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As if the Great Lakes didn’t have enough nuclear nightmares to deal with, now the Wisconsin state legislature is poised to repeal a 33-year-old ban on new atomic reactor construction. The most likely outcome of overturning the nuclear power plant moratorium is not a boom in construction jobs, nor high-tech riches, as the bill’s sponsors tout. Rather, as Al Gedicks of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council warns, the legislation risks returning northern Wisconsin’s granite geology to the very top of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) target list for a national high-level radioactive waste dump.
The 14,000-year-old Great Lakes, formed by the melting glaciers of the last Ice Age, serve as the drinking water supply for 40 million people in eight U.S. states, two Canadian provinces and a large number of Native American First Nations. They are the lifeblood of one of the world’s largest bi-national, bioregional economies.
And they are but a single radioactive catastrophe removed from ruination forevermore. Here’s how Arnie Gundersen, chief engineer of Fairewinds Energy Education, put it in a recent blog post, Downstream:
Imagine the 39-year-old Bruce station on Lake Huron or the 44-year-old Palisades plant in Michigan on Lake Michigan having a meltdown like Fukushima Daiichi did in March 2011. The concentration of radioactive waste in the water would be roughly 30,000 times higher in the Great Lakes than in the Pacific Ocean after the triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi. Think of the devastation that would occur as 40,000,000 people lose their water supply and the crops along these waterways are contaminated with nuclear waste for decades if not hundreds of years as the St. Lawrence River flows right past Montreal and Quebec City. What are the commercial ramifications for cities along the Great Lakes or the St. Lawrence River when ocean freighters choose to no longer travel there for fear of contaminating the vessels?
Indeed, the toxic algae drinking water ban for just a few days in the greater Toledo, Ohio area in summer 2014, and the current national headlines about the severely hazardous lead poisoning of Flint, Michigan’s drinking water supply (and its apparently many months-long cover up), show clearly how precious—and fragile—potable water is, even in the heart of the Great Lakes, comprising 84 percent of North America’s surface fresh water and 21 percent of the entire planet’s.
Gundersen serves as expert witness for an environmental coalition challenging continued operations at Palisades, due to its severe, and worsening, reactor pressure vessel (RPV) embrittlement, due to more than four decades of neutron radiation bombardment. A pressurized thermal shock could, like a hot glass under cold water (and under more than a ton of pressure per square inch!), fracture the RPV. A Loss-of-Coolant-Accident would follow, and then likely a reactor core meltdown, and the potential for a catastrophic release of hazardous radioactivity.
According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (see point #4, on page 5 of 15 of the PDF counter) Palisades is the second worst embrittled RPV in the U.S., after Point Beach Unit 2 in Wisconsin—thus wedging Lake Michigan between two of the most risky, age-degraded atomic reactors in the country.
How foolish it has been for the nuclear power establishment in industry and government to locate a dozen still operating atomic reactors on the U.S. shores of the Great Lakes, and another 18 on the Canada side. In fact, the world’s single largest collection of inter-connected freshwater seas most unfortunately hosts facilities representing every single stage of the uranium fuel chain. (See the “Great Lakes Region Nuclear Hotspots” map, by Anna Tilman of International Institute of Concern for Public Health, for an overview).
The “front end” of the uranium monster has already ravaged the Great Lakes. The mines and mills of Elliot Lake, Ontario, which were retired nearly 20 years ago, after a half-century of polluting exploitation, are still the largest source of hazardous radium flow into the Great Lakes. And, whether to fuel domestic reactors or to export to the U.S. and overseas, Canada’s “radioactive Love Canal,” picturesque but badly contaminated Port Hope, on the Lake Ontario shore east of Toronto, processes every atom of uranium mined in Canada, including from the world’s most productive mines in northern Saskatchewan. (See Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility’s “Nuclear Map of Canada,” by Dr. Gordon Edwards and Robert Del Tredichi).
— Onaman Collective (@OnamanCollectiv) December 16, 2015
Now, the dreaded “back end” of the uranium fuel chain is also showing up with a vengeance—proposed radioactive waste dumps on the very shores of the Great Lakes.
In Kincardine, Ontario on Lake Huron, just to the east of the tip of Michigan’s “Thumb,” Canada’s new Environment Minister, Catherine McKenna, will decide by March 1 whether or not Ontario Power Generation (OPG) will be allowed to proceed with dumping the province’s so-called “low” and “intermediate” level radioactive wastes, from 20 reactors, within less than a mile from the shoreline.