100-year-old treaty may help resolve conflict on nuclear waste disposal near Lake Huron

Part 1 in a two-part series.

As controversy around the disposal of nuclear waste in the Lake Huron watershed grows, some lawmakers believe the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty may help resolve the issue. This series will explore the history of the treaty and its relationship to the modern nuclear waste debate. Part 1 of the series outlines the bi-national conflict surrounding the possible disposal of nuclear waste in the Lake Huron watershed. Part 2 explains how the 1909 Boundary waters treaty may provide a mechanism for the resolving the dispute.

Ontario Power Generation has proposed a plan to store radioactive waste in a rock chamber 2,000 feet below ground and less than a mile from the shores of Lake Huron. The chamber would be used to store low-level and intermediate-level dry nuclear waste from three Ontario Generation power plants. This would include material such as gloves, clothes, cleaning tools, filters, resins, and reactor components. Spent fuel rods, which are classified as high-level nuclear waste, would not be stored in the chamber.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission approved the Ontario Power Generation proposal concluding that the geology of the site and design of the chamber meet necessary safety standards. Currently nuclear waste at the Ontario site is stored above ground. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission found that continuing above ground storage or transporting the waste to a site further from the Great Lakes would result in higher risks of accidental contamination than the proposed below ground storage.

Opponents of the proposal, including several United States legislators, argue that locating any storage facility so close to the Great Lakes is unacceptable given the lakes’ status as the primary source of drinking water for more than 40 million people. To date, across the Great Lakes region, 170 resolutions have been passed by various city and county governments opposing the Ontario Power Generation proposal. 

The final decision on whether to approve the proposed storage chamber falls to the Canadian Minister of Environment Leona Aglukkaq, who has postponed the decision until December 2015 to allow for public comment. In the meantime, several U.S. lawmakers are searching for potential avenues to influence the Canadian government’s decision. A 100-year-old bi-national treaty may hold the answer.

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 33 university-based programs.

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