Monthly Archives: March 2023

Why Small Modular Nuclear Reactors Won’t Help Counter the Climate Crisis

One in a series of articles on “None of the Above

Small modular nuclear reactors, or SMRs, are designed to generate less than 300 megawatts of electricity – several times less than typical reactors, which have a range of 1,000 to 1,600 MW. While the individual standardized modules would be small, plans typically call for several modules to be installed at a single power generation site.   

The nuclear industry and the U. S. Department of Energy are promoting the development of SMRs, supposedly to head off the most severe impacts of climate change. But are SMRs a practical and realistic technology for this purpose?

To answer, two factors are paramount to consider – time and cost. These factors can be used to divide SMRs into two broad categories:

  1. Light water reactors based on the same general technical and design principles as present-day power reactors in the U.S., which in theory could be certified and licensed with less complexity and difficulty.

  2. Designs that use a range of different fuel designs, such as solid balls moving through the reactor core like sand, or molten materials flowing through the core; moderators such as graphite; and coolants such as helium, liquid sodium or molten salts.

On both counts, the prospects for SMRs are poor. Here’s why.

Economics and scale

Nuclear reactors are large because of economies of scale. A reactor that produces three times as much power as an SMR does not need three times as much steel or three times as many workers. This economic penalty for small size was one reason for the early shutdown of many small reactors built in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s.

Proponents of SMRs claim that modularity and factory manufacture would compensate for the poorer economics of small reactors. Mass production of reactor components and their manufacture in assembly lines would cut costs. Further, a comparable cost per kilowatt, the argument goes, would mean far lower costs for each small reactor, reducing overall capital requirements for the purchaser.

The road to such mass manufacturing will be rocky. Even with optimistic assumptions about how quickly manufacturers could learn to improve production efficiency and lower cost, thousands of SMRs, which would all be higher priced in comparison to large reactors, would have to be manufactured for the price per kilowatt for an SMR to be comparable to that of a large reactor.

If history is any guide, the capital cost per kilowatt may not come down at all. At a fleet-wide level, the learning rate in the U.S. and France, the two countries with the highest number of nuclear plants, was negative – newer reactors have been, on the whole, more expensive than earlier ones. And while the cost per SMR will be lower due to much smaller size, several reactors would typically be installed at a single site, raising total project costs for the purchaser again.

Mass manufacturing aspects

If an error in a mass-manufactured reactor were to result in safety problems, the whole lot might have to be recalled, as was the case with the Boeing 737 Max and 787 Dreamliner jetliners. But how does one recall a radioactive reactor? What will happen to an electricity system that relies on factory-made identical reactors that need to be recalled?

These questions haven’t been addressed by the nuclear industry or energy policy makers – indeed, they have not even been posed. Yet recalls are a predictable and consistent feature of mass manufacturing, from smartphones to jet aircraft.

The problem is not merely theoretical.

One of the big economic problems of pressurized water reactors, the design commonly chosen for light water SMRs, including the NuScale design, which has received conditional certification from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, was the need to prematurely replace the steam generators – the massive, expensive heat exchangers where the high-pressure hot water from the reactor is converted to the steam that drives the turbine-generators. In the last decade, such problems led to the permanent shutdown of two reactors at San Onofre, in Southern California, and one reactor at Crystal River, in Florida.

Several SMR light water designs place steam generators inside the reactor vessel (Figure 1). Replacement would be exceedingly difficult at best; problems with the steam generator could result in permanent reactor shutdown. 

Figure 1. Schematic of an SMR light water design with steam generator inside the reactor vessel

Source: Glaser et al. 2015

We have already seen problems with modular construction. It was a central aspect of the design of the Westinghouse AP1000 reactor, yet the AP1000 reactors built in the U.S. and China have had significant construction cost overruns and schedule delays. In 2015, a former member of the Georgia Public Service Commission told The Wall Street Journal, “Modular construction has not worked out to be the solution that the utilities promised.”

The need for mass manufacturing also creates a chicken-and-egg economic problem. Without the factories, SMRs can never hope to achieve the theoretical cost reductions that are at the heart of the strategy to compensate for the lack of economies of scale. But without the cost reductions, there will not be the large number of orders to stimulate the investments needed to set up the supply chain in the first place.

