Willow Heart Bridge
The Willow Heart Bridge at Patuanak crosses the Churchill River and creates access to a vast tract of wilderness.
Rhythmic pelican movement on the Churchill River’s current, columns of cloud filled with sunlight overhead, and the whine of fishing boat engines from downstream made the idea of burying spent nuclear fuel in this part of Saskatchewan terribly grave. I had made myself an assignation with the Churchill—a fretwork of fresh water that is underappreciated in Canada—or, more specifically, with a new bridge that crosses it.
I paced the $6.5 million Willow Heart Bridge with growing intrigue. After months of reading documents and trying to follow the convoluted story behind a burial site selection process it was this single reference—a bridge—that finally got me in my car and up to the south shore of the Churchill at Patuanak. When I spoke to members of the Pinehouse, Patuanak, and Beauval communities opposed to nuclear waste burial they referred to a “bridge to nowhere.” I took that, at first, as a metaphor for burying such a controversial substance in the middle of Saskatchewan’s most expansive and clean fresh water treasury. But it turned out to be a very real bridge.
There are fewer than 500 people in Patuanak. It is nestled into an elbow of the Churchill at the end of the road. It is an English River First Nation community where, as in many of its neighbouring villages, housing is lacking. The community was given $6.5 million to build the bridge and open up the north shore of the river where it isn’t the low muskeg found on the south to house construction. Many have pondered the logic of spending that much for the sake of getting to a building site. The bridge is also magnificent in scale. It is doubtful that there is a road-going transport in the country that would stress the weight limit on the Willow Heart Bridge.
Some locals, especially those who work with the Committee for Future Generations (CFG) that opposes nuclear waste burial, point out that the bridge leads directly to the large tract of wilderness that is regarded by some as an ideal location for an underground spent nuclear fuel dump. That purpose has not been acknowledged by anyone from industry or government. But this is one of the features of the region that strikes the outsider immediately: nothing here is taken at face value.
The beginning of this story is not the bridge. It dates to the enactment of the Federal Nuclear Fuel Waste Act of 2002. For a matter that will have significant outcomes for virtually all Canadians for thousands of years, it is a markedly short act. At its heart is the creation of what is now known as the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO). This body is entirely funded by the nuclear industry and has as its purpose to both create proposals to the federal government for the disposal of nuclear fuel waste and strike agreements with Canadian communities who agree to host the disposal sites. Patuanak and nearby Pinehouse Lake are such communities.
Since 2011, NWMO has been a very present agent in the Patuanak/Pinehouse landscape. With its assistance and participation, each of the villages has created a Community Liaison Committee (CLC) to facilitate the gathering and dissemination of information regarding everything from nuclear science to civic law. The CLC is, by one definition at least, the body that will broker the community’s acceptance of spent nuclear fuel burial. It is a democratic consensus builder, if you like, in an ideal and unlikely case. Unlikely if for no other reason than that, as many critics have pointed out, the process is being created as it unfolds and committee members are learning as they go. In one recorded CLC meeting from 2012, a question referenced a demand from community members for disinterested experts to review the assurances that nuclear waste burial is safe. The chair of the committee then asked, “What does third party really mean?”
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