Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Northern pipe dream radioactive

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FLIN FLON -- Aerial surveys and borehole drilling are customary in the Flin Flon region as prospectors chase the next motherlode.

But some of that work is about to carry a new and controversial purpose as Flin Flon's close Saskatchewan neighbour, Creighton, inches toward potentially storing Canada's nuclear waste.

Creighton (population 1,498) has cleared another step in a site-selection process to host an underground repository that will permanently stockpile spent -- but still radioactive -- nuclear fuel rods.

It's among 17 Canadian communities left in the running. The planned aerial surveying and borehole drilling will help determine whether Creighton has suitable geology for the repository.

Some locals are reacting to the news with NIMBYistic hostility. Yes, scientists assure radioactive waste can be safely stored, but how many times has science been wrong?

The consensus, however, seems to be Creighton is such a long shot it's not really worth forming an opinion.

"It's not something that's looming large on people's list of what may be happening soon," says Greg East, a Flin Flon native who now lives outside Creighton. "If we got down to where there were only two choices left and Creighton was one of those two, I think you'd obviously have a lot more opposition locally."

Or not. After all, the repository -- a project of the Nuclear Waste Management Organization, funded by the nation's nuclear power companies -- is expected to require an investment of $16 billion to $24 billion.

More important, it is projected to generate a few thousand jobs in the host region and potentially hundreds of jobs in the host community for decades.

That sounds awfully appealing to many in Flin Flon-Creighton, which for 80-plus years has endured the cyclical slings and arrows of the mining industry.

But there are good reasons locals aren't getting their hopes up.

For one, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall told reporters in 2011 he does not think Saskatchewanians want radioactive waste stored in their province and that unless there is a major shift in public opinion, it is not in the cards.

Twice now I have contacted Wall's office to get a less-nuanced version of his policy on the matter. I'm still waiting for a response.

If the Wall government loses the next election in 2015, or beyond, it could be replaced by the NDP, which is more firmly on the record against radioactive-waste storage.

There are also geographical logistics. Canada's nuclear waste is now being temporarily stored above ground, with 90 per cent of it in Ontario. And every potential repository site except Creighton is in that province.

East says it's not practical to transport waste all the way from Ontario, and communities along the route may be none too pleased.

From a "what is fair?" point of view, East says it makes sense to store nuclear waste in Saskatchewan given that the province produces the nation's uranium.

But what are the odds of it happening? "Zero."

Such reasonable pessimism isn't stopping Creighton's go-getter mayor, Bruce Fidler, who says watching the site-selection process unfold will be interesting, exciting and "probably very stressful."

Fidler points out Creighton is not saying it wants to store radioactive waste, only that it is interested in learning about the possibility.

Research to date has not confirmed whether Creighton (or any other community) is appropriate for the repository. Suitability will be determined by geology and safety as well as community support -- or lack thereof.

Fidler says a public vote would be held prior to a final decision -- if Creighton makes it that far in the process.

The repository location is likely years away from being chosen, and the facility itself is not expected to open until 2035.

That's a long way off. In the meantime, most people in Flin Flon-Creighton would prefer that aerial surveys and borehole drilling find new mines.

That's their bread and butter. Nuclear-waste storage probably is a pipe dream.

Jonathon Naylor is editor of the Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 3, 2014 A9

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