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Part Two: As Deep As Sheol:

Sheol, for those not familiar with Old Testament terminology, is the underworld, the place where departed spirits went (the domain of the dead). In those days they believed heaven was above the world, and that Sheol was located beneath. It was a shadowy place where the spirits seemed to live some half-life existence. The quote “As High as Heaven and as deep as Sheol” is from a psalm talking about there being no where that God could not be found – whether we looked as high as heaven or as deep under the world as Sheol, God would be there. It was meant as a comforting thought.

My second fear – enclosed spaces – includes places such as tunnels, mines, caves etc. I don’t know what went on in my mother’s womb, but I have no desire to return, thank you very much Mr.Freud and friends!

While ADM in Industry , Trade and Mines I had some responsibilities for the development of local industries. it was this responsibility that led me deep beneath the ground!

Manitoba’s prairie ends about 90 km east of Winnipeg. The land transitions into the Precambrian Shield. This is a huge granite deposit with boreal forests and thousands of lakes. The granite deposits are some of the oldest rocks in creation and the area is considered one of the most geologically stable in the world.

The biggest problem with nuclear energy is what to do with spent fuel rods. These remain radio-active for thousands of years. AECL (Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.) built a research facility in Manitoba in the Precambrian Shield near Pinawa. One of the research areas they undertook was to determine if it would be safe to bury spent fuel rods deep underground, inside huge caverns drilled into the granite.

In the 1990s it was decided that all AECL research would be located in Chalk River, Ontario and the research reactor and fuel disposal research centre in Manitoba would be closed. This was a blow to the local area and Manitoba in general as the facility provided employment for many scientists and engineers. It also attracted spin-offs related to the research.

A few colleagues and I were sent out to view the facilities to determine if there was a way they could be used to attract new industry once AECL left or help convince AECL that they should keep the research facility open. Manitoba had passed a law declaring the province to be a nuclear-free zone. We have more than enough hydro-electric capacity that we don’t need nuclear energy. This position probably didn’t endear the province to AECL.

Enough background – onto the fun stuff.

There were two parts to our tour – the nuclear reactor research facility – no problem there, just put on this special suit, these special boots, hats and goggles and have a peek inside. “We will scan you when you come out to make sure you won’t glow in the dark – ha ha ha.” There is something about being inside a reactor facility that just doesn’t feel right. There is a primitive sense of it being wrong – a tangible evil.

But that was ok, I could handle that. It was the next part of the tour that had me getting the collie-wobbles. We were to go down into the pit – way below the surface, right deep inside the granite rock. This was basically a mining operation, except instead of mining for material, they had created huge caverns deep inside the granite with special shafts with containers simulating encapsulated spent fuel rods. There were no actual fuel rods placed in the facility and AECL claimed it never intended to use this facility for actual storage – it was all in order to test the safety of potential depositories.

We were taken into a shed-like facility and given a safety talk. We would be going down to two levels, the deepest being 600 meters or so below the surface. We were shown a map of where emergency exit shafts were located with ladders should there be a major problem with the elevator.  Oh sure, climb a series of ladders up 600+ meters. That should be easy! We then were fitted with miners hats with lights on the front – “Just in case the power goes out – there is no natural light down there”.  I forget how long the battery packs for the helmet lights lasted.  “Could I go back on the helicopter please?”

We were marched into the cage, next to the winch room – it didn’t look like an elevator to me. It had no sides! As it was wound down into the shaft and gathered speed the rock face went rushing by inches from my nose. It’s times like this I wish I had a smaller nose.

It was dark and creaky going down.

When we arrived at the first level the cage opened out into a huge cavern. It was well-lit and absolutely beautiful. We all gasped. It was so magnificent I forgot my fears. To be truthful, this was no small enclosed space – it was like being in a cathedral.

AECL had developed some specialized means of boring into the granite so that the tunnels were curved and the granite surfaces very smooth. Can you imagine being in a huge domed area made entirely from your granite counter top?

Sounds echoed from the smooth rounded walls and ceiling. Yet there was a sense we should be whispering in this place.

We had our tour and saw the different ways they had stored materials and the precise monitoring equipment providing the research data. The AECL scientists and engineers seemed quite convinced that this would prove to be the way spent fuel rods would be stored. The trick would be to find a government willing to let them put it in their back yard.

We descended to the deepest part of the experimental area and once again were overwhelmed by the beauty. It was incredible to actually be inside a gigantic core of granite. I was staggered by the enormity of the space and the mind-boggling tons of rock that surrounded us. Yet I didn’t feel claustrophobic or anxious. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

Eventually it was time to leave and we made the less pleasant journey back to the surface, all of us very quiet, deep in thought.

I had hoped we could convince the authorities and AECL to make the facility into a tourist adventure. I am convinced people would have come from far away to see this magnificent underground structure.  But governments worry a lot about safety and treasury board analysts can think up the most unlikely scenarios. AECL just wanted to be out of there. So, the location was treated like any other abandoned mine with all the ensuing closing regulations. You can no longer go down as deep as Sheol near Pinawa, Manitoba, and a beautiful attraction and opportunity has been lost forever.

All that remains now is the very pleasant village of Pinawa, situated on the banks of the Winnipeg River with a population with one of the highest IQs in Canada – many AECL scientists and engineers retired there. To learn more about Pinawa click here