Nuclear drinking water threat

May 1, 2015

Plans by a Canadian power utility to bury nuclear waste along the eastern shore of Lake Huron has raised concerns about the possibility that radioactive materials could enter the Great Lakes and contaminate the world’s largest source of freshwater and the drinking supply for about 40 million people, including those in southeast Michigan and the majority of the residents in Oakland County.

Located in Kincardine, Ontario, about 120 miles northeast of Detroit, the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station is a 2,300-acre facility that serves as the world’s largest nuclear power station, housing a total of eight nuclear reactors. Bruce Power, a privately held Canadian company, holds a long-term lease with Ontario Power Generation, which is wholly-owned by the Ontario government to operate the plant. Radioactive nuclear waste produced at the station has been kept in above-ground storage buildings at the site’s Western Waste Management facility for more than four decades. Now, Ontario Power Generation (OPG) is planning to construct a deep geological repository to store the waste about a half-mile from the shores of Lake Huron, about 40 miles across the lake to the Michigan shoreline, near Port Hope. 

Plans for the underground storage site include digging nearly a half-mile below the surface into layers of limestone and shale within the area known as the Bruce Peninsula. Low-level and intermediate-level radioactive wastes from the Bruce power plant and other nuclear reactors owned by Ontario Power Generation would be stored in the proposed repository for thousands of years. The plan is currently being reviewed by a joint review panel under the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. If approved, the facility would store up to 52 million gallons of low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste less than a half-mile from Lake Huron.

Low-level waste consists of materials such as mop heads, rags, paper towel and protective clothing used in nuclear stations during routine operation and maintenance. Intermediate-level waste consists of reactor parts and equipment, resins, filters used to purify reactor water systems, and other components. Used nuclear fuel wouldn’t be stored or managed at the underground repository. While used reactor fuel from the Bruce station also is stored at the current site, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization, which serves as a consultant to the proposed project, is seeking a separate site in Canada for a permanent repository for the used fuel from all of Canada’s nuclear reactors.

Ontario Power Generation’s proposed underground repository is currently being considered by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, which serves as that country’s regulator of nuclear facilities, and is responsible for licensing and overseeing nuclear projects. As part of the review process, an environmental assessment is being conducted by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, which oversees a joint review panel which took over 900 comments on the proposed facility. The comment period and record for the panel was closed in November of 2014 and the panel is expected to release its environmental evaluation report to the assessment agency by May 6.

Ontario Power officials say the facility will go a long way toward safely storing nuclear waste for the foreseeable future, as it will be located in rock formations that have remained stable for more than 450 million years. Most of the low-level waste, they say, will decay in 300 years, while a small amount will be radioactive for more than 100,000 years. 

Officials with Ontario Power say geologists, engineers, hydrologists and others have studied the project for many years, and that studies show no significant adverse impact to the environment or public will occur. 

Despite assurances by the utility, at least 133 resolutions have been passed by communities in Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Indiana and Ontario opposing the proposed nuclear repository, with the vast majority opposing any permanent underground waste repository anywhere in the Great Lakes Basin. A resolution opposing the facility was passed by the Michigan Senate in 2014, and similar resolutions have been introduced in Congress.

In Oakland County, the majority of residents receive drinking water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s (DWSD) system, while others not hooked into Detroit’s system are served by local municipal or individual wells. For Oakland County customers hooked into the system, water comes from two main sources. Customers north of 14 Mile Road receive their water from the utility’s Lake Huron Water Treatment Plant, near Port Huron, while those south of 14 Mile Road get water from the DWSD’s Springwells and Northeast treatment plants, which draw water through intakes at Belle Isle. However, in practical terms, all of the water for the Detroit system’s water processing plants starts in Lake Huron and then flows southward into the St. Clair River and then into Lake St. Clair, the Detroit River and eventually into Lake Erie to the south.

Gregory Eno, a spokesman for the DWSD, said in April that he wasn’t aware of the proposed nuclear waste repository near Lake Huron. He said on April 20 that the department had no comment.

