserve this. It would be such a shame if we lost some of the spirit our community has.”

Stein says the issue needs to be decided quickly.

“Unfortunately, this is dividing the community, which is another reason to get a vote as quickly as possible and get an end to it.”

She said it’s hard to make decisions for her farm under a cloud of uncertainty.

“Do you invest in something that might become worthless? It makes all the decisions trickier.”

Stein worries that there is an alternative timeline instead of 2023, with board minutes from the NMWO showing that an internal decision could be made quicker.

There’s another municipal election scheduled for 2022 and the council in South Bruce is believed to be pro-waste facility.

David Grant, a farmer near Formosa, not far from the proposed site, is part of a group of 30 people with concerns about the project who were meeting regularly before COVID-19 discouraged meeting in groups. A door-to-door campaign gathering names on a petition expressing concern garnered more names than people who voted in the last election, he says. There were other Bruce and Huron county municipalities where a wholesale change in council meant the end of any interest in hosting the DGR.

Solutions needed

The waste is currently stored in above-ground tanks at the Bruce nuclear site, as it has been for decades.

“I don’t have a perfect answer,” says Stein. “It is working where it is right now where it can be watched. As science evolves, maybe they can come up with something do with it.”

If the waste is buried 500 metres below ground, then it won’t likely be accessible to reprocess someday and she questions how well it can be monitored compared to above ground storage.

“It’s currently sitting in above-ground storage,” says Ireland. “People will have to decide if they are more comfortable with it in some other storage.”

Ireland says he’s visited the above-ground storage and is comfortable with the measures taken there. However, he says “I’m not sure this is a good long-term plan for storage.”

“This generation of people, it’s our responsibility,” says Ireland. Every one of us that turned a light switch on, our milking machine on, our grain elevator, we all contributed to it. It is our responsibility.”

But like all debates over waste, the question is where to put it and the pros and cons weigh heavily, including for farmers in South Bruce.

About the author

Editor

John Greig

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig

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