TRAVERSE CITY, Michigan — A Canadian advisory panel Wednesday endorsed a fiercely debated plan to bury waste from nuclear power plants less than a mile from Lake Huron, saying it had concluded the project would pose no danger to the environment.
The Joint Review Panel made its recommendation in a report to Canada's environment minister, Leona Aglukkaq, who is expected to render a decision within 120 days.
Publicly owned Ontario Power Generation wants to bury 7.1 million cubic feet of low- and intermediate-level waste from nuclear plants about 2,230 feet below the earth's surface at the Bruce Power generating station near Kincardine, Ontario. The panel said the project would be the first of its kind in North America.
The waste would not include highly radioactive spent fuel. Instead, it would consist of "low-level" waste such as ashes from incinerated mop heads, paper towels and floor sweepings, and "intermediate waste" — discarded parts from the reactor core.
Company officials say the material has been stored above ground since the 1960s and needs a permanent resting place. It would be entombed in stable rock formations more than 450 million years old and wouldn't contaminate the lake, they say.
Opponents say nothing is guaranteed when some of the material would stay radioactive up to 100,000 years.
"The Panel fully agrees that Lake Huron and the other Great Lakes are precious resources that demand society's highest level of protection and regard," the panel said in its 457-page report.
But it said an exhaustive review had found the project "is not likely to cause significant adverse effects on the water quality or aquatic ecosystems," provided the company meets a lengthy list of conditions that include developing spill response plans.
The proposal has drawn criticism on both sides of the border, including from some members of Congress and Michigan state legislators. Beverly Fernandez, leader of a group called Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump, said 154 cities, towns and counties oppose it.
"This is an intergenerational, nonpartisan issue that affects millions of Canadians and Americans," Fernandez said. "The last place to bury and abandon radioactive nuclear waste is beside the largest supply of fresh water on the planet."
Ontario Power Generation said it was pleased with the panel's recommendation, which capped a 14-year process of research and development.
"OPG and a team of scientists will closely analyze the panel's conditions, many of which reinforce our commitment to the stewardship of the Great Lakes," said Laurie Swami, senior vice president.
The project would be "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," the report says.
It contends underground storage would be a safer long-term solution than surface storage and says the facility is designed to withstand eventual degradation of waste containers and seals, earthquakes and even the return of glaciers.
Accidents such as fires or breaches of containers holding radioactive waste — and acts of sabotage — are improbable and likely would do little damage even if they happened, the report said.
If Aglukkaq, the environment minister, approves the project, the review panel will decide whether to issue a construction license.
Following construction, expected to begin around 2018, another license would be sought to operate the facility. Officials say the target date to begin operations is 2025.
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