Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Nuclear Waste Issue in Northern Ontario

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Editor’s note: This is the second in a series on environmental histories of Radiation in Canada edited by Joshua McGuffie and M. Blake Butler.

There are little yellow signs on lawns across northwestern Ontario with a big message. They read: “Say NO to Nuclear Waste.” These signs, made by the group Environment North, exclaim the regional objections to Nuclear Waste Management Organization’s (NWMO) proposed deep-geological repository project. NWMO is a not-for-profit organization established by Canada’s nuclear producers and is tasked with solving Canada’s nuclear waste issue. NWMO propose constructing a repository at a depth of 500-800 metres below ground where they will store nuclear waste in multi-barrier containers for eons. Two communities remain as possible candidates in 2022: South Bruce and Ignace, Ontario. Although South Bruce is no stranger to the nuclear industry (it neighbours the mammoth Bruce Nuclear Generating Station a short distance away in Kincardine), many proponents would like to see the project built further north—out of sight and out of mind for the metropole in southern Ontario.

Ignace is a small community in northwestern Ontario—a boreal backwater on the Trans-Canada Highway 1600 km west of Toronto and 450 km east of Winnipeg. Forestry and eco-tourism are its main industries. Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in the region have criticized Ignace’s decision to continue its candidacy. For them, the NWMO’s project embodies Northern Ontario’s historic hinterland-metropole relationship with the rest of the province—its colonial role as an extraction zone for untapped resources and a wasteland for environmental problems. Nuclear waste demands the latter.

Canada’s nuclear waste pile is growing. The NWMO reports that as of June 2021 there is close to 3.1 million spent nuclear fuel bundles in either wet or dry storage.1 The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission explains that Canada has enough spent fuel to fill 7 hockey rinks to the top of the boards.2 This hazardous material is kept on site at nuclear stations and is held in cooling pools until it can be safely managed and disposed.

Provincial and federal governments began to focus investment on nuclear waste management beginning in the mid-1970s. Ontario’s Royal Commission on Electric Power Planning (1975-1980) acknowledged the nuclear waste problem as a priority that would determine the industry’s future.3 Governments believed the Canadian Shield to be the best location for a deep geological repository, much owing to its stable rock formations. Through Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), they launched a full-scale campaign in 1977 to persuade interested communities. Ignace, at the time, declined the offer. Following heavy public criticism, the governments placed a moratorium on the project in 1981, until it mandated a new environmental assessment panel in 1989 to study the proposal once again. The panel concluded in 1998 that “from a technical perspective, safety of the AECL concept has been on balance adequately demonstrated for a conceptual stage of development, but from a social perspective it has not.”4 The government once again shelved the proposal—temporarily.

Following the environmental assessment panel’s recommendations, the federal government mandated NWMO’s formation in 2002 and tasked it with developing a project for nuclear waste disposal. It started its process with 20 interested communities—more than half from Northern Ontario.5 Many communities who passed on the project in the 1970s took a second look at the NWMO’s proposals in the face of de-industrialization and dying single-industry communities. Their decision to review the proposal reminds us how communities balance social and environmental risks with economic reward. On the one hand, the project will provide a community economic stability for generations through job creation and municipal revenues; on the other hand, it generates fear and uncertainty over its potential for catastrophe.

The nuclear waste issue is another chapter in Northern Ontario’s history of the politics of development. Northern Ontario’s economy is built on its relationship to the environment. Natural resources—lumber, minerals, paper and pulp, and hydro-electricity—poured from Northern Ontario towards the province’s metropolises.6 Motivated by metropolitan romanticism of Northern Ontario as an empty space waiting for modernity’s brush, capital and industry impressed profit-driven changes to landscapes and waterscapes across the hinterland. Northerners, who have gained few direct social benefits from Southern Ontario’s nuclear cycle, are now being asked to bury the industry’s most toxic wastes. NWMO is asking Northern Ontario to put their landscapes, and their relationship to those landscapes, in trust. Discussions about nuclear waste in Northern Ontario need to recognize the important role that landscapes and waterscapes play not only in economic development but also in northern ways of living. Hunting, fishing, trapping, farming, camping, and other outdoor activities are all part of the quotidian Northern lifestyle. Many worry that nuclear waste may irreversibly damage that relationship to the land.  