The SMR track record so far

The track record so far points to the same kind of dismal economic failure for SMRs as their larger cousins. Figure 2 shows the capital cost escalation for the proposed NuScale reactor and actual costs of two foreign SMRs. As a result, the total cost of a proposed project in Idaho using the NuScale design has already risen from around $3 billion, in 2015, to $6.1 billion, in 2020, long before any concrete has been poured.

Figure 2. NuScale cost estimate escalations and SMR reality so far

Source: Ramana 2020

This pattern of escalations can also be anticipated for other SMR concepts, especially those not based on light water reactors. For instance, the proposed Natrium reactor – at 345 MW, slightly bigger than an SMR – is sodium-cooled. Despite about a hundred billion dollars spent worldwide since 1950, sodium cooled reactors have been commercial failures globally.

The process of getting safety approvals for such designs will likely take longer and be more expensive. In many cases, even setting up the certification process will take years, since the safety and accident modes differ with each design type. For instance, one risk with high-temperature gas-graphite reactors is fires, rather than meltdowns. To give a sense of scale of the expense, the NuScale SMR, which is the familiar light water design, is expected to cost roughly $1.5 billion just for development and certification. New non-light water designs will very likely cost more and take longer to develop from the concept stage to licensing review and approval.

For SMRs to consistently achieve the same cost of power production as the present large reactors would be a monumental task – and given the high costs of large reactors, SMRs would still be an economic failure. The costs of wind and solar electricity have been declining consistently and are projected to decline more.

Lazard, a Wall Street financial advisory firm, estimates the cost of utility-scale solar and wind to be about $40 per megawatt-hour. The corresponding figure for nuclear is four times as high, about $160 per MWh – a difference that is more than enough to use complementary technologies, such as demand response and storage, to compensate for the intermittency of solar and wind. 

SMR proponents suggest that nuclear power might provide a suitable complement to variable electricity sources, such as wind or photovoltaic power, whose shares in the electricity grid have been increasing. But such deployment would incur a significant cost penalty.

Nuclear reactors, whether small or large, are not very suitable for responding to variability, because they have high fixed costs (capital) and low variable costs (fuel and maintenance). This is why nuclear power plants have been used as a baseload electricity source – they spread out the fixed costs over the largest number of kilowatt-hours, making each one cheaper. Responding to variability will mean operation at partial load for much of the time, raising costs. 

Trying to use SMRs for producing other commodities, such as clean water, by desalinating seawater or using hydrogen or high-temperature heat, is also not economical for a variety of reasons, most importantly, the high cost of the energy supply – i.e., nuclear power.

SMRs and the climate crisis

The climate problem is urgent. The IPCC and other international bodies have warned that to stop irreversible damage from climate change, we need to reduce emissions drastically within the next decade. The SMR contribution in the next decade will be essentially zero. The prospects for SMRs beyond that are also bleak, given that entire supply chains would need to be established after the first ones have been built, tested and proven in the field.

The Department of Energy has been pursuing SMRs since the last century. In 2001, the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy projected that there were nearly 10 SMR designs that “have the potential to be economical and could be made available for deployment before the end of the decade, provided that certain technical and licensing issues are addressed.”

Nearly two decades after that rosy notion, the earliest official projected deployment date is only 2029 to 2030 for the leading design, NuScale. Even that date is highly uncertain, because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards has identified serious safety concerns that will have to be addressed before any utility applies for permission to construct an SMR. Significantly, a central concern involves the steam generator, which, as noted above, is inside the reactor vessel and a potential source of reliability and economic problems.

SMRs also divert valuable public money. For example, the federal government has contributed at least $314 million to the development of the NuScale SMR design and has reportedly agreed to spend up to $350 million in new matching funds. Babcock & Wilcox received over $100 million from the DOE for its mPower design but abandoned the project in 2017 because there were no customers.

Other concerns

Water use is another concern that is expected to intensify in the future. Nuclear plants have very high water withdrawal requirements. A single 300 MW reactor operating at 90 percent capacity factor would withdraw 160 million to 390 million gallons of water every day, heating it up before discharge. Reducing the demand for water by using air cooling will require the addition of a tower and large electric fans ­– further raising the construction cost and reducing output of electricity by up to 7 percent of the capacity of the reactor.

