After Flint, Don’t Let Them Nuke the Great Lakes Next!
by Kevin Kamps - CounterPunch
January 26, 2016
Ontario Power Generation (OPG), the nuclear power utility that owns 20 atomic reactors across the province, proposes burying the resulting radioactive wastes at its Bruce Nuclear Generating Station. Oh, by the way, Bruce is already the single largest nuclear power plant in the world, by number of reactors – eight full-size, operable commercial reactors, plus an additional, long-shuttered prototype.
(Most U.S. nuclear power plants, by comparison, have “only” one atomic reactor (way bad enough!), some have two, and a few have three.)
The dump at Bruce in Kincardine, Ontario would be less than a mile from the Lake Huron shore, just some tens of miles across from the tip of Michigan’s Thumb, and upstream of the drinking water intakes for tens of millions of Americans, Canadians, and Native American First Nations. Ironically enough, Flint’s now restored safe drinking water source, Lake Huron, comes via the Detroit system. (Concerns remain, however, that Flint’s now badly corroded, lead leaking pipes and service lines remain a threat, even with clean Lake Huron water as the source.) It was the 2014-2015 switch to the Flint River, a decision made by state officials to save money, that caused the lead-poisoning of the town of 100,000, including its especially vulnerable children.
OPG calls its proposed radioactive waste dump the Deep Geologic Repository, or DGR. Critics, like the late Great Lakes defender David Martin of Greenpeace Canada, dubbed it the Deep Underground Dump, or, most appropriately, DUD for short.
Grassroots Voices in the Wilderness Grow to a Bi-national Groundswell
Michigander anti-nuclear environmental watchdogs have voiced opposition to the DUD for 15 long years. When the people led, the leaders eventually followed. In recent years, a bipartisan, bicameral coalition of state and federal legislators from Michigan have, thankfully, spoken out and taken action as well. This has helped lead to a groundswell of resistance to the DGR across the Great Lakes Basin.
Neighbors of Bruce have done great work, including Friends of Bruce, Save Our Saugeen Shores (SOS, which has filed a lawsuit against the DGR), and the creative, tireless Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump. STGLND has collected over 92,000 petition signatures, and has helped gather more than 180 resolutions from Ontario and every Great Lakes state. The combined number of residents represented by the resolutions approaches 23 million, well over half the population that depends on the Great Lakes for safe, clean drinking water. (The Canadian group Sum of Us has collected an additional 57,000 petition signatures opposing the DGR.) Readers are encouraged to sign these petitions, and spread the word.
In addition, scores of environmental organizations have intervened and spoken out against the DUD, from Don’t Waste Michigan, to Northwatch in Ontario, and Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility in Quebec. Five years ago, the same coalition, working with First Nations such as the Mohawks of Quebec, blocked Bruce Nuclear from shipping radioactive wastes by boat on the waters of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. They hope to build on that victory, and not only nip the DUD in the bud, but also prevent the importation, and incineration (with untold atmospheric releases), of all of Ontario’s “low” level radioactive wastes at Bruce, which has been going on, surreptitiously, for 40 years.
Heads roll at MDEQ and EPA After Contemptible Betrayal of Flint’s Right to Clean, Safe Drinking Water
But OPG points to the minimal outreach it did to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s administration, including Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) officials, as proof of its supposed good faith effort at cross-border consultation. OPG cites communications from Snyder’s administration and MDEQ, as well as from a mid-level bureaucrat at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 5 office in Chicago, as evidence that American governmental authorities have no problem with the radioactive waste dump proposal.
Rumor has it that the EPA Chicago office’s flippant pass on the DGR proposal has led to U.S. State Department, and even White House, inaction. After all, EPA is the expert, right?
The Flint drinking water “catastrophe” (in Gov. Snyder’s own words, from his January 19 State of the State speech) shows how utterly hollow and meaningless such OPG assurances are, as MDEQ and EPA officials’ heads have begun to roll over the Flint drinking water disaster.
