Onkalo, Finland in the spotlight as communities in northwestern Ontario consider “A Terrifying and Huge Decision”

It’s surprising to discover, how often you hear Finland cropping up in conversations, in small northwestern Ontario communities, and even more surprising, that Onkalo is mentioned. I’d never heard of it until I went to Ignace. Ignace is a community of 1,206 people surrounded by pristine lakes and waterways that it shares with Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation on Treaty 3 territory. A railway and a highway run through it and tourism, forestry and mining have traditionally provided employment.

Then I came across the documentary “Into Eternity”, by the Danish film maker Michael Madsen. Somehow I now knew more than I wanted to about nuclear waste burial, and couldn’t get the idea of it out of my thoughts. There is a complex drama unfolding in northwestern Ontario, with a link to Onkalo, that I had no idea of.

Onkalo, in western Finland, is the world’s first permanent disposal site for high-level nuclear waste, and there is some pride in that. This complex underground facility is a Deep Geological Repository (DGR), in bedrock that is over a billion years old. It will have 100 nuclear waste disposal tunnels located 430 meters underground and is meant to store the nuclear waste generated by Finland’s 2 nuclear power plants and to keep it undisturbed, as it degrades for the next 100,000 years. When operations begin in 2024, excavations will continue over the next century, to add more disposal tunnels and when the repository is filled to capacity with 6,500 tons of spent fuel rods, around 2120, the entrance tunnel will be sealed shut and all surface structures will be dismantled and not even a warning sign will mark the spot.

The reason why Finland and especially Onkalo are on the minds of people living in Ignace is because a DGR for the burial of Canada’s radioactive nuclear wastes is being proposed between Ignace and Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation. The other location under consideration is the Saugeen Ojibway Nation – South Bruce site close to the Bruce Nuclear Power Plant, in southern Ontario. For these communities, perhaps it’s a comfort to know that there’s somewhere else in the world where this is being done first.
The Olkiluoto nuclear power plant and Onkalo are located on the island of Olkiluoto in Eurajoki (left on the map). Finland's second nuclear power plant is located in Loviisa. From there it is about 350 km to Onkalo.

The largest of Finland’s two nuclear power plants is Olkiluoto and it’s located close to Onkalo and to the community of Eurajoki. The radioactive wastes generated at Olkiluoto will only need to be transported a short distance to be buried. This is an important distinction when comparisons are made with the proposed DGR site close to Ignace. A truck carrying radioactive waste from the Bruce Nuclear Power Plant to Ignace, for example, would have to travel a distance of 1,700 kilometers. The nuclear industry in Canada projects that a total of 132,000 tonnes of radioactive waste will need to be transported to the selected DGR site, compared to the 6,500 tonnes that will be buried at Onkalo. Any comparisons between the two countries’ DGR sites, would have to factor in significant differences.

It’s worth the effort to try to grasp the vastness of 100,000 years. It’s the time span of approximately 3,000 generations. The oldest human-made constructions that we know of are only 5,000-6,000 years old. Scientists calculate that two ice ages will occur over that time period.

There seems to be a cognitive dissonance when an increasing number of environmentalists and our own Minister of the Environment, Steven Guilbeault, are describing nuclear energy as "green, clean and emissions-free". Canada's opposition leader Pierre Poilievre used the exact same words during a recent press conference. The description never includes a mention of the highly problematic issue of radioactive waste. There's a very big elephant in the no-carbon-emissions room!

If it takes an incredible tomb like Onkalo to safely keep the radioactive wastes buried, how can it make sense to promote nuclear energy? The International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that there are already 263,000 tons of spent fuel sitting in interim storage facilities worldwide that will need a permanent solution. As we continue down this road, depending more and more on nuclear energy, as a way to bring down carbon emissions while ensuring that our lives carry on in a similar energy guzzling fashion, how many more Onkalo projects is it possible to build? How many nuclear disasters are we setting ourselves up for? In Canada, it seems that huge, existential considerations are being loaded on the shoulders of folks in small towns like Ignace and Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation. That paints a picture of a special hell, even as they’re surrounded by pristine lakes and forests. The weight of these considerations should instead, be borne by all of us.

To deal with Canada’s accumulating radioactive stockpile, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) was set up in 2002. It was mandated to steer the DGR site selection process and to engage the communities that are involved. The NWMO’s website says, “Canada’s plan will only proceed in an area with informed and willing hosts”. The NWMO uses all means at its disposal to steer the community towards an “informed and willing” state and has been doing just that in Ignace and area, over the last 10 years.