Finally, SMRs will also produce many kinds of radioactive nuclear waste, because the reactors are smaller in physical size and because of refueling practices adopted for economic reasons. SMRs based on light water designs, such as NuScale, will also produce a larger mass of nuclear waste per MWh of electricity generated. The federal government is already paying billions of dollars in fines for not fulfilling its contractual obligations to take possession of spent fuel from existing reactors. The legislative plan in the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act was for a deep geologic disposal repository to open in 1998. After nearly four decades, that plan has come to naught.


There is no realistic prospect that SMRs can make a significant dent in the need to transition rapidly to a carbon-free electricity system. The prospects of timely contributions by even the light water designs, with NuScale being the most advanced in schedule, are dismal. The prospects for reactors of other designs, like those with graphite fuels or sodium cooling, are even more so. 

It will be a tough road for SMRs to achieve cost parity with large reactors. And that cost will still be far too high. Two things are in critically short supply on the road to a climate-friendly energy system: time and money. An objective evaluation indicates that SMRs are poor on both counts. There is simply no realistic prospect for SMRs to play materially significant role in climate change mitigation. 

Arjun Makhijani is president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. M.V. Ramana is the Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security and Director of the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada. 

Resources by authors

Makhijani, Arjun. 2013a. “Light Water Designs of Small Modular Reactors: Facts and Analysis.” Takoma Park: Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.

———. 2013b. “Traveling Wave Reactors: Sodium-Cooled Gold at the End of a Nuclear Rainbow?” Takoma Park: Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.

Ramana, M.V. 2020. “Eyes Wide Shut: Problems with the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems Proposal to Construct NuScale Small Modular Nuclear Reactors.” Portland, OR: Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Ramana, M.V. 2015. “The Forgotten History of Small Nuclear Reactors.” IEEE Spectrum, May 2015.

Glaser, Alexander, M.V. Ramana, Ali Ahmad, and Robert Socolow. 2015. “Small Modular Reactors: A Window on Nuclear Energy.” An Energy Technology Distillate. Princeton, N.J.: Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University.

Photo credit: NuScale Power, LLC

The worst of plans

Posted on March 19, 2023 by beyondnuclearinternational

Dumping Fukushima contaminated water is a “cheap and dirty” approach that must be stopped

By Tilman Ruff

As soon as within a month or two, Japan could begin dumping into the Pacific Ocean 1.3 million tons of treated but still radioactively contaminated wastewater from the stricken Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant. Construction of the kilometer long undersea discharge tunnel and a complex of pipes feeding it commenced last August. 

This cheap and dirty approach of ‘out of sight out of mind’ and ‘dilution is the solution to pollution’ belongs in a past century. It ignores the significant transboundary, transgenerational and human rights issues involved in this planned radioactive dumping, projected to continue over the next 40 years.

Concerns about Japan’s ocean dumping plans have been strongly voiced by China and South Korea, and by numerous Pacific island nations. Multiple UN Special Rapporteurs have severely criticised the plan, which has also been opposed by the United States National Association of Marine Laboratories and many regional and international health and environmental civil society organisations.

Mr. David Boyd, Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, is one of the UN Special Rapporteurs to voice concerns about Japan’s plan to dump tritium-contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean. (Photo: UNICEF)

Australia bears a particular responsibility in relation to the aftermath of the ongoing Fukushima nuclear disaster, since fuel fabricated with uranium from Australia was in each of the Fukushima reactors which exploded.  Yet my letters to the relevant Australian federal ministers on this matter have gone unanswered for 7 weeks, and no evidence is publicly available that the Australian government has supported our Pacific neighbours in raising concerns about the planned discharge with its Japanese counterparts.

We are in the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-30). As Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) Secretary-General Henry Puna reminded us in his piece in The Guardian on 4 January, in 1985, the Forum welcomed the then Japanese prime minister’s statement that “Japan had no intention of dumping radioactive waste in the Pacific Ocean in disregard of the concern expressed by the communities of the region”. The current plan is inconsistent with this commitment.

In a public event organised by the PIF in Suva on 18 January, Puna noted Prime Minister Kishida’s reassurance during Japan’s regular meeting with the Forum in July 2022 of the need to progress this matter consistent with international law and verifiable science. The Secretary-General reiterated his request on behalf of Forum members for postponement of the planned discharge in order to allow adequate consideration of alternative options and to engage in respectful and full evidence-based consultation with Pacific nations in planning the best course of action. His calls have been ignored.