In October 2014, the Oakland County Board of Commissioners approved articles of incorporation to create the Great Lakes Water Authority, which will operate and manage all water and sewer lines in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties suburbs that are currently part of the DWSD. Deputy Oakland County Executive Robert J. Daddow will represent Oakland County on the authority’s board. Daddow said he was unable to comment on any matters involving the authority due to a federal court order. 

Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash said he is aware of the proposed repository. He opposed it more than four years ago as an Oakland County commissioner while working with the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG). “SEMCOG passed a resolution opposing it,” he said. “We have at least 20 percent of the world’s freshwater in the Great Lakes, and we can’t afford to have it leaking into it. If we are going to store this stuff, we have to store it so that it doesn’t have any potential to effect the Great Lakes.”

While the opposition to the proposed facility has been strong, scientists with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) who reviewed Bruce Power’s plans for the deep geological repository concluded that the utility’s findings appeared to be accurate. In fact, additional studies have indicated that geological rock formations in the Great Lakes Basin could provide safe storage for all levels of radioactive waste. Meanwhile, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and U.S. Department of Energy have yet to find a permanent disposal site for spent fuel and high-level radioactive waste in this country.

Although nuclear regulators in Canada have not made a decision on the proposed facility, the proposed project on the shores of Lake Huron raise questions about the possibility of future plans for a similar facility in Michigan.

“What we try to do at the DEQ is assess risk,” said DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel, who said Ontario Power Generation asked the DEQ several years ago to review their plans for the proposed facility. “We recognize that there is some measure of risk in anything, and we look at what we can do to minimize risk. We felt upon our review, that the folks in Canada had addressed the appropriate risk factors in the proposed construction.”

So, would a similar facility be permitted near the Great Lakes in Michigan? Unlikely, according to Wurfel.

“Do you know what we put in the ground around our shoreline? We have dozens of different deep injection wells around the state, so it’s not that we haven’t taken advantage of our wells, but not of this kind. I’m not sure we would permit something like that,” Wurfel said. “We have injection wells for hazardous waste all around the state, but that’s (nuclear) never been proposed.”

In Romulus, hazardous waste was pumped into a well nearly a mile deep into the ground in 2006. State inspectors later discovered leaks in the well mechanism located above the ground, and closed the wells after about 10 months. However, the wells were again permitted by the DEQ and re-opened.

“There are hazardous waste wells, like the one in Romulus,” Wurfel said. “That is some pretty bad stuff, and that’s in a formation that is never going to allow it to escape. Michigan has great geology for having the ability to use its formations.”

Hal Fitch, office chief of the DEQ’s Oil, Gas and Minerals Division, who was one of the experts who reviewed Ontario Power’s plans for the DEQ, said the rock formations at Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula, where the storage facility is being proposed, have much the same geological formations as lower Michigan.

“Their (environmental impact study) concluded that there wasn’t any significant risk of leakage or fluid movement or escape of any kind into ground water or surface water into Lake Huron,” he said. “And we didn’t find anything to dispute that.”

Ontario Power Generation says it completed a four-year program of scientific investigations, analyses and studies to assess the ability of the proposed deep geologic repository to safely isolate and contain low and intermediate level waste. The results were compiled into an environmental impact

study. According to Ontario Power Generation, studies of pore water extracted from about 2,231 feet, or more than 1,700 feet below the bottom of Lake Huron in the area, haven’t moved for more than a million years. The utility also said that much of the waste is already stored above ground on an interim basis, and that the repository would provide a safer location for the long term.

The proposed project includes the construction of surface and underground facilities over five to seven years. The underground facilities include two shafts, several access tunnels and a number of emplacement rooms and support facilities, including ventilation and maintenance rooms. The underground facility would be constructed in limestone bedrock beneath the Bruce nuclear site. The overall underground arrangement would enable infrastructure to be kept in close proximity to the main shaft, while keeping waste placement areas away from the normally occupied and high traffic areas, according to Ontario Power Generation.

On the surface, the facilities would include a waste package receiving building, main and ventilation shaft headframes, a compressor room, intake fans, heating fans, a hoist house and emergency generator. The facility would be about a half mile from the Lake Huron shoreline.