After Snyder’s Flint Water Advisory Task Force blasted major failings by MDEQ as a root cause of the Flint debacle, on December 29, the agency’s director, Dan Wyant, stepped down.
MDEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel followed his boss in walking the plank, after the task force cited the “tone,” in addition to the “substance,” of the agency’s response as a major contributing failure. Wurfel’s words added insult to injury. Last July, in an interview with Michigan Radio’s Lindsey Smith (whose reporting has played a huge role in helping this story now garner the international headlines it deserves), Wurfel infamously urged those concerned about lead in Flint’s drinking water to “relax,” that there was no “broad problem” with contamination.
Wurfel also described an EPA official, Miguel Del Toral, whose draft report initially alerted lead-poisoned Flint residents to their great danger, as a “rogue employee.”
As reported by Stephen Rodrick in Rolling Stone (“Who Poisoned Flint, Michigan?”, January 22, 2016):
Eventually, the MDEQ admitted the city hadn’t been doing any corrosion control with Flint’s water, and no one seemed overly concerned. Wurfel essentially said they didn’t have to address it for a year. “You know, if I handed you a bag of chocolate chips and a sack of flour and said, ‘Make chocolate-chip cookies,’ we’d still need a recipe,” Wurfel told Michigan Radio. “They need to get the results from that testing to understand how much of what to put in the water to address the water chemistry.”
And Wurfel also attacked the work of Virginia Tech safe drinking water expert Marc Edwards. The analysis by Edwards and his team of graduate students revealed that some Flint tap water measured nearly 2.5 times more lead contamination than EPA’s hazardous waste designation level.
And, as Rodrick reported in Rolling Stone:
Edwards’ analysis determined that 40 percent of Flint homes had tested over acceptable levels. He joined a press conference on the lawn outside City Hall and begged Flint citizens not to drink their water. The MDEQ spokesman Wurfel uttered another gem, decrying the research and saying, “[Edwards] specializes in looking for high lead problems. They pull that rabbit out of that hat everywhere they go. Nobody should be surprised when the rabbit comes out of the hat.”
Wurfel went so far as to attack Flint, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of the pediatric residency program at Flint’s Hurley Hospital. Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s research showed that after the switch to untreated Flint River drinking water, blood lead levels in children doubled, or even tripled.
But, as Rodrick reported:
Wurfel said her research didn’t match the state’s and was “unfortunate” in a time of “near hysteria.”
Actually, the State of Michigan later acknowledged that Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s research data was accurate.
On January 22, more MDEQ employees – a senior executive in water quality, and an environmental manager — were suspended, pending an investigation of wrongdoing that could lead to their termination. Other MDEQ water quality staffers have already been “reassigned.”
The chorus calling for Gov. Snyder’s resignation, impeachment, recall, and even arrest has grown, as well (see Michael Moore’s MoveOn.org petition calling for a Justice Department investigation, and, if warranted, arrest and prosecution of Snyder).
Snyder may have dug his own grave in his State of the State, by saying during his apology to the people of Flint that they “deserve accountability,” and “The buck stops here with me.”
But the failures to protect the basic human right to safe, clean drinking water extend beyond Gov. Snyder and MDEQ. EPA’s Great Lakes regional administrator, Susan Hedman, has also announced her resignation over the Flint disaster, effective February 1. Hedman had stonewalled official concern from Flint, instead chastising Del Toral for blowing the whistle by releasing his draft report to those unknowingly being lead-poisoned, who then alerted public interest groups like ACLU of Michigan, who in turn alerted reporters like Michigan Radio’s Lindsey Smith.
Obviously, statements from Snyder’s MDEQ, or Hedman’s EPA regional office, showing little to no concern about OPG’s proposal to bury radioactive waste on the Great Lakes shore, are now of very dubious merit. OPG should really stop bragging about its outreach to such discredited Michigan and U.S. agencies.