The most authoritative independent scientific assessment of the planned discharge has been conducted by a five-member independent international scientific panel appointed by the PIF.  The experts were unanimous in their conclusions and recommendations. Their main conclusions:

– TEPCO’s knowledge of the specific radionuclide contents of all the tanks is seriously deficient. Only roughly one quarter of the more than 1000 tanks at the site have been sampled at all, and in almost all cases only nine or fewer of 64 total radionuclides are measured in the data shared with PIF. TEPCO’s assumptions of consistent ratios of various radionuclides across different tanks are contradicted by the data, which show many thousand-fold variation.

– Sampling and measurements have been unrepresentative, statistically deficient and biased, and have not included the debris and sludges that Japan has acknowledged are present in at least some of the tanks. Sludges and debris are likely to be most radioactive, particularly in relation to harmful isotopes like plutonium and americium. 

 – More than 70% of the tanks that had gone through ALPS (Advanced Liquid Processing System), designed to remove most of the radioactive contaminants, will require re-treatment. For some isotopes, the levels after treatment are up to 19,900 times higher than the regulatory limits for discharge. There is no evidence confirming that even repeated processing through ALPS can provide consistently effective purification.

– There has been no adequate consideration of the behavior of radioactive elements in the ocean, with transport by ocean currents and organisms, accumulation in biota and sea floor sediments, or the behavior of organically bound tritium in an ocean environment. The seafloor off Japan’s east coast still contains up to 10,000 times the cesium concentration as before the disaster, before any planned discharge.

– Neither TEPCO nor the IAEA acknowledged or addressed the many serious scientific questions raised by the panel.  For example, TEPCO reported that tanks sampled in 2019 contained tellurium-127, an isotope with a half-life of only 9 hours. This signifies either that accidental criticality with fission reactions is occurring on an ongoing basis in the molten reactor cores, which would be very significant, or that the measurements are wrong. However no satisfactory answers were provided. Indeed the IAEA cut off contact with the panel.

– Neither TEPCO, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nor the Japanese Nuclear Regulatory Authority have properly considered several viable alternative approaches, including storage in purpose-built seismically safe tanks, possibly after initial purification, subsequent use in concrete for structural applications with little or no potential for contact with humans and other organisms, and bioremediation for some important isotopes such as strontium-90. All the proposed alternatives would have orders of magnitude less impact and avoid transboundary impacts.

The argument that the site is running out of room to store water is spurious. Contaminated water will continue to be generated for many decades hence, and there is plenty of nearby space available that will be unfit for other uses for a very long time yet and is already being used to store large amounts of contaminated soil from around the prefecture. There is in fact no urgency to begin ocean discharge. 

The independent expert panel recommended unanimously that the planned ocean dumping should not proceed. Their overwhelming case, based on scientific evidence and the need to minimise transboundary and transgenerational impacts, is that new approaches and alternatives to ocean dumping are needed and are the responsible way forward.

This matter requires urgent attention. Construction of the pipeline through which the ocean discharge is planned to occur is well underway, and the discharge may commence as soon as this month. Given that the discharge is planned to continue over 30-40 years, reconsideration could still be undertaken even after ocean discharge commenced. However it would be far better if the planned discharge were postponed until better alternatives were properly considered and implemented. 

Now is the time for the Australian government, scientists and citizens to join with our Pacific neighbours in calling on Japan to stop its irresponsible plan to use the Pacific Ocean as a radioactive waste dump.

Tilman Ruff AO is Co-President of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (Nobel Peace Prize 1985); and co-founder and founding international and Australian Chair of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, the first to an entity born in Australia.

This article first appeared on Pearls and Irritations and is republished with permission of the author.

Headline photo: Bottlenose dolphins, found off the coast of Japan, are one of the marine mammals high on the food chain that will be negatively affected by the dumping of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean. (Photo: טל שמע/Wikimedia Commons)

The opinions expressed in articles by outside contributors and published on the Beyond Nuclear International website, are their own, and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Beyond Nuclear. However, we try to offer a broad variety of viewpoints and perspectives as part of our mission “to educate and activate the public about the connections between nuclear power and nuclear weapons and the need to abandon both to safeguard our future”.

Nuclear Plant Shuts Down After New Leak Near Mississippi River

Federal regulators are monitoring the area amid concerns that radioactive materials could wind up in drinking water.

