TORONTO - A community on the shores of Lake Huron has cracked open the door to southern Ontario's becoming the permanent storage site for Canada's spent, but still dangerously radioactive, nuclear fuel.
Until now, only nine communities in remote areas of northern Saskatchewan and northern Ontario were in the running to host the $24-billion project for a mammoth underground facility.
Now, to the consternation of some, one of southern Ontario's premier tourist destinations is on the radar, although how it got there is already the subject of dispute.
The municipality of Saugeen Shores, which includes the picturesque lakeside towns of Port Elgin and Southampton about three hours west of Toronto, is showing interest in becoming home to the waste site.
Neighbouring Brockton is also looking to get on board as part of an initiative to involve the entire county, which is already home to the Bruce nuclear power plant in nearby Kincardine.
"It's a radical departure from what conventional wisdom has been for years: that (the waste) would go in the Canadian Shield," said Chris Peabody, a Brockton councillor from Walkerton, Ont.
"Councils up here are freaking out about wind energy, but they're inviting a nuclear waste dump into their town."
The region is attractive as a waste site because 40 per cent of used nuclear fuel in Canada is already housed above ground at the Bruce generating plant.
The plant is a major employer in the region, has stored spent fuel for years, and community acceptance of a permanent low-level waste facility was high.
Jamie Robinson, spokesman for the Nuclear Waste Management Organization, denied the federal agency has been pushing for expressions of interest from the county.
"We're not targeting any communities," Robinson said.
"It's not us that's thinking about southern Ontario. Our process is open to any community in Canada. It's a community driven process."
The project involves finding a willing and suitable host for a six square kilometre bunker built half a kilometre below a square kilometre of field.
The facility would warehouse millions of high-level nuclear-fuel rods that remain dangerous indefinitely.
In return, the waste agency is dangling a huge economic-development carrot, promising the creation of hundreds of jobs for the community and thousands more for the region over many decades.
The downside, Robinson said, would be the huge stress such a project would have on existing infrastructure.
"There'll be significant positive benefits as well as potentially negative benefits," said Robinson.
"We encourage potential host communities to consider whether this project is consistent with the long-term vision that they've got for their community."
Coun. Thead Seaman said it was the waste organization that approached Saugeen Shores ("The Sun's Favourite Destination") looking for an invitation into the community.
The agency took councillors on a tour of the temporary storage at the Bruce plant last month.
With Mayor Mike Smith on board, a committee agreed to ask the agency for more information but Seaman said councillors will likely doom the idea soon.
"The public doesn't want us to even receive more information," Seaman said. "So, we'll just shoot it dead in the water and that will be the end of it."
Still, the idea continues to bubble that the entire county could act as host region with benefits shared across the area.
The suggestion gained little traction in the municipality of South Bruce earlier this year but nearby Brockton, which includes Walkerton, appears more enthusiastic.
Its councillors also toured the temporary storage site earlier this month.
Brockton Mayor Dave Inglis said the county has long-standing experience with nuclear power, and council would likely make a decision on the issue "shortly."
But Peabody said Walkerton's tainted water tragedy a decade ago should be reason enough to stay out of the radioactive-waste business.
"Taking a town like Walkerton, which has that legacy of E. coli, and inviting a nuclear waste dump in — I have trouble with that," Peabody said.
"I would (also) question the wisdom of putting all of Canada's nuclear waste beside or close to Lake Huron under some of Canada's best farm land."
Either way, nailing down a site will likely take as long as another decade, and then at least that long to build the repository.
To date, three communities in Saskatchewan — English River First Nation; Pine House and Creighton — and six northern Ontario communities — Ear Falls, Ignace, Nipigon, Schreiber, Hornepayne and Wawa — have been through initial screening.