The utility said in a statement that several different technologies were considered for the long-term management of the waste, but the repository was selected because it provides the highest margin of safety.

Kevin Kamps, a Kalamazoo native now working as a national radioactive waste watchdog with Maryland-based Beyond Nuclear, said he fears the facility has a very real possibility of being constructed, despite the strong opposition against it.

“We have been following it since about 2001, when the first rumors appeared. It was such a crazy proposal that we thought it would go away,” he said. “I’m afraid there’s a real danger that it will be built. The drinking water supply for 40 million people will be put at risk by this proposal. There is radioactive waste storage in Canada and the United States all along the shores. Never before has anyone proposed burying it where it will almost certainly leak into the lakes.”

According to Kamps, low level and intermediate wastes contain many of the same radioactive materials as high-level wastes, but in lesser concentrations. The long-lasting materials, he said, include cesium-137, strontium-90; plutonium-239; iodine-129 and nickel-59, as well as hundreds of other radioactive materials present in the wastes.

The Detroit water system currently tests for hundreds of potential contaminants each day, as well as secondary and unregulated contaminants that may enter a system. In terms of radioactive contaminants, the department tests for radium 226 and 228, as well as other radioactive materials.

“You have water soluble, radioactive poisons– like cesium-137, like that from Fukushima and Chernobyl – that would flow with currents downstream,” Kamps said. “One of the radioactive poisons that has already leaked at the Bruce site, tritium, which is radioactive hydrogen. It’s not filterable on an industrial scale. They have had leaks on their site, and if that ever gets in the lakes, it will go into our water.”

Ontario Power Generation states that tritium concentrations in the surface water within the site are higher than background monitoring stations, or those maintained by local municipalities for drinking water, but are “well within the standards.”

Kamps in April met with Flint Congressman Dan Kildee to discuss the proposed facility. Kildee announced the same day that he planned to sponsor a bipartisan resolution to oppose the repository.

“Permanently storing nuclear waste at a Canadian facility less than a mile from the Great Lakes is dangerous and an unnecessary risk we shouldn’t take,” said Kildee, whose district includes Flint, where a new water system, drawing from Lake Huron, is in the works as a replacement for the Detroit system to which the city used to belong.

A similar resolution was introduced in 2014 by former Michigan Senator Carl Levin. That resolution died in the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Meanwhile, in 2014, the Michigan Senate passed a resolution opposing the repository and urging Congress to do all it can to urge Canadian officials to find alternatives to the proposed facility. 

Dozens of municipalities in Michigan and the Great Lakes region have also passed resolutions opposing the project, including the municipalities of Windsor, Ontario; Duluth, Minnesota; Sheboygan, Wisconsin; Niagara Falls, New York; Clinton Township, Michigan; Toronto, Ontario; Rochester, New York; and Chicago, as well as many others.

“Millions of people – both in the U.S. and Canada – depend on fresh water from the Great Lakes for drinking, fishing and tourism. Every year, the Great Lakes pump billions of dollars into the economy and support thousands of good paying jobs,” congressmen Kildee, Sander Levin, John Dingell and Gary Peters said in a letter to the joint review panel considering the proposed facility. “Lake Huron, which together with Lakes Superior, Erie, Michigan and Ontario constitute the largest group of freshwater lakes on earth, comprise 21 percent of the world’s surface freshwater. If the Great Lakes were to be contaminated with nuclear waste, it would cause significant damage to this vital natural resource.”

In Macomb County, both the county’s Water Quality Board and Macomb County Board of Commissioners have passed resolutions opposing the construction of the proposed waste repository. The water quality board, which is a citizen’s advisory board appointed by the Macomb County Board of Commissioners to advocate for clean water, passed its resolution in 2008.