By Jake Johnson , COMMONDREAMS Published March 24, 2023

Xcel Energy’s Monticello nuclear power plant is pictured in Monticello, Minnesota.  KAREN BLEIER / AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

The operator of a Minnesota nuclear power plant said the facility would be taken offline Friday to repair a new leak near the Mississippi River, an announcement that came a week after the company and state officials belatedly acknowledged a separate leak that occurred in November.

Xcel Energy insisted in a statement Thursday that the leak at its Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant poses “no risk to the public or the environment,” but a team of federal regulators is monitoring the groundwater in the area amid concerns that radioactive materials — specifically tritium — could wind up in drinking water.

Valerie Myers, a senior health physicist with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told a local CBS affiliate that “there are wells between the ones that are showing elevated tritium and the Mississippi that are not showing any elevated levels.”

“We are watching that because the ground flow is toward the Mississippi,” added Myers.

The Associated Press reported Friday, that “after the first leak was found in November, Xcel Energy made a short-term fix to capture water from a leaking pipe and reroute it back into the plant for re-use.”

“However, monitoring equipment indicated Wednesday that a small amount of new water from the original leak had reached the groundwater,” the outlet noted. “Operators discovered that, over the past two days, the temporary solution was no longer capturing all of the leaking water, Xcel Energy said.”

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Minnesota Department of Health said in a statement that they “have no evidence at this point to indicate a current or imminent risk to the public and will continue to monitor groundwater samples.”

“Should an imminent risk arise, we will inform the public promptly,” the agencies said. “We encourage the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has regulatory oversight of the plant’s operations, to share ongoing public communications on the leak and on mitigation efforts to help residents best understand the situation.”

Why were studies canceled?

 Posted on March 12, 2023 by beyondnuclearinternational

Federal agencies won’t look at cancer impacts of commercial nuclear facilities

By Cindy Folkers

If you thought the government of the United States, the country with the most nuclear power reactors in the world, might be interested in finding out the cancer impact of nuclear power on our children, you’d be wrong. But, our government is willing to give failed, uneconomic, decaying nuclear power reactors oodles of taxpayer money without first figuring out if and how they harm our children. Assessing potential health damage should be a prerequisite for reactor license renewal.

Citizens and lawmakers from California have been working to revivify a cancelled National Academy of Sciences (NAS) health study originally requested and funded by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in 2010. The study was to have been carried out in two phases. The first phase “identified scientifically sound approaches for carrying out an assessment of cancer risks” that would inform the study design(s) to be carried out in Phase 2. 

Phase 1 recommended examining seven pilot sites, six of which are operating or closed nuclear power plants: Big Rock Point (MI, closed), Dresden (IL), Haddam (CT, closed), Millstone (CT), Oyster Creek (NJ), and San Onofre (CA, closed). The seventh site, Nuclear Fuel Services (TN), is a fuel processing and stockpile conversion facility.

There were also two study designs recommended in the subsequent 2012 Phase 1 report: an ecologic study that would look at a variety of cancers among adults and children over the operational history of the facilities; and a record-linkage-based case-control study examining cancer risks for childhood exposures to radiation during more recent operating histories of the facilities. Because the case-control study would have focused on children, Beyond Nuclear supported this study type over the ecologic study recommendation.

The NAS was preparing to perform the pilot study at the seven sites in order to see which study type had the stronger methodology to be performed nationwide when it was scuttled by the NRC in 2015.

The NRC justified the cancelation by publicly contending that it would cost too much, take too long, and not be able to see any health impact — claims that are still disputed. The NAS health study would have cost an estimated $8 million at the time it was first proposed. 

Yet, at the same time that the NRC claimed the cancer study was too expensive, it signed a 20-year lease for a third building at its Rockville, MD headquarters (against the advice of Congress) that will eventually mount to a cost of $350 million. The decision was made in anticipation of the so-called Nuclear Renaissance, which instead fizzled, leaving the NRC scrambling to lease out the new space instead. 

The NAS was considering using new ways of examining the health impacts of radioactivity from NRC licensed sites by implementing a more detailed, more thorough, publicly shared research protocol. Such a protocol could have opened up the NRC’s regulatory regime to exhaustive scrutiny, revealing just how inadequate it is for examining health impacts.

Instead of asking the NRC to restart the original study, three members of the U.S. House of Representatives from California have asked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to pick up the NAS study where the NRC left off, only to be rebuffed with the jaw-dropping claim by HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, that such a study would be “premature”(letter from X. Becerra to Hon. Mike Levin (D-CA), September 12, 2022), despite 60+ years of exposures to radiation from nuclear power. Becerra wants more delays to allow “collaboration”  with other agencies, like the U.S. Department of Energy that has historically been sanctioned from involvement in certain health studies. 

