As roadside attractions go, "Home of Canada's Nuclear Waste Burial Ground" isn't one you'd normally put on a souvenir keychain.
But strange as the title sounds, nine Canadian communities are in the running to claim it – along with the opportunity to host the country's spent uranium in underground bunkers for the rest of time.
The towns, scattered across Saskatchewan and Ontario, are responding to a call for volunteers from an organization the federal government has charged with finding a permanent resting place for Canada's radioactive detritus. They're a combination of native reserves, old mining and lumber towns and cottage enclaves. Many have spent the past decade watching their populations shrink and economies crater, and are desperate for an economic boost – even if it comes with an eternity's worth of radioactive waste.
Take Hornepayne, Ont., population 1,045 and falling. Located about 400 kilometres north of Sault Ste. Marie, the town has seen its two industries, lumber and rail, falter and contract.
In 2009, the private owner of the town's main building declared bankruptcy. The building's closing the following year took with it the only hotel, post office, police station, high-school, gymnasium, swimming pool, library and liquor store. Even the most basic municipal infrastructure has become unaffordable – the town council is trying to scrape savings out of a $4-million budget.
"Hornepayne is slowly going nowhere," said Cindy Craig, who sits on an eight-person committee the township struck to study nuclear waste storage. "We need some kind of business to bring that population back."
Hornepayne is at the third step of a nine-step site-selection process that could take years. But so far, Ms. Craig likes what she sees – decades of construction and up to $24-billion invested in a long-term, high-tech venture that would be among the first of its kind on the planet.
"I'd like to see Hornepayne get that," she said. "I'd like to see anything."
Ignace, Ont., a town near Agimak Lake about 200 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay, is on the cusp of an upswing, Mayor Lee Kennard is quick to tell you. An iron ore processing plant is set to open up shop nearby; Abitibi Bowater announced last summer it's reopening an idled sawmill; a wood pellet plant is in the works.
But the 1,100-person town's skilled labour force continues to head west, which is why, Mr. Kennard said, the nuclear repository is worth a shot. "It's high-paying jobs, infrastructure building and everything else. It's going to do something wherever it goes."
Environmentalists and nuclear skeptics opposed to the project argue there are too many unanswered questions behind the high-tech task of burying an eternity of nuclear waste. They say these towns are crazy to even consider the idea.
"There's all sorts of technical uncertainties," said Brennain Lloyd, a co-ordinator at Northwatch, an environmental activist group in Northeastern Ontario. "This waste will be hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years."
But community leaders say they'd be crazy not to ponder the nuclear option. "If there's some way of bringing economic development, a boomtown situation, back to this part of the country, then we'll look at it," Hornepayne Mayor Morley Forster said. "We're very close to bottoming out."
Canada's nuclear waste is stored first in pools, then in dry casks near reactors at the plants. It's safe there for the foreseeable future – but not forever.
The long-term plan endorsed by the federal government in 2007 is to take all of the waste – about 40,000 tonnes and counting – and bury it 500 metres underground on one site. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization executing the plan is designing reinforced bunkers to keep the spent uranium safe for millennia, while making it possible to monitor and retrieve it should the need or desire arise.
Organization head Ken Nash said researchers are leaving no stone unturned in their attempt to prove the project's safety and feasibility, to the tune of $120-million so far. Engineers are drilling boreholes in Greenland to get a sense of how a second ice age would affect Canadian bedrock.
"When you look internationally, there is, I think, a consensus scientifically that this provides a safe solution in the long term," he said.
First, the tricky part: Find what Mr. Nash calls "an informed and willing host community." Any one of the nine towns in the running can drop out at any time. This week, five more said they are considering throwing their hats in the ring.
The site-selection process worked in Sweden, where Osthammar beat out another town to host the country's nuclear waste in 2010. But opposition in Nevada to the U.S. plan to bury nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain stymied the project decades into its development, after billions had been spent.
Mr. Nash argues it's society's responsibility to clean up its own mess. "The material exists. And it's going to be hazardous for a long period of time.… We owe it to future generations to do something about it, not leave it where it is."
Leaders of the towns in the running say the risks involved are outweighed by potential benefits. And they could really, really use the benefits.
"It would be a tremendous boost economically," said Bruce Fidler, mayor of 1,550-person Creighton, a northeastern Saskatchewan town near the Manitoba boundary, just west of Flin Flon. "Trying to be a sustainable community, we're always looking outside the box."