In Finland, the acceptance of the Onkalo project by the community of Eurajoki was also critical. The town of Eurajoki is located only 18.5 km from the Olkiluoto nuclear power plant and many of its residents work there. These factors meant that the town's population was already comfortable with nuclear power and, as a result, it was not difficult to get community buy-in for the construction of the Onkalo DGR. Also significantly contributing to Finland’s acceptance of Onkalo is their culture of trust with institutions and expertise, evidenced by the shocked reaction of a visiting speaker from Onkalo, when he witnessed the opposition that existed to the project in Ignace. Another difference is that the Finnish process is insulated from politics, so it can move along without interruptions. Finland, however, also has anti-nuclear organizations, such as the Finnish Nuclear Transparency Watch and they are critical of the cozy relationship between industry and regulators. They point out that the concerns of civil society are not valued and that the Finnish media is too compliant, such that safety concerns are not publicly debated.

The NWMO was founded by Ontario Power Generation (OPG), New Brunswick Power Corporation and Hydro Electric and these organizations along with Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. also fund the operations of the NWMO. Working towards becoming an “informed and willing” DGR host community is both a complicated and expensive process but with these big backers, the NWMO can do many things. As a private corporation their actual budget, however, is unknowable. NWMO can pay good salaries in a town that has few comparable job opportunities, and can afford consultants to carry out heavy duty public relations work. They can also gain (buy) public support through financial contributions made to many community groups such as funding the snowmobile club, a Winterfest fish derby, a Safe Food handling course at the Seniors’ Centre, a cross-country ski competition, a hockey team, bikes for a spin class, badminton championships etc., as listed on their website.

My first exposure to NWMO was at their information table outside the community hall in Upsala. They were sponsoring a free community spaghetti dinner. At the table, I was invited to handle a replica of a spent fuel bundle, to get an idea of what the trucks would be carrying to the eventual DGR burial site. The plan is for 2 to 3 transport trucks to daily deliver radioactive waste to the DGR, travelling thousands of kilometers from southern Ontario, over the course of decades. The two foot long, mock spent fuel bundle on the table, couldn’t be less threatening. You could practically nestle it in your arms like an awkward doll. Looking harmless, I assumed, was the whole point of this display.

I thought there was a serious educational component missing, however, if I wasn’t being told about the radioactive nature of this bundle I was holding, had it been an actual spent fuel bundle. Certainly lacking, as well, was any information about how the radioactivity would harm me as it entered my body invisibly. It was telling that this information was missing.

I walked away from the table, no wiser about the radioactive wastes to be transported, but with an insight into NWMO’s educational efforts, to make nuclear energy and the radioactive wastes seem harmless, every day and friendly. I could see how this could be a useful strategy to reach acceptance and willingness, a kind of friendly-wash to layer on top of the greenwashing. It didn’t seem very honest however, so I didn’t feel comfortable about pocketing any free swag from the table. This uneasy impression wasn’t helped by the way the NWMO staff, paid to be there, quickly moved out of the frame when I lifted my camera to take a picture of their information table.

There’s an alliance of community organizations that oppose the dumping of radioactive, nuclear waste in northwestern Ontario and are particularly concerned about the transportation of this dangerous material. They cite the nuclear industry’s plans to transport 132,000 tonnes of highly radioactive nuclear waste, for the next 40-50 years, over long distances and with high frequency, to the site where it will be repackaged and buried. Two of those organizations, critical of this plan are “We the Nuclear Free North” and “Environment North” in Thunder Bay. Support for their campaign can be seen throughout Thunder Bay where “Say No to Nuclear Waste” signs on front lawns, are a common sight. This group also had an information table inside the hall where the spaghetti dinner was being held in Upsala.

“We the Nuclear Free North” information table with volunteer Wendy O’Connor.

These volunteer, community groups are dedicated to the adoption of the Proximity Principle which promotes a safer handling of nuclear wastes that does not involve risky and lengthy transportation. The Proximity Principle proposes that the radioactive wastes be stored as closely as possible to the source of generation with on-going monitoring. They say that this principle has been adopted in several European countries and while it is not a permanent solution, it does buy time for other options to be developed.

Recently the City Council of Thunder Bay was to vote on endorsing the Proximity Principle and promoting its adoption provincially, in recognition that every community along the route travelled by the trucks carrying this waste, could be impacted. The section of the Trans-Canada highway running through northern Ontario is notorious for the number of transport truck accidents and these tragedies are regularly featured in the news.

On October 30th, a protest was held in front of City Hall, calling for the adoption of the Proximity Principle, as the City Council deliberated inside. The vote was postponed, however, so that the Intergovernmental Committee could be briefed more thoroughly by the two groups, “We the Nuclear Free North” and “Environment North”. As of this writing, a decision has not yet been made regarding the adoption of the Proximity Principle by the city or the province.