Northerners’ fears are justified. There are many instances where industries directly caused environmental degradation. The most notorious is the case of Dryden Chemical, which dumped 9000 kg of mercury into the English—Wabigoon River between 1962 and 1970. Grassy Narrows First Nation, 250 km downstream from Dryden, suffered the worst of the mercury’s ills. It is estimated that 90% of Grassy Narrow’s population have some form of mercury poisoning.7 Dryden is a mere 100 km from Ignace and remains a cautionary tale. Other places, like Elliot Lake and Serpent River First Nation in northeastern Ontario, have seen the nuclear industry’s direct environmental consequences. Tailings from Elliot Lake’s uranium mines leeched into the Serpent River Water System. The water system had, since the 1960s, been becoming increasingly toxic. Residents noted by the mid 1970s many ‘dead lakes’ in the area around the uranium industry, where dead animals and other biota could often be found “piled up” around the water’s edge.8 These are but a few examples of the environmental consequences intertwined in Northern Ontario’s hinterland-metropolis relationship.

Photo by Author

Yet, proponents peddle that all is well in the Nuclear North. “It’s going to be safe,” explained Penny Lucas, Ignace’s Mayor, in May 2021. “They wanna make sure that we’re looking after the environment, that we’re looking after the people, all those things.”9 Others argue that Ignace should not be allowed to speak for communities along the route who will see some 22,000 loads of nuclear waste move through them over the project’s lifetime.10 Groups like We the Nuclear Free North oppose “the transport, burial and abandonment of this radioactive waste in our northern watersheds.” More, they urge that “no storage or disposal of hazardous materials shall take place in the lands or territories of indigenous peoples without their free, prior and informed consent.”11 While NWMO states its commitment to “reconciliation in all its work by co-creating a shared future built on rights, equity and well-being,” its program is still based in the confidence that nothing will go wrong.12

NWMO is, in many ways, a public relations firm backed by industry coffers. NWMO has ‘donated’ millions of dollars to the prospective towns in hopes of building social and community ties. They set aside $4 million each for Ignace and South Bruce to spend on community infrastructure projects. While NWMO states there are ‘no strings attached’ to such funds, its hope is these grants may entice either community to move forward with the project and may help re-brand its image as an organization investing in these communities’ futures.13 NWMO’s strategy is a modern take on the company town, using its hegemony to solidify itself in a small northern community.

NWMO is moving closer to its goal of developing a pilot project in one of the two remaining communities. Following a process of Adaptive Phase Management (modeled after the Finnish nuclear waste program), NWMO hopes to begin testing sites in 2023.

While there is mounting pressure from grassroots-community organizations, Ignace remains a possible resting place for Canada’s nuclear waste. If successful, NWMO will firm Northern Ontario’s subordinate role in the nuclear cycle as an extraction zone for resources and a dumping ground for wastes: uranium mined in northeastern Ontario and nuclear waste buried in northwestern Ontario—all serving nuclear stations in southern Ontario. Such discussions will surely continue, as NWMO moves closer to realizing its project.         

1. Nuclear Waste Management Organization, “Nuclear Fuel Waste Projections in Canada – 2021 Update,” (September 2021), 3, accessed 17 April 2022.

2. Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, “High-Level Radioactive Waste,” (April 2021), accessed 16 April 2022.

3. See Royal Commission on Electric Power Planning, A Race Against Time: Interim Report on Nuclear Power in Ontario (Toronto: Queen’s Printer, 1978), 95.

4. “Underground storage of spent A-fuel is postponed,” Globe and Mail, 6 August 1981. See Also, Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, Report of the Nuclear Fuel Waste Management and Disposal Concepts Environmental Assessment Agency (Ottawa: Canadian Environmental Agency, 1998).

5. Nuclear Waste Management Organization, “Areas No Longer Being Studied,” accessed 16 April 2022.

6. H.V. Nelles, The Politics of Development: Forests, Mines, and Hydro-Electric Power in Ontario, 1849- 1941 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1970), 118.

7. Jody Porter, “Children of the Poisoned River,” CBC, n.d.

8. For more on the Serpent River see Lianne C. Leddy, Serpent River Resurgence Confronting Uranium Mining at Elliot Lake (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2022). See also Robynne Mellor, “Wildly Nuclear: Elliot Lake and Canada’s Nuclear Legacy,NiCHE, 15 June 2016.

9. “Ignace embarks on the nuclear waste ‘willingness process,’” TBTNewsWatch, 31 May 2021.

10. “Opponents of nuclear waste disposal join forces,” TBTNewsWatch, 19 April 2021.

11. “Who Are We—Mission Statement,” We the Nuclear Free North, n.d. ; See also “Opponents of nuclear waste disposal join forces.”

12. Nuclear Waste Management Organization, “Reconciliation,” n.d., accessed 17 April 2022.

13. “Ignace embarks on the nuclear waste ‘willingness process,’” TBTNewsWatch, 31 May 2021.

Featured image: “Say no to nuclear waste.” Image taken by author.
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Brandon Cordeiro

I received my PhD from McMaster University. My research explores the social, economic, and environmental influences of nuclear power on shaping modern Canada.

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