Politics & Prejudices: Nuclear waste and you 

Ontario Power Generation wants to bury nuclear waste less than a mile from the shore of Lake Huron, near the town of Kincardine, across from the tip of Michigan's thumb.

Not surprisingly, this has folks on both sides of the border a trifle upset. "The last place to abandon radioactive nuclear waste is right beside the largest supply of freshwater on the planet," says Beverly Fernandez, a spokeswoman for the Canadian group "Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump."

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow promptly announced she and her colleague, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, were introducing legislation requiring Washington to invoke the Boundary Waters Treaty and push for an International Joint Commission study before Canada buries any nuclear waste anywhere along the lakes. U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee of Flint introduced similar legislation in the House.

Sounds sensible — but since they are all Democrats, their bills are likely to end up in the majority leader's circular file.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is facing a tough three-way re-election battle this fall, and he prudently postponed any final decision until after the Oct. 19 national election.

My guess is they'll go ahead with the plan if he wins — and we will then see more bitter protests. To be fair to Ontario Power Generation, they do have some reasonable arguments.

Their spokesman, Neal Kelly, notes that they are not talking about burying highly radioactive fuel rods at the site, but low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste. Low-level includes stuff like old mops and brooms and uniforms, intermediate-level wastes are things like filters and pumps that were in contact with nuclear fuel.

Some of the latter may be dangerous for maybe 10,000 years. However, Ontario Power says they will bury it two football fields below the surface, in rock that hasn't moved for 450 million years.

How safe that really is may be open to debate.

However, nobody's asking the really important question. Not the protesters, not the establishment. What they should be asking is:

Why don't we have a national policy and a national depository or depositories for nuclear waste?

Especially, material like the highly radioactive spent fuel rods, which could remain dangerous for 250,000 years. Scientific American estimated six years ago that this country alone had produced 64,000 metric tons of radioactive nuclear fuel rods. There's more now.

More is produced every year. Some is buried in places like the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in New Mexico. But most just sits there, on or close to the sites where it was produced.

Worried about a bunch of gloves and mops and filters being buried in a solid rock formation?

Well, think about this: Four hours north of here, the Big Rock Nuclear Plant used to stand next to Lake Michigan, just north of Charlevoix. They closed the plant in 1997 and tore it down, but the dangerous spent fuel rods it created remain.

They are stored in a facility off in the nearby woods, guarded, we're told, by a few guards and dogs and a chain-link fence.

That's far from the biggest danger, however. That would probably be DTE Energy's Fermi II plant just a little south of Detroit, on the western shore of Lake Erie. Most of the high-level radioactive waste there is stored in a pool of water in an old building.

Some say that if the power supply were interrupted, and the water boiled off, you could have the release of massive amounts of radiation into the environment, which happened in Japan in 2011 when an earthquake and a tsunami caused the Fukushima disaster.

Yes, tidal waves are unlikely in the Great Lakes. But accidents and disasters happen everywhere, and in all of the nation, there are vast caches of spent and still highly dangerous nuclear fuel.

You don't have to be an expert in probability theory to know a disaster somewhere is inevitable. Everyone who knows anything about it knows we need a highly secure national storage site or sites.

Even if we stopped using nuclear power tomorrow, this would be the case. Yet our national politics are governed primarily by NIMBY — "Not In My Backyard" — cowardice and selfishness.

Much of this stuff was supposed to be buried in a national repository in Yucca Mountain, Nevada, which was as safe as any such place could be. But it was killed for political reasons by then-U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and, since Nevada is a political swing state, it is unlikely to be revived.

So there isn't a single designated long-term storage site for old fuel rods and all the other high-level nuclear waste generated in this country. Canada doesn't have one either, although their national government is said to be looking for one.

If this doesn't worry you, you really are a fool.

I don't really feel strongly one way or the other about Ontario Power Generation burying some old gloves and filters in Kincardine.

But if you incline to go picket your hearts out against it, you might spend a little time thinking about the bigger problem.

Dirty politics and Southfield

Not many suburbs can even pretend to be anything like integrated, but Southfield can.

Though its black population now tops 70 percent, there is still a core of white residents, many of them Jewish, who are very happy there. The city has largely maintained its middle-class character, and a new dynamic retail and residential complex has sprung up where an abandoned Roman Catholic Church stood at 12 Mile and Southfield.

Longtime Mayor Brenda Lawrence got credit for helping keep Southfield vibrant, but last November, she was elected to Congress. There's now a tight race to succeed her between Sylvia Jordan, the city council president, and Ken Siver, a longtime resident, retired teacher, and former councilman.

Race wasn't a big issue here — until recently, when racist fliers suddenly appeared on lawns and mailboxes.

"Let's Get the Blacks Out of Southfield in November," it said. It included a painting of a Klansman pointing a gun at a black child, and a photograph of an innocent-looking Trayvon Martin wearing a hoodie.

"Zimmerman was right. We will stop thugs like this," the leaflet said. It also pictured all the white candidates, including Siver, and urged support for them.

However, it seems clear that this wasn't something put out by white supremacists at all.

Instead, there are signs it seems to be a Nixonian political dirty trick. Pat Haynie, an African-American woman who heads the city's Martin Luther King Jr. task force, told me the flier seemed to have been distributed mainly in heavily black neighborhoods.

In any case, since a majority of the city's voters are black, the last thing any white racist would want is a racial referendum.

Both candidates, including Ms. Jordan, who is black, have denounced the flier and claimed not to know where it came from.

And beneath the radar, what many residents are worried about is an influx of lower-income people from Detroit "bringing in their bad behaviors," as one former police chief, himself black, said.

This election could be among this year's most interesting.

Correction: This article originally identified U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee as "Dale Kildee." Dale Kildee is Dan's uncle and his predecessor in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Jack Lessenberry is head of the journalism program at Wayne State University and the senior political analyst for Michigan Public Radio.

More by Jack Lessenberry

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