"We want the federal government to clean up the material in the Whiteshell," Conservation Minister Stan Struthers said.
In an effort to push Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. to dig up tonnes of waste and take it out of the province as soon as possible, the Doer government is asking the federal nuclear regulator to hold public hearings in Manitoba.
The request was contained in a 12-page presentation to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission at a one-day hearing in Ottawa two weeks ago.
Manitoba also asked the watchdog agency for a guarantee that Ottawa will pay for the cleanup, which it called the "largest decommissioning of such a facility in Canada."
Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., a federal Crown corporation which owns the site, has yet to put a price tag on the Whiteshell cleanup.
But in an interview, Bill Kupferschmidt, AECL's manager in charge of nuclear waste and decommissioning, said Ottawa is prepared to spend $500 million over 60 years to return the site to the way nature made it.
The province, the Town of Pinawa and environmentalists want the cleanup fast-tracked. They say 60 years is too long and they question whether the lengthy timeline is a stalling tactic.
AECL is moving as fast as it can, given there is no permanent disposal site anywhere in Canada to put the Whiteshell material, Kupferschmidt responded.
AECL shut its Whiteshell facilities, including an underground research lab, a year ago in June.
The Whiteshell operation opened in 1962 as one of two nuclear research labs in Canada and the only one in Western Canada. The other research lab, at Chalk River, Ont., remains open and contamination on that site is well documented.
The Whiteshell's underground lab was built to explore safe disposal methods for nuclear waste, which ultimately failed. The lab oversaw the sinking of deep shafts into granite bedrock -- the deepest was 420 metres, about the height of the CN Tower. All the holes flooded naturally with ground water and were unusable.
In Ottawa, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission hasn't closed the door on eventual public hearings in Manitoba.
But it says it's satisfied with the pace of the cleanup and cites a financial commitment from Herb Dhaliwal, former natural resources minister under Jean Chrétien, as sufficient guarantee the polluter will pay, CNSC spokeswoman Sunni Locatelli said.
In 2002, the commission granted AECL a six-year licence to close down the site, which includes demolishing buildings and shutting down equipment including a Slowpoke nuclear reactor and another research-related reactor. There is also a 0.8-hectare site for storing radioactive waste. The 60-year cleanup is the next phase after 2008. After that, there's a third phase to last 200 years, in which any residual waste left behind would be monitored.
Critics say 28 metric tonnes of high-level radioactive waste is sealed away in concrete canisters that resemble miniature silos. Other low-level waste is buried in holes in the ground, a method dating back decades.
"This is the most toxic stuff in the world. If anything goes wrong, we've got the Winnipeg River and it runs into Lake Winnipeg. Try putting radioactive waste in that river and see what happens," said Dave Taylor, an environmentalist with the Concerned Citizens of Manitoba group.
"What's happened is the Crown corporation, AECL, has basically left town and left a pile of toxic garbage there. Essentially it's a de facto dump and it's going to be radioactive for a quarter of a million years," Taylor said.
Struthers said public hearings in the province are "the best way for Manitobans to convince the federal government they can't use Pinawa as a storage depot for this material."
The Town of Pinawa hopes a faster cleanup would help its economy as well as get rid of the waste forever, Mayor Len Simpson said.
Countries like the United Kingdom and Japan have turned nuclear cleanups into an industry. Two to three thousand highly skilled technicians and scientists stay on the job for 20 to 30 years until sites are as green as they can be again.