Amongst its many efforts to create willingness in the site selection process in the Ignace area, the NWMO has also brought speakers from Finland to the community and organized delegations to Finland. On Sunday, November 5th I spoke over the phone with Catherine Kiewning who is on Dryden’s City Council and is currently a member of a delegation headed to Finland. She was in Toronto when we spoke, preparing to fly to Finland that afternoon. Eventually she’d be meeting up with the other delegates, including representatives from Lac Seul First Nation, Ignace, more Dryden City councillors, as well as Dryden’s mayor.

Here is that interview:
KS – Can you tell me what’s planned for your delegation on this trip to Finland?
CK – The delegation will be in Finland for a total of one week. We’ll be arriving in Helsinki on Monday and then travelling 2.5 hours to Rauma where we’ll spend two nights. We’ll have a tour there and meet with government officials. Over the next days, we’ll have a chance to tour the DGR that’s being developed at Onkalo. There’s also a trip to Eurajoki where we’ll meet with City officials. The itinerary we’ve been given is fairly sketchy and we don’t have a lot of details yet.

KS – What are your expectations of this trip? What are you hoping to come away with?
CK - I’m hoping to gain clarity on what the DGR will be doing and how it operates. I understand that there is a very lengthy permit process, so I’d like to learn more about that, for example. I’ve brought questions with me from constituents in Dryden, so I’ll be looking for answers for them. The people who have reached out in Dryden, are the ones that are very concerned. In general, the people in Dryden are either very opposed or neutral on the topic of a DGR in our area.

The DGR at Onkalo in Finland will be different than the one proposed for our area. Transportation safety is a big issue for us, so I’ll be looking for more clarity on that. We’re concerned about multiple semi-vehicles, transporting nuclear waste during all four seasons, especially as we know that our roads in northern Ontario are not the safest. I have many questions, as we’ve heard different things. For example, I’d like to find out whether the waste being transported will be high level or low level. I’m also very concerned about water protection, as our area is well known for its pristine lakes and rivers. I consider myself to be a “climate activist”.
First and foremost, we have to make sure that the proper protections are in place, although I recognize that there’s never a zero risk situation no matter what you do. I want to understand how the risks are being mitigated. Is this really the safest thing that we can be doing with the nuclear wastes?

Dryden will not actually have a say in the decision about going ahead with a DGR for nuclear wastes in our region. That decision will be made by Ignace and Wabigoon Lake Ojibway First Nation. Dryden will be consulted as a partner community regarding the risks, as well as the rewards. This has been a very tricky and divisive issue.

I’m participating in this delegation, keeping an open mind. It’s hard to discern what is right. It feels like you could never have enough information. I’m going to keep my mind open and participate with the best of intentions and get as informed as possible.

KS – When you’re back in Canada, what will you do with the information you’ve gained?
CK – I’ll provide an update at City Council and use my social media account on Instagram and Facebook. For those who have provided me with specific questions, I will try to respond to each of them individually. We’ve been told that we won’t be able to take a phone with us on the tour of Onkalo, but I’m hoping that I’ll be allowed to take notes. We were given a one-page information sheet on what’s permitted in the DGR. That visit will be very controlled. We’ll need to wear special outfits and we’ll need to go through a decontamination process when we come out. I think they’re showing us what the safety protocols will be like. I don’t believe there is actually any nuclear waste being stored there yet as it’s still under construction.

KS – How do you feel about a decision being made that could have an impact for the next 100,000 years?
CK – It’s not like the normal, daily decisions we make, like whether to brush our teeth or not, or what kind of shoes you should wear on a particular day. We fill our lives with those kinds of daily decisions. In contrast, this is a huge and terrifying decision. It’s really big and it will be up to Ignace and Wabigoon Lake Ojibway First Nation. I’m half glad that Dryden doesn’t have to make this decision. Dryden may have some sway, but that’s not guaranteed.

KS – Why are you interested in this issue of nuclear waste burial?
CK – In my 20’s I received education and training as a member of the Citizens Climate Lobby. We went to Washington to lobby for climate change solutions and we talked with members of Congress on Capitol Hill. It was enlightening and intimidating.

We need to move away from fossil fuels. We have a responsibility to protect communities and prepare for climate change through asset management. We’ve seen the impact of climate change in our area with the extreme wild fires of 2020 that required the evacuation of Red Lake.
It’s my responsibility to learn as much as I can about this important decision.

When Catherine Kiewning returns from Finland, she has agreed to another interview by Kanadan Sanomat, to share what she has learned.

Text and Photos: Anneli Tolvanen

The writer and photographer is a volunteer contributor of Kanadan Sanomat and finnishcanadian.com and this is her personal opinion and does not represent the view or opinion of either of the aforementioned publications.

A Finnish version of this article was published in the Kanadan Sanomat on 21.11.2023.

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