Nuclear Waste in Migisi Sahgaigan?

By Ryan Suzuki, Community Journalism Trainer

Model radioactive nuclear waste pellets

Migisi Sahgaigan (Eagle Lake First Nation) is facing the proposed dumping of nuclear waste in the region. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) is a not-for-profit corporation that was formed in 2002 to deal with the growing nuclear waste from electricity generation in Southern Ontario. The Aboriginal Engagement committee from NWMO came to Migisi Sahgaigan on May 29th to share information on nuclear waste and their mission to find a long-term storage solution for the radioactive material. The previous time that NWMO came to Migisi Sahgaigan, the community demanded they leave immediately and said they were not interested in discussion. At this visit, about 30 community members attended the info session, where pasta, salad and desserts were served.The Migisi Sahgaigan Lands and Resources Department is engaging with me, in my role as community journalism trainer with JHR, to broadcast the meeting online, for off-reserve community members. This also serves to document the proceedings, which holds the parties accountable.

The nuclear waste is currently stored in either irradiation pools or in dry storage facilities in Southern Ontario. Due to threats of natural disasters, economic changes or terrorism, the NWMO is now looking for a permanent storage solution. Joe Heil (Senior Engagement Officer, NWMO) admits that leaving the radioactive waste where it is can be an appealing solution because it is easy, but that leaves future generation the task of dealing with the hazardous material. Glaciers could again cover much of Canada and a permanent home for the nuclear waste must be found.

The NWMO is looking at a solution that will last 100,000 to 1 million years, a brief moment in geologic time. Mother Earth is 4.5 billion years old.

Alternative options are also being considered for nuclear waste disposal. Sending it to space was considered, but it would take 600 rockets to carry the heavy load. Rockets have exploded in the past, such as the Challenger, so this is a hazardous option. NWMO has considered dumping in volcanoes, subductive zones (where one tectonic plate sinks under another), or in a 5-kilometer deep hole. However, they determined that a deep geological repository is the safest storage option. 20 of 30 countries using nuclear power use this method to deal with radioactive waste.

A deep geologic repository is what has been proposed on the traditional territory of Migisi Sahgaigan. In 2010, Ignace (a township in the Kenora district of Northwestern Ontario) identified that they were interested in hosting the nuclear waste disposal program. Along with Ignace, there are 5 other sites in Canada that are under consideration and are being researched for the hazardous waste disposal.

Thus far NWMO has drilled 3 boreholes near Ignace to test the composition of the rock, and they are looking for fractures and ground water. The NWMO is proposing to contain the radioactive pellets of nuclear waste in a zirconium container, which will be encased in copper and bentonite clay, to be held in a steel tank to withstand the weight of a glacier. This would be housed 1000 meters below the earth’s surface. The waste would take 40 years to transport to the site, which is dangerous and difficult, as the containment units are very heavy and can crack roads and bridges. The waste would then be monitored for several decades before filling in the shafts.

Borehole drilling site near Ignace, Ontario

“Mother Earth is a living being, even the rocks. We refer to them as grandfathers in our language. Mother Earth might get mad that we are digging holes in her. I wouldn’t want anyone coming around and digging into me.” Roy Napish

Zirconium container for radioactive nuclear waste pellets, held by John van Heeden, Director, Site Investigations, Nuclear Waste Management Organization

Mitchell Lands, a community member of Migisi Sahgaigan, says this meeting with NWMO reminds him of childhood stories of Indian agents coming to a meeting of chiefs with gifts of blankets contaminated by influenza and small pox. There are many traumas from colonialism and industrial contamination such as the Domtar Dryden Mill, which has poisoned water and food sources in the region.

One elder from the community suggests that the nuclear waste should go back to where it came from (in Uranium city in Northern Saskatchewan), but the NWMO responded that they didn’t want to dump where there may be future resource development or mining.

Another elder, and former chief, Roy Napish says Mother Earth is a living being, even the rocks. “We refer to them as grandfathers in our language . Mother Earth might get mad that we are digging holes in her. I wouldn’t want anyone coming around and digging into me.”

The risks of the Ignace site include seismic activity from isostatic rebound (the land rebounding from the weight of the last glacier). The seismic activity registers at around 2.5-3.5 on the richter magnitude scale, and any resulting fractures in the rock could be a conduit for contaminated water to travel.

Reprocessing nuclear waste is another alternative to storage, a process which is currently done to manufacture nuclear weapons. However, the technology is not yet developed to reprocess the waste into a safe and ethical product. Perhaps by 2043, the proposed long-term storage date, technology for reprocessing nuclear waste will be at a safe functioning level.

Through the Learn More program, communities are supplied with resources to research the proposed nuclear waste storage, and to travel to Toronto to visit the nuclear power and waste storage site. NWMO says that the Learn More program is not a commitment to accept the nuclear waste on Migisi Sahgaigan’s traditional territory, and if the people say “no” to the nuclear waste storage, it will not happen.

Community journalism training is an integral part of JHR’s larger Indigenous Reporters Program. In-community training in Ontario is generously supported by the Ontario Trillium Foundation.

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