Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hole in the shield plugged

Activists branded 'Kremlin-inspired' finally achieve goal at Pinawa

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Situated between the Blomquist pig farm and the Pointe Du Bois highway near Lac Du Bonnet stands a beautiful two-storey farmhouse on 10 acres of land surrounded by towering pines. The house was built right on top of one of the world's oldest rock formations -- the Precambrian Shield.

It overlooks the Pinawa Channel where by boat one can navigate from the Old Pinawa Hydroelectric Dam to the Winnipeg River. My family purchased the place in the late 1970s, initially as a summer home, but eventually it became their primary residence. I was busy in Winnipeg at university in those days, but always found time to bring my friends to Lac Du for some fishing, canoeing and family time.

It was on one of those weekends that Daniel, our neighbour, pointed out that vehicles with Ontario plates had been sighted and that surveyors had been tramping through the bush while others went door to door passing out glossy literature pertaining to the nuclear industry.

Atomic Energy of Canada's Pinawa lab was not far away, so it wasn't unusual that their aggressive PR department would be out in the field. The Ontario plates, however, did seem a bit odd.

It quickly became apparent that this was a widespread campaign with survey crews scouring the area in search of a place to drill a mine shaft.

Since Ontario Hydro at the time had thrown all its eggs into the nuclear basket, it became apparent that the Ontario plates and the disposal of nuclear waste were related.

In 1981, the drive towards building an underground nuclear repository had begun, and the survey stakes polarized the community. Whether construction was aimed at purely scientific research, as a test facility for a nearby repository, or as a waste dump itself, Atomic Energy of Canada had to be watched.

I had never really thought about nuclear power or the implications of burying spent fuel rods in the ground, as Manitoba had made a commitment to hydroelectricity.

That changed as AECL's campaign increased, including regular visits from a local woman who was getting the message out by exploiting her contacts in the area. Indeed, the nuclear agenda continued to rear its ugly head as the literature and propaganda filled our reading shelves.

Although difficult to keep up with the barrage of pamphlets, fact sheets and books, a few friends gathered to make the effort to get to the most salient points.

Yes, AECL had a lease from the Pawley government to build a repository, and there was not much the locals could do. In fact the message was clear: "Get on the nuclear bandwagon of the future or be left behind in the dark."

As we consumed the propaganda it became harder and harder to stomach. The campaign was aimed at marginalizing anyone opposed to nuclear power. One of AECL's most widely distributed books was Fred Hoyle's Energy or Extinction, which portrayed anti-nuclear activists as "Kremlin-inspired."

The gauntlet had been thrown.

Those early, heady days of protest, street theatre and research into AECL's activities were exciting and revealing. Our belief that our government was working in our best interests was shattered.

Our research commenced, but soon came to a grinding halt, as we were shocked to find out that Atomic Energy of Canada had an exemption under Canada's Freedom of Information Act. The public still does not have the right to know what they are up to.

Known as the Concerned Citizens of Manitoba, we spent countless hours trying to provide an alternative view to what we referred to as Outhouse Technology; digging a hole, throwing the waste in and covering it up.

Our organization began to grow and we were joined by one of the local hard-rock miners, George Ylonen, who insisted that a shaft in the shield would continually fill with water and was no place to have nuclear waste leaching out of.

In addition, Walt Robbins, who had worked in the U.S nuclear industry, and his wife Phyllis, had purchased a cabin downstream from this Underground Research Laboratory and were quick to join our efforts. Walt eventually documented our efforts in his book, Getting the Shaft. Dozens of others, some from the university and some local, began to engineer our own counter-campaign. We took a page from what Greenpeace had been doing by providing colourful dramatic skits to get our message across: that Manitoba could very well become the nuclear garbage dump for Canada and the world.

One of our most celebrated and influential events involved a flatbed truck, numerous old painted barrels and knock-off radiation suits. The group was concerned that if a repository for nuclear waste was to be built, shipments of waste would be arriving in communities close to the American border.

We decided to drive down across the border to demonstrate. After setting up in a number of small-town malls in North Dakota, we decided to fill the barrels with water, punch holes in the sides and return to Canada. (This protest would never be allowed to take place now).

We acted out our message for the TV cameras who met us at the crossing and proceeded back to Winnipeg, parking on Jubilee as we went in for dinner. We were fortunate to have a Czech scientist and friend visiting, so his painting of the radioactive symbols and colouring on the barrels looked very authentic.

Within the hour the sirens began in response to a hazardous waste call made to the fire department by an off-duty fireman who had noticed the water leaking from the barrels. He had neglected to see the "Simulation" sign clearly marked on the back of the truck.

After a flurry of press, public opposition to nuclear shipments mounted and the provincial conservation minister Gerard Lecuyer relented, initiating Manitoba's High-Level Radioactive Waste Act with fines of up to $1 million a day for disposing of nuclear waste in the province.

Although the legislation itself is "ultra vires," beyond Manitoba's jurisdiction, (nuclear waste is federally regulated), this legislation sent a clear message to AECL.

It appeared that our message was NIMBY, (Not in My Back Yard). But our intent was "Not in Anyone's Back Yard."

We felt that nuclear power was an incomplete technology, with waste as its Achilles heel.

Research continued at the shaft and the Slowpoke reactor came and fizzled in Pinawa, but the law stands.

Down the road, the Pinawa site continues to be a "de facto" storage site for nuclear waste, operating concrete silos filled with toxic high-level radioactive waste next to the Winnipeg River. They call this research, not storage, however, so the decommissioning and cleanup of the facility will take several hundred years.

As of November, the shaft at the Underground Research Lab at Lac du Bonnet has closed, but the plan to put nuclear waste in the Canadian Shield drags on. Most recently, Ignace and Ear Falls in Ontario and Creighton, Sask., are being courted by Canada's Nuclear Fuel Waste Management Organization, which is desperately seeking a hole in the shield.

This federally appointed organization consists of the owners of nuclear fuel waste in Canada, a clear conflict of interest. Ear Falls happens to be on the watershed that drains into Lake Winnipeg and Manitobans again need to be vigilant.

There is one fundamental question provided by an elder in the Sagkeeng First Nation before one of the nuclear waste panels in his community. His question was translated and remains the most profound, cutting through all the scientific jargon.

Since the rock of the Canadian Shield is considered "the grandfather" in his culture, his question was; "Why would you put poison in your grandfather?"

The shaft at Lac Du Bonnet has finally closed and will eventually fill with water. The concept of deep geological disposal, however, will haunt us for generations to come.


1963 -- Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) builds the Whiteshell Laboratories nuclear research facility.

1980 -- AECL gets the go-ahead to build the $40-million Underground Research Laboratory (URL).

It's the first underground lab to study if and how nuclear waste could be safely stored deep under the Canadian Shield, in granite that is approximately 2.65 billion years old.

1983 -- Construction of the URL begins.

1985 -- URL opens to begin research. It's accessible via a vertical access shaft to a depth of 443 metres and contains testing levels at depths of 240 metres and 420 metres, each having several hundred metres of tunnels and several test rooms. A propane-heated ventilation system provides year-round temperature control of all underground excavations.

1998 -- Work begins to decommission the Whiteshell lab. It will continue for the next few decades.

2003 -- Closure of the URL is announced. Layoff notices go to about 25 of the 45 people who work there.

2006 -- Work begins to close URL.

2010 -- URL is officially closed forever on Nov. 17

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 18, 2010 H11

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