This, perhaps, is the most obvious concern: what damage could a DGR that houses Canada's high-level (and possibly low- and intermediate-level) nuclear waste do to the environment?
Considering that 95% of the fresh water in North America comes from the Great Lakes, irreversibly polluting the water supply with radiation would be a disaster – not only for the human population, but the entire ecosystem. We are also concerned about the proposed site in Northern Ontario close to Ignace as it would be located at the headwaters of rivers that flow into Hudson's Bay and also into Lake Winnipeg!
The most fundamental problem with the proposed DGR is simply its proximity – approximately 36 kilometres from the Bruce reactor located on the shores of Lake Huron. This raises the possibilities of water getting into the storage shaft and nuclear waste getting out into the lake through the underlying aquifer systems.
Lake Huron and the other Great Lakes supply the drinking water for approximately forty million people in the US and Canada. In addition, the Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence River, by which they drain into the northern Atlantic Ocean, are a unique and critical ecosystem for northeastern North America, constituting 21% of the world’s supply of fresh water. Situating the proposed facility on the Great Lakes water basin means that any major problems with it could become a disaster larger than Chernobyl or Fukushima.
This is not a merely theoretical problem. It has been acted out in real life, as most nuclear facilities are located near bodies of water that are used in cooling the nuclear material. If we look at other catastrophes involving nuclear waste, not only has disaster been caused by flooding of the site (as at Fukushima), but the main avenue of environmental contamination in general has been the discharge of radioactive waste into bodies of water.
For instance, the 1957 nuclear waste explosion at Kyshtym created a radioactive plume that spread over hundreds of kilometers, creating a contaminated area known as the East Urals Radioactive Trace (EURT), and prompting the evacuation of about ten thousand people. Although the Soviet government attempted to quarantine the use of water from the river, it proved impossible over such a large area – just as it would with the Great Lakes – with a 1992 study concluding that 8,015 people had died as a result of the accident. It is rated as the third worst nuclear accident ever (after Fukushima and Chernobyl).
Yet the nuclear facility responsible for the accident was also discharging high-level waste directly into the neighboring lake and river, and this turns out to have caused comparable damage to the more dramatic explosion. In fact, some studies suggest that “frequent use of the floodplain for food and fodder production increase the intake and dose estimates by about a factor [of] three over the other irradiated residents.”
[Read more here]
One can see a similar pattern in Britain, comparing their two biggest nuclear disasters. When the land-locked Windscale nuclear reactor caught fire in 1957, the only large-scale response needed was the destruction of locally produced milk. In contrast, the explosion in the Dounreay underground waste storage shaft in 1977 drew attention to the contamination of the local seabed by radioactive fuel rod filings. This contamination has led to closing the local beaches and the abandonment of the formerly very productive salmon fishery. The current cost for the cleanup alone currently stands at over £2 billion, or about $3 billion (Canadian or US).
Read more here
Finally, the leaking nuclear waste in the underground storage facility in Asse, Germany is mostly contained because it is inland and far from any body of water, but the main concern is that the leaking radioactive material will spread via the groundwater flowing through the mine.
Lake Huron lies on the Great Lakes tectonic zone, a fault-line that stretches from South Dakota, US, to Sudbury, Ontario. It has not been terribly active, with the largest recent quake being the 4.6 earthquake in 1975 in Morris, Minnesota.
However, strong tremors originating elsewhere have also been felt in the Great Lakes region, for instance
The earliest, well-recorded history of earthquake tremors felt in the Michigan Territory resulted from the great earthquakes centered in the lower Mississippi Valley near New Madrid, Missouri in 1811and 1812. As many as nine tremors from the New Madrid earthquake series were felt in the Detroit region (von Hake, 1973). At Orchard Lake, Michigan, it was reported that on December 17, 1811 “the Indians said the waters of the lake began to boil, bubble, foam and roll about as though they had been in a large kettle over a hot fire, and that in a few minutes up came great numbers of turtles and hurried to the shore, upon which they had a great turtle feast” (Hobbs, 1911). As late as February, 1976, several tremors of low intensity were again felt in the Detroit area, the epicenter or focal point of origin being unofficially located in northern Ohio.
Read more (PDF)
The effects of the New Madrid series earthquake point out that it is rather strange to restrict the earthquake data for the region to 180 years in the past, a date which just manages to exclude the New Madrid earthquake, the largest set of earthquakes ever to strike North America.
The Provincial Council of Women of Ontario (PCWO) noted when the proposed DGR under the Bruce Reactor was being considered in federal hearings that an earthquake
…may appear to be very unlikely, however the location of the proposed repository in an Ordovician sedimentary formation increases the risk [if one should strike]. For instance, in a study done for NWMO, Characterizing the Geosphere in High Level Radioactive Waste Management, independent geologist Professor J.F. Sykes of the University of Waterloo notes that “Beneath the Bruce Nuclear Power Development on Lake Huron, the Ordovician shales of the Michigan Basin are likely to have hydrolic conductivities in the range of 10 to the 11th to 10 to the 14th m/s at depths of 500m (Moltyaner et al 1995). The pore water in the formation is highly saline and stagnant. However, the physical properties of shale can undergo significant irreversible alteration with low or moderate changes in temperature, or stress.” An additional caution is the location of the Bruce site on the Findlay-Algonquin Arch, along which there are active faults.
PCWO recognizes that the EIS will require a quite detailed description and analysis of the “geotechnical and geophysical hazards, however PC WO recommends that the Guidelines should specifically require the Joint Panel to use independent, third party evidence as to the stability of the Ordovician sedimentary and the earthquake potential. Only in this way may the Panel be certain that the underground repository for nuclear waste in this area does not pose a risk to this very special ecological area and a Great Lake that is in close proximity to and supplies fresh drinking water to millions of residents on both sides of the border. This is not an unreasonable requirement, given the huge ramifications of any “significant irreversible alteration” or an earthquake.
Likewise, the PCWO notes that with respect to the previous proposed Bruce site close to the Bruce nuclear power plant, merely 36 kms away from the proposed Teeswater site that:
According to retired geologist J. Robert Janes (M. Eng. Geology), author of the textbook Geology and the New Global Tectonics, and co-author of Airphoto Interpretation and the Canadian Landscape:
“The proposed Bruce site lies on the northwestern flank of the Findley-Algonquin Arch. A known uplift that is seismically active, the Arch is no doubt block-faulted in many areas and connected to the Ottawa-Bonnechere Graben, the Hudson River Fault, the St. Lawrence Fault and Logan’s Line.
It is very important therefore to consider the periodicity, clustering and magnitude of earthquakes, but foolish to give assurances based on data that goes back only one hundred and eighty years, and to only 1 earthquake of magnitude 5, which is severe enough to give warning. It is also important to document post-glacial rebound, and the repetitive periods of continental glaciation, since we are now 5,000 years beyond when the next phase should have occurred, and have no assurances that another phase will not return at some point in the study’s forward time scale of ten million years. In addition, there need to be bathymetric studies of the floor of Lake Huron next to the waste burial site. These would most certainly show uplifted and downfaulted blocks, rather than the smooth cross-section shown by the proponent.”
In light of these independent pieces of information from two geologists, PCWO feels that the proponent appears to be presenting insufficient information to fit their case for a repository, and that there is a need for independent evaluation of their data.
The PWO assessment is still valid and seems to apply, as well, to the new proposed site at Teeswater where the high-level (and perhaps low- and intermediate-level) waste would be buried.