In fact, such studies done in Europe have shown increases of childhood leukemia around nuclear facilities worldwide. These studies were not “premature”, they were revelatory. Despite these findings, there has never been independent nationwide analysis in the U.S. examining connections between childhood cancer and nuclear power facilities. The NAS case-control study under consideration had a design similar to the European studies that found linkage between living near a nuclear reactor and increases in childhood cancers.

While Bacerra claims it is “premature” to study health impacts from nuclear power, it seems to be just the right time to throw more bailout money down the nuclear bottomless pit in order to keep the current reactor fleet running without knowing what their health impacts have been or will be.

In an ironic twist, the first $1.1 billion nuclear bailout was given to Diablo Canyon in California, a slap in the face for those asking for the health study. This taxpayer largess given to the California nuclear power plant was just a small piece of the $30 billion subsidy (by some estimates, nuclear subsidies could be even higher) earmarked for nuclear power in the Inflation Reduction Act.

The two Diablo Canyon nuclear generating units released 72 curies of tritium gas alone in 2019, part of a suite of radionuclides routinely released by operating reactors. This particular isotope is a radioactive form of hydrogen that can collect in fetal tissue to twice the concentration as it does in maternal tissue. It is well-known that pregnancy development is particularly sensitive to damage from radiation exposure — more so than adults or even children — clearly making this an issue that should interest HHS, as well as one that should help determine whether nuclear power can continue to operate or if its impact on our future generations might be too great. After all, we have readily available, cheaper and safer alternatives.

Despite its published motto — “Protecting people and the environment” — the NRC’s main focus has always been nuclear reactor operations, while downplaying and denying rather than investigating health impacts. The agency’s cancellation of the child cancer study was industry-friendly and tone-deaf; in other words, expected. It had undertaken the study to soothe public anxiety about health impacts. When the NRC learned the study might not accomplish this, or worse, might reveal the agency’s shortcomings as a watchdog agency, it pulled the plug.

From HHS, on the other hand, I expected better. “Health” after all, is in their name. 

Cindy Folkers is the Radiation and Health Hazard Specialist at Beyond Nuclear.

Headline photo of people on the beach by San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (now permanently closed) by Don Ramey Logan/Wikimedia Commons.

Nuclear Question: Debate continues over long-term storage of nuclear waste in the Great Lakes

Canada’s plan to store spent nuclear fuel 1,600 feet below ground in the Great Lakes basin, some 30 miles from Lake Huron, is continuing to ruffle feathers throughout the Great Lakes states.

Earlier this month, U.S. lawmakers called out the Canadian plan for failing to prioritize the health of the Great Lakes and the 40 million residents who depend on it for clean drinking water ahead of its own energy needs.

Michigan Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee is leading a 20-member bipartisan group calling on President Joe Biden to pressure Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to halt the plans for storing an anticipated 57,000 tons of high-level radioactive material within the basin.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, in a statement on the ongoing legal battle over the future of Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline, accused the Canadian federal government of “adding even more risk to our waters” by allowing plans to store radioactive nuclear waste in a 1,400-acre underground warehouse to proceed.

Yet despite concerns within the basin from politicians and environmental groups, and unrest among local farmers worried about water contamination and potentially tanking property values, the project is moving ahead as planned. Geologic testing at one location in southern Ontario began this spring.

Even so, determining the long-term fate of Canada’s spent nuclear fuel remains far from settled as rifts develop within the host community, and between Canada and frustrated U.S. lawmakers.

“There’s a divide taking place,” Canadian Member of Parliament Brian Masse noted on a recent tour of the proposed South Bruce site with concerned residents. “I do believe there needs to be some responsibility taken on a federal level to make sure our communities aren’t broken in this process.”

The need for long-term spent-fuel storage

Current plans to find a permanent home for Canada’s spent nuclear fuel have been overseen by the not-for-profit Nuclear Waste Management Organization since 2007. Founded and funded by Canadian nuclear power operators, NWMO has been tasked by the federal government with designing and implementing a long-term storage solution for used nuclear fuel rods.