Lead and Radioactivity Share a Lot in Common, When It Comes to Harming Children and Other Living Things
CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, reporting on Flint’s lead-poisoned drinking water, has stated that the health damage, especially in children, is irreversible. He warns that there is no safe level for lead contamination in drinking water, and that lead can even harm human DNA, and thus pass damage on to future generations. Lead contamination in water cannot be smelled, tasted, or seen.
(Flint’s water did have other problems besides lead contamination, including discoloration, foul odor and taste, but these were due to other harmful biological and chemical contaminants than lead. And they were red flags about the lead, as well, but were ignored by government officials, despite widespread public protests about drinking water quality, not to mention numerous signs of serious health damage, from severe skin rashes, to hair loss, and perhaps even multiple deaths from Legionnaires‘ disease.)
Many of the very same things can be said of hazardous radioactivity, as in the radioactive waste OPG wants to dump on the Lake Huron shore. Children are the most vulnerable. There is no safe level of exposure to ionizing radiation, and health damage accumulates over a lifetime. Radioactive substances, including tritium (a radioactive form of hydrogen, which Canadian reactors generate in large amounts), are harmful to DNA, and can cause genetic damage, in addition to cancer and birth defects. Radioactivity is odorless, invisible, and cannot be tasted.
A Flint mother, Lee Anne Walters, whose four-year-old son Gavin was lead-poisoned, has asked “How does this happen in a state surrounded by the Great Lakes?”
Walters’ heartbroken question begs another. How can OPG be allowed to put the entire Great Lakes drinking water supply at risk of radioactive contamination?
The Great Lakes as a Source of Clean, Safe Drinking Water, Now to be Put at Radioactive Risk?!
In fact, before – and after — the 2014-2015 switch to corrosive Flint River water, the city had previously drawn its drinking water from a safe, clean source (and does so again now): Lake Huron. It was the corrosive Flint River water that caused lead to leach from pipes, and contaminate the city’s drinking water supply. Flint has recently returned to its Lake Huron source of safe, clean drinking water, in an attempt to end the health crisis (although the city’s pipes and service lines, damaged for 18 months because the Snyder MDEQ inexplicitly decided not to require anti-corrosion treatment, might still be a lead danger, even now, and must be replaced, at huge expense).
Now, the OPG radioactive waste dump on the shore would present an ongoing risk of radioactive contamination of Lake Huron, if ever opened. Tens of millions of people depend on the Great Lakes, downstream of the targeted dumpsite, for drinking water.
This risk is essentially forevermore. EPA was forced by environmental groups to admit, under court order, that high-level radioactive waste is hazardous for a million years. The so-called “low” to “intermediate” level radioactive wastes to be buried in the DUD contain many, to most, of the same radioactive poisons, only at lesser concentrations than in irradiated nuclear fuel. But given that the DGR would take 400,000 cubic meters of “low” and “intermediate” level radioactive wastes from 20 reactors, that’s nonetheless a large quantity of radioactivity, that will remain hazardous forevermore.
Snyder’s Administration and EPA First Bash Whistleblowers, and Now Call on Them to do Their Job to Protect Public Health and Safety!
In his State of the State speech, Snyder also said:
For those whose mistakes contributed to this disaster, we are fully cooperating with investigations and will hold those individuals accountable. And let me be perfectly clear to all of state government, in situations like this, they must come to my desk immediately, no delays, no excuses, period.
Similarly, the Flint water catastrophe pushed EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, on January 21, to issue a new policy directive to her staff nationwide, calling for the elevation of any issues that appear to be a substantial threat to public health, or that “other authorities appear to be unable to address.”
“Our strength can become a weakness if we interpret our responsibility as ending with simple technical compliance,” McCarthy said in a memo to all EPA staff.
Of course, her employee, Miguel Del Toral, did the right thing, bringing the Flint drinking water catastrophe to light, before any more damage was done to the public’s health.
Blowing the Whistle on the DUD
Dr. Frank Greening has behaved in just such a commendable way. A retired OPG scientist, Greening spoke out capably and forthrightly during the environmental assessment of OPG’s radioactive waste dump.
