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Nuclear waste is a hot issue

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FLIN FLON -- Cynthia Fedak is speaking out, not so much for herself but for her grandkids.

A longtime resident of Creighton, the sleepy sister town to Flin Flon just over the Saskatchewan border, she vehemently opposes plans to potentially store Canada's nuclear waste in her community.

"To me, nuclear waste is iffy and there's no absolute answers," says the 65-year-old retiree. "It could be dangerous if something happened and it wouldn't be just a minor disaster; it would be something probably major."

Creighton is one of at least 10 Canadian communities expressing an interest in hosting a subterranean storage facility to be built by the Nuclear Waste Management Organization.

Though it will take up to nine years to select a host community, debate already is raging over whether storing spent nuclear fuel rods represents the secondary industry this mining area has long craved.

While it tentatively won't open until 2035, the repository is expected to represent a multibillion-dollar investment and spawn more than 4,000 jobs before, during and after construction.

Creighton has a long history of exploring new, sometimes unusual means of growth. Economic development workers have contemplated selling liver oil from burbot fish as a health supplement, and at one time hoped to use an abandoned mine shaft for zero-gravity experiments.

For Bruce Fidler, the straight-talking mayor of Creighton, the nuclear waste repository is "a heck of an economic development opportunity."

Yet Creighton is not at the point where it has formally applied to host the repository. A geological screening of the area has found no obvious conditions to preclude the town, but there are numerous other steps ahead before Creighton might put in an official bid.

A key part of the process will be determining whether the public -- in Creighton, Flin Flon and the surrounding area -- is on side.

"This isn't going to go in a community that doesn't want it," Joanne Facella, the NWMO's director of social research, told the Flin Flon and District Chamber of Commerce last year.

Fedak felt strong enough in her resistance to write a letter to the editor to Flin Flon's newspaper, The Reminder. It's a stand she sees as unpopular.

She says people complained for years about the air pollution from Flin Flon's copper smelter -- closed since mid-2010 -- and she can't see why they now would be eager to welcome radioactive materials to the neighbourhood.

Neither Mayor Fidler nor the NWMO begrudge opponents of nuclear storage, but they ask that people take the time to learn the facts.

Presenting the facts was the goal of a public exhibit held at the Creighton community hall last summer.

Models were used to illustrate how the nuclear waste "bundles," as they are known, would be sheathed in carbon steel tubes.

The tubes would then be inserted into 2.5-centimetre-thick copper containers and lowered into boreholes drilled into rock some 500 metres below the surface and surrounded with rings of bentonite clay, which acts as a natural sealant. The boreholes would be capped and sealed with concrete.

It was all enough to win over Creighton resident Rod Gourlay, a former co-owner of the town's motel. He went to the exhibit undecided, if not a little fearful, but left convinced it is the right thing to do.

"We don't know a whole lot about it (uranium)," Gourlay told The Reminder. "But after seeing the work they've done and the research they've done for the storage facility, and the process that it goes through, I think it's just really opened my eyes. I feel a hundred per cent better than before I went there."

In the end, which side wins the debate might be irrelevant.

In remarks to the media, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall has said he does not think Saskatchewanians want radioactive waste kept in their province and unless there is a major shift in opinion, it is not in the cards.

The opposition NDP is more forthright in its disagreement.

Meanwhile, environmentalists are lobbying Saskatchewan for an outright legislative ban on nuclear waste, something already in place in Manitoba.

No matter where the country's nuclear waste is eventually stored, a permanent solution is required.

The waste is presently kept at several locations, mostly in Ontario, in temporary containers projected to last 50 to 100 years.

For decades, the Flin Flon area has existed thanks to what people extract from the ground. The big question now is, could part of its economic future lie in putting something back into it?

Jonathon Naylor is editor of The Reminder in Flin Flon.

jonathon_naylor@hotmail.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 9, 2012 A10

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