“Michigan Act 204 of 1987, the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Authority Act, MCL 333.26201 - 333.26226, set forth citing criteria for the disposal of low-level radioactive waste. Such criteria excludes any ‘located within 10 miles of Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, St. Mary’s River, Detroit River, St. Clair River or Lake. St. Clair,’’’ the Macomb County Board of Commissioners cited in its resolution. “and, whereas to protect water quality, other citing criteria of Act 204 excludes sites (1) located within a 500 year floodplain; (2) located over a sole source aquifer or (3) located where the hydrogeology beneath the site discharges groundwater to the land surface within 3,000 feet of the boundaries of the site.”

Closer to the Port Huron intake where much of southeast Michigan receives its drinking water, Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley said he and other Canadians share many of the same concerns as those in the United States.

“It’s pretty simple. Sarnia is the largest (Canadian) city on Lake Huron. We take our water very serious, like many others,” he said. “There was no process on this – when they were looking for locations for this, Kincardine put up their hand and said, ‘hey, choose us,’ and they did.

“To build anything like this within a mile of Lake Huron is just foolish.”

Requests for comment from officials in Kincardine weren’t returned.

Bradley said while efforts to reduce radioactive risks on the Great Lakes have been successful in the past, such as previous plans by the utility to ship nuclear steam generators on the Great Lakes, a similar decision will likely require the intervention of the United States government.

“I expect this thing is going to be approved, with a lot of restrictions, and that will take the political fight to the federal level,” he said. “The biggest thing is American opposition. I think that has a tremendous impact on the decision of the Canadian federal government.”

Just across the Detroit River from downtown Detroit, the city of Windsor, Ontario, has opposed the proposed waste repository by resolution:

“The city of Windsor, in order to protect the Great Lakes and its tributaries, urges that neither this proposed nuclear waste repository at the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station nor any other underground nuclear waste repository be constructed in the Great Lakes Basin, in Canada, the United States, or any first nation property.”

The resolution, which was adopted by the Windsor City Council in November 2013, goes on to cite the a 2012 Protocol Amending the Agreement Between Canada and the United States of America on Great Lakes Water Quality, where the governments of Canada and the United States acknowledged the importance of “anticipating, preventing and responding to threats to the waters of the Great Lakes.”

“Placing a permanent nuclear waste burial facility so close to the Great Lakes is ill-advised,” the council said. “The potential damage to the Great Lakes from any leak or breach of radioactivity far outweighs any suggested economic benefit that might be derived from burying radioactive nuclear waste at this site. The ecology of the Great Lakes, valuable beyond measure to the health and economic wellbeing of the entire region, should not be placed at risk by storing radioactive nuclear waste underground so close to the shoreline.”

The Michigan League of Conservation Voters has also weighed in on the proposed repository, citing that it is “out of step” with responsible stewardship of the Great Lakes and will “pose a serious threat to the largest source of freshwater on the planet.”

Noting the Great Lakes is a source for 1.5 million jobs and $62 million to the Great Lakes regional economy, the group stated in a letter to the joint review panel that “we cannot afford to place the wellbeing of the Great Lakes in jeopardy by storing nuclear waste.”

“There are still too many unknowns about deep geological repositories to risk putting one so dangerously close to the Great Lakes. The type of repository that Ontario Power is proposing would be the first of its kind in Canada, and only the second of its kind in the United States,” the Michigan League of Conservation Voters said in a letter to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency’s Joint Review Panel. A repository built into water soluble limestone, as Ontario Power is proposing, is unusual and untested, and limited experience shows that repositories like these leak radioactive waste.

“The sole repository that exists in the United States was constructed to hold only low level nuclear waste, not intermediate waste,which is what Ontario Power is suggesting occur at the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station. After citizens living near that repository were told the possibility of off-site migration was “essentially non-existent,” radioactive waste was found two miles off-site ten years later. Allowing Ontario Power to store nuclear waste at the proposed site, which is a mere half-mile from the shore of Lake Huron, sets up the Great Lakes and the millions of people who depend on them, for an environmental disaster.”

Low-level nuclear waste generated from nuclear generation sites in the United States, such as that produced at the DTE Energy’s Fermi 2 power plant in Newport, Michigan, is typically sent to one of two shallow-land burial sites, located in Texas and Utah. Other high levels of radioactive wastes are commonly stored at the site of the power station where it was produced, which is how Fermi 2 handles that waste because the United States currently has no official storage location for such materials.