To date, spent nuclear fuel or other material made radioactive by generating nuclear power has been stored on-site at five facilities throughout Ontario and Quebec. This includes two nuclear power plants on the shores of Lake Ontario (Pickering and Darlington, just east of Toronto) and one on the Lake Huron shoreline (Bruce, west of Tiverton).

But the existing storage plan has a relatively short shelf life, spurring the federal government in 2002 to create the NWMO and begin searching for long-term (think 100,000 years) solutions.

When spent nuclear fuel bundles are removed from a reactor they are currently interred in a water-filled pool for up to seven years until radioactivity decreases. From there the rods are relocated to dry storage containers made of 20-inch-thick, high-density concrete lined with steel half an inch thick. These storage facilities have a lifespan of roughly 50 years, and Canada has been generating nuclear power since the early 1960s. While the dry storage silos can be refurbished to extend their use, it does nothing to address the long-term need for safe storage solutions.

Experts at NWMO settled on a deep geological repository, or DGR, as the preferred storage option in 2007 after three years of discussion with European nuclear engineers.

The basic premise of the DGR is deceptively simple: bury the spent fuel. If NWMO could identify a willing host community that is situated in an area with suitable geology, the stage would be set to spend $23 billion over 40 years to construct a massive underground labyrinth of tunnels bored into rock that, in total, would be capable of storing the 57,000 tons of spent fuel that Canada currently has in cement-encased copper canisters. The aboveground footprint of buildings would be little more than a mile across.

But the question remains: Where should three million bundles of spent nuclear fuel be stored for what is, essentially, the rest of time?

Identifying a willing host community

The process for identifying a willing host community began in 2008.

From an initial pool of 22 potential locations across Canada, on-site investigations quickly whittled that list down to two, both of which are in Ontario: South Bruce, at a location some 30 miles from Lake Huron, and Ignace in northwestern Ontario. (The Ignace location, northwest of Lake Superior, is not within the Great Lakes basin; rather, it sits within the Winnipeg River basin. Borehole drilling to determine the suitability of the bedrock beneath the proposed site began in Ignace in 2017.)

Supporters of the DGR say the 10-year construction project and ongoing operation of the facility are expected to create 3,000 direct and indirect jobs for the recipient’s economy. Councils and mayors from throughout South Bruce have been split between supporting the DGR plan outright and awaiting the results of geologic testing and community engagement before approving or rejecting the plan. Others have been more bullish.

“Just leaving [nuclear waste] where it is, is not right,” Huron-Kinloss mayor Mitch Twolan said late last year. “The solution is DGRs.”

U.S. lawmakers aren’t the only ones concerned about the proposed DGR. Public opposition to the proposal among South Bruce residents has been mounting steadily. After one poll appeared showing nearly 70% of surveyed residents in South Bruce ‘strongly’ or ‘somewhat’ supported the DGR, an opposition group commissioned its own poll and found that 64% opposed the proposal. This comes as almost 16,000 people throughout the province and 1,500 people in South Bruce alone have signed petitions calling for the DGR project to be halted immediately because of long-term water and soil quality worries, in addition to traffic and health concerns.

That same poll asked residents if they supported holding a local referendum on the DGR — more than three-quarters of those polled did. South Bruce Mayor Bob Buckles supports the referendum idea in theory, though he believes it would be better held closer to the final site selection date, expected in 2023.

The NWMO hopes to select a permanent site for the DGR by 2023, which would ultimately trigger a federal environmental assessment of the plan. A License to Prepare Site application would also need to be submitted and approved by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, a process that won’t see design and construction of the proposed DGR begin until 2033 — if the license is granted.

While borehole drilling in South Bruce continues alongside bitter debate among residents, so-called ‘goodwill’ money from NWMO has poured into South Bruce for the past decade. To date, 3.2 million Canadian dollars has found its way into shrinking rural communities within South Bruce, paying for everything from municipal salaries and well upgrades to special firefighting equipment for local first responders.

Mayor Buckles maintains the community is not relying on NWMO largesse to bankroll the municipality, but others believe the NWMO is taking advantage of the poor financial situation that South Bruce finds itself in in order to secure community support for the DGR.

Even detractors of the DGR project note the money has benefited the community in significant ways. Bill Noll, vice-president of DGR opposition group Protecting Our Waterways, told CBC News the millions from NWMO is not tied to the DGR proposal.

“It is completely divorced,” he said. But “why would you spend one and a half million dollars on a community if you didn’t expect something back in return?”