He warned that OPG’s estimates of radioactivity levels in the wastes to be dumped on the Lake Huron shore were lowballed by orders of magnitude. He knew, because he had done the actual physical measurements, while still working for OPG.
Greening also warned that flammable and explosive zirconium metal, mixed in with the radioactive wastes, could lead to a large-scale atmospheric release of hazardous radioactivity.
And Greening pointed to the 2009 internal contamination of nearly 500 Bruce Nuclear workers with ultra-hazardous alpha-emitting radiation. The company sent them into a dangerous three-week-long job, without so much as a warning, let alone respiratory protection. This irreversible health disaster could well lead to a large number of latent lung cancers over years or decades.
OPG’s errors had not, and have not, been corrected by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. The CNSC, far from being a critical or even just neutral safety regulator, has instead strenuously advocated in favor of the dump. But then again, CNSC should have prevented the Bruce health disaster as well, but instead has joined Bruce Nuclear in simply downplaying the damage done, and cancer risks.
From Flint, to the Entire Great Lakes Basin
Flint’s catastrophic water disaster has poisoned a city of 100,000 people. It should serve as a cautionary tale for OPG’s Great Lakes shore radioactive waste dump. If and when the dump leaks into Lake Huron, whether suddenly and massively, or more slowly over time, the drinking water supply for 40 million people downstream (including that of Flint) would be contaminated with hazardous radioactivity, with untold human health, economic, and ecological fallout.
Incredibly, when confronted by Nukewatch Wisconsin’s John LaForge, DGR proponents stood by their assertion that the entire contents of the dump could leak into Lake Huron, and it would still not be harmful, due to dilution factors. But, as the late Dr. Rosalie Bertell of International Institute of Concern for Public Health warned, “Dilution is not the solution to radioactive pollution!” Michael Keegan of Coalition for a Nuclear-Free Great Lakes calls “dilution as the solution” a delusion.
Imagine a Flint-scale catastrophe, expanded to eight U.S. states, two Canadian provinces, and a large number of Native American First Nations. Imagine a population, 400 times bigger than Flint’s (and actually including Flint, which currently, post-catastrophe, belatedly draws safe, clean drinking water from Lake Huron again), suddenly learning that its drinking water supply was unsafe to drink, due to radioactive contamination!
Flint’s catastrophe serves as a stark reminder that safe, clean drinking water is the essence of life. The Great Lakes comprise 21% of the entire planet’s, and 84% of North America’s, surface fresh water. If the Great Lakes are not worthy of protection, nothing is.
From Radioactive Racism, to Environmental Justice
Michael Moore is correct in his TIME op-ed, “Flint poisoning is a racial crime”:
Everybody knows that this would not have happened in predominantly white Michigan cities like West Bloomfield, or Grosse Pointe, or Ann Arbor.
Everybody knows that if there had been two years of taxpayer complaints, and then a year of warnings from scientists and doctors, this would have been fixed in those towns.
Flint is a majority African American town, and 40% of its residents live below the official poverty level.
While Flint’s environmental injustice has taken the form of lead-poisoned water, the nuclear power industry’s abuses are often targeted at low income, people of color communities as well.
The nuclear complex along the Georgia-South Carolina border is a case in point. “Host” to not only the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Savannah River Site nuclear weapons plant, the predominantly African American area, including the town of Shell Bluff, GA, also is “home” to the leaking Barnwell “low” level radioactive dump (which took wastes from 39 states for decades on end). In addition, the Vogtle nuclear power plant is nearby, with two operating reactors, and two more giant new ones under construction, at massive taxpayer and ratepayer expense and risk.
When it comes to radioactive waste, Native American communities are often targeted. As Honor the Earth’s Winona LaDuke has said: “The greatest minds in the nuclear industry have been hard at work, for over 50 years, to find a solution to the radioactive waste problem. They’ve finally got it: haul it down a dirt road and dump it on an Indian reservation.”