In 2002, Yucca Mountain, located about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, in Nevada, was officially designated as the site to store the nation’s spent fuel and high-level radioactive waste. At the time, U. S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, a Michigan native, recommended the site to President George W. Bush, who approved it. As allowed under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, then Governor Kenny Guinn of Nevada vetoed the decision, which was subsequently overturned by Congress. However, the Obama administration in 2011 terminated funding for the Yucca Mountain repository, leaving the United States without any long-term storage site for the disposal of spent reactor fuel and defense generated high-level waste.

Currently, the nation’s only deep geologic repository for nuclear waste is the U.S. Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), in Carlsbad, New Mexico. The plant is used for the permanent disposal of specific waste that is a byproduct of the nation’s nuclear defense program. The site is used for disposal of transuranic waste, which consists of clothing, tools, rags, residues, debris, soil and other items contaminated with small amounts of plutonium and other man-made radioactive elements, according to the Department of Energy (DOE).

In February 2014, two isolated accidents at the repository forced the site to be evacuated and temporarily closed. On February 5, a salt truck caught fire. Workers were evacuated and the underground portion of the federal nuclear waste plant was shut down. Six workers were treated for smoke inhalation. Nine days later, a second, unrelated event occurred when a continuous air monitor alarm was triggered during the night shift. Eleven employees were at the waste plant on the surface, and none underground at the time. 

According to the Department of Energy, the monitors measured airborne radioactivity close to the operating location where waste was being placed. Ventilation air at the site was pulled from the underground repository by huge fans on the surface. The exhaust consisted of unfiltered air. The following day, an above-ground exhaust air monitor at the plant site detected airborne radioactive contamination. About 140 employees at the site were kept indoors. It’s believed that a small amount of radioactivity went through the exhaust duct dampers, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. 

Of particular interest to residents in southeast Michigan is the fact that the waste plant in Carlsbad utilizes deep salt formations, or salt mines, as the host medium to store the radioactive materials. The correlation is worthy of note, as the idea of storing hazardous waste in the salt mines of Detroit had been mulled in the 1950s, and at other times since then.

In the 1980s, Michigan and other states were searching for new options of disposing hazardous waste. Proposals to use salt formations for waste disposal sparked interest of the Michigan salt management industry. The concept was not new. Salt mines were contemplated for nuclear waste disposal during the late 1950s, according to the National Academy of Sciences, which recommended radioactive wastes in slat formations. According to the energy department, “nothing about the waste plant events of February 2014 calls into question this National Academy recommendation.” 

The use of deep salt mines has also been used for radioactive and other hazardous waste in Lower Saxony, Germany, at the Asse II pit, a former salt mine. Radioactive waste was first placed in storage there during the late 1960s and 1970s. Over the course of five decades, an estimated 126,000 barrels of nuclear waste have been dumped in the salt mine. It is now feared that the mines, which are in a state of collapse, could allow radioactive contamination to leak into local drinking water. While German politicians have stated they would like to have the waste removed from the mines, German researchers say the task is nearly impossible. 

In Detroit, the simple announcement of use of local salt mines for storage prompted plummeting property values in the area near River Rouge, which has never recovered economically, according to proposed legislation introduced in 1997 in the Michigan House.

Considering current and past proposals to use the Great Lakes Basin’s geological traits, as well as those below the city of Detroit that are similar to those already being used in this country for the storage of radioactive waste, the proposal for a Canadian repository in the region is alarming.

“For the waste that exists, we have a nationwide consensus that we use quality, hard casts, that are safeguarded, which none of that is happening now. That would secure an interim period for waste in our midst. Then we should stop making this stuff. We are 70 years into this and we haven’t figured out what to do with the first cupfull,” said Kamps, with Beyond Nuclear, who added that many are worried that more harmful materials could be stored at the repository in the future. “That’s what is so incredible about this Canadian proposal. It’s Yucca Mountain here in the Great Lakes.”

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