In a March 2009 Women’s History Month proclamation, President Obama praised Grace Thorpe, daughter of Athlete of the Century Jim Thorpe, for being one of the top “Women Taking the Lead to Save our Planet,” alongside the likes of biologist and author Rachel Carson, of Silent Spring fame (who was herself opposed to both nuclear weapons and nuclear power). As President Obama described:
Grace Thorpe, another leading environmental advocate, also connected environmental protection with human well-being by emphasizing the vulnerability of certain populations to environmental hazards. In 1992, she launched a successful campaign to organize Native Americans to oppose the storage of nuclear waste on their reservations, which she said contradicted Native American principles of stewardship of the earth. She also proposed that America invest in alternative energy sources such as hydroelectricity, solar power, and wind power.
Thorpe not only defeated the DOE Nuclear Waste Negotiator’s irradiated nuclear fuel centralized interim storage facility targeted at her own Sauk and Fox Reservation in Oklahoma – she traveled the country, and over the course of several years helped scores of other reservation communities fend off de facto permanent parking lot dumps for high-level radioactive waste.
Which begs the question, why is Obama’s DOE yet again targeting tribes, with its newly unveiled, Orwellian “Consent-Based Siting” scheme? As Keith Lewis of Ontario’s Serpent River First Nation said, after his tribe’s ecosystem was devastated by decades of uranium mining: “There is nothing moral about tempting a starving man with money.”
True to form, OPG built Bruce, the largest nuclear power plant on Earth, smack dab in the middle of Saugeen Ojibwe Nation (SON) territory. And now it wants to dump all of the province’s “low” and “intermediate” level radioactive wastes there, too, at risk of leaking forevermore into Lake Huron. This would ruin SON’s fisheries, not to mention the drinking water for tens of millions of Americans, Canadians, and other First Nations downstream.
All of Canada’s high-level radioactive waste could be headed to SON territory, as well. Three area municipalities near Bruce have “volunteered” to “host” irradiated nuclear fuel from reactors not only in Ontario, but Quebec and New Brunswick as well. They are now deep into the siting process. In fact, the DGR could be a bait and switch, meant from the start to house high-level waste as well, despite OPG assurances to the contrary (which are not legally binding, by the way!).
As Keegan of the Coalition for a Nuclear-Free Great Lakes has put it, “Electricity is but the fleeting byproduct from atomic reactors. The actual product is forever deadly radioactive waste.”
Even if SON dodges the radioactive bullet of a meltdown at one or more reactors at the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station (not to mention the “routine,” but still hazardous releases of radioactivity that occur even during “normal” operations), the radioactive waste DGR would haunt that territory forevermore with risk, if it is ever opened.
What You Can Do to Help Save the Great Lakes!
Such an insane scheme must be stopped dead in its tracks. Please help nip the DUD in the bud!
Americans, Canadians, and First Nations members are encouraged to email Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Justin.Trudeau@parl.gc.ca) and Canadian Environment Minister Catherine McKenna Catherine.McKenna@parl.gc.ca, to urge them to reject OPG’s DGR by the March 1st decision deadline.
Readers are also encouraged to contact President Obama , to urge him to order Secretary of State John Kerry to activate the U.S.-Canadian International Joint Commission (IJC), to conduct a comprehensive review of the DGR’s risks to the Great Lakes.
Americans can also contact their two U.S. Senators, and U.S. Representative (get patched through to their offices via the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121), and urge them to co-sponsor U.S. Senate and House legislation, the “Stop Nuclear Waste by Our Lakes Act,” (S. 2026) introduced by U.S. Sens. Stabenow and Peters, and U.S. Rep. Kildee (Democrats from Michigan). The “Stop Nuclear Waste by Our Lakes Act” (S. 2026) will invoke the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty, and mandate that the IJC undertake a comprehensive review of the DGR proposal.
Kevin Kamps is the Radioactive Waste Watchdog at Beyond Nuclear.More articles by:Kevin Kamps