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Feds approve nuclear waste disposal facility

by Sophie Kuijper Dickson
Pontiac
Jan. 9, 2023
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) has approved the construction of a disposal facility for radioactive waste at the site of the nuclear research station in Deep River, Ont.
The near surface disposal facility (NSDF) will be built just over a kilometre from the Ottawa River, about 10 kilometres upstream from Sheenboro, on unceded Algonquin territory.
The proponent, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), says the facility will be used to dispose of up to one million cubic metres of low-level radioactive waste created by decades of nuclear research at the site.
About 90 per cent of the waste to be stored in the facility is currently sitting above ground at Chalk River. It includes rags, mops and clothing that have been exposed to radiation, and contaminated soil and debris from decommissioning old buildings.
“After careful consideration of all submissions and perspectives received throughout the multi-year hearing process, the Commission concluded that the NSDF Project is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects,” the CNSC said in a press release announcing the decision last week.
The approval came after several public hearings during which dozens of groups, including municipalities, First Nations, and environmental protection organizations, expressed significant concerns regarding the proximity of the site to the Ottawa River, the long-term management of the facility, and the lack of consent from 10 of the 11 federally recognized Algonquin communities with unceded claims to the territory.
Mayors in the MRC Pontiac were among the dissidents of this proposal. In 2021, the Council of Mayors unanimously adopted a resolution that requested the federal government move the site away from the Ottawa River
“In the event of radionuclides and/or hazardous waste stored at the facility seeping into the Ottawa River, our population will suffer an irreparable impact on both their health and the health of the Ottawa River. We cannot take this risk for our present generation, but also for future generations,” said MRC Pontiac Warden Jane Toller in a press release following the announcement.
Sheenboro is the Pontiac municipality closest to where the waste will be stored.
When asked for her opinion on the approval, the municipality’s mayor Doris Ranger said she had no comment.
For its part, the commission concluded the design of the waste facility to be “robust, supported by a strong safety case, able to meet its required design life, and sufficient to withstand severe weather events, seismic activity, and the effects of climate change,” according to its press release.
The review of the proposal first began in 2016. Now that the facility is approved, construction will take about three years. CNL will have to apply for another license to run the facility once it is constructed.
Environmental concerns
The proximity of the site to the Ottawa River has many concerned about what will happen if the facility fails to contain the radioactive waste and leaks it into the river, the source of drinking water for over six million people.
“What struck me was the ‘not likely to,’” said Deborah Powell, president of local volunteer-based group Pontiac Environmental Protection.

“Obviously the consequences of the ‘not-likely’ turning into an ‘it actually did’ are extremely serious when you have an [waste facility] that’s located so close to the Ottawa River. Alternative locations were not examined sufficiently, and that’s a point you’ll find all sorts of people making.”
According to CNL, this facility would contain the waste for some 500 years, giving the radioactive elements within it enough time to decay to environmentally safe levels before the mound would start breaking down, releasing the waste into the environment.
This waste mound will hold many long-living radionuclides, including uranium, plutonium and thorium, as well as radionuclides with shorter half-lives, like tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen that binds with water and is very difficult to remove.
CNL says that while the maximum level of tritium to be released is high, in fact fifty times higher than drinking level standards, they will be well below the level under which tritium is expected to have no effects on biota.
But Algonquin communities and researchers with the Canadian Museum of Nature are not convinced this will be harmless.
Kebaowek First Nation has spent the past year doing research on the ground at the site of the proposed waste facility to understand how it might affect or endanger already at-risk species.
“We’ve been able to show that a number of species at risk are going to be impacted. Whether they’re protected by the Ontario government or federally protected,” said Justin Roy, Kebaowek’s consultation coordinator.
He listed the black bear, the Canadian warbler, the black ash tree, the hickorynut muscle and the ancient lake sturgeon as just a few of the at-risk species Kebaowek documented on the site that might be affected by the nuclear waste mound.
A study conducted by researchers at the Canadian Museum of Nature also raised the alarms when it comes to how nuclear waste might affect the muscle and the lake sturgeon.
Researchers said the waste could harm the “delicate balance” between these two species that keeps both of them alive, the CBC reported earlier this month.
Roy said there are plans underway amongst opponents to the facility to file for a judicial review of the CNSC’s decision.
Sophie Chatel, Liberal Member of Parliament for Pontiac, said she understands these concerns, but that most pressing for her is that the waste is currently sitting above ground.
“I’m not an expert but the commissioners are independent and their job was to assess the impact on human safety and environment. They concluded it is safe for humans, for biodiversity, for nature, and that it won’t have any significant impacts. That I find reassuring,” Chatel said.
“Right now there is nuclear waste that is unprotected and we need to secure it for the protection of our community.”
Consultation frustrations
Chatel said she is frustrated communities were never consulted on alternative sites for the waste mound.
“We’re all unhappy about the situation that there’s nuclear waste at Chalk River. We can be upset but it’s there and we need to deal with that,” she said.
“We could have collectively decided that there’s no better option out there. But we could not reach that conclusion together because it was not part of the consultation process.”
The consultation process was a big sticking point for the Algonquin First Nations on whose unceded territory this waste facility will be built.
Like MP Chatel, many were frustrated they were only consulted after a site for the facility had been chosen.
At the final licensing hearing in August, Kebaowek and Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nations reiterated a point they had made at previous hearings – that consultation had been insufficient, and had come after most of the decisions had been made.
Roy expressed frustrations that at the Aug. 10 hearings, Kebaowek did not receive a single question from commissioners following its presentation of a year of research it had done into the potential environmental and rights impacts of the nuclear waste facility.
“That was just more writing on the wall that we’re just a checkbox. They’re listening, but they’re not listening,” Roy said.
“I don’t know how they can say that the duty to consult has been met unless the CNSC believes that informing and listening is meeting that duty to consult,” he added.
Only one community, the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation, consented to the nuclear waste facility going ahead, signing a long-term relationship agreement with CNL in June 2023.
Beyond concerns surrounding the duty to consult, the First Nations have also said if CNSC approves a license for constructing this facility it will be violating the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP).
UNDRIP is not currently legally binding in Canada, but the federal government is on track to adopting it as law.
The CNSC declined THE EQUITY’s request for an interview regarding its interpretation of its duty to consult, but the commission’s final decision explains that because UNDRIP is not yet law, the commission is not empowered to determine how to implement it and must instead be guided by current consultation law.
Beyond this, the commission states that “the focus is on the process and whether reasonable efforts were made, and not on the substantive outcome.”
Chatel said she has no plans to challenge this decision, but does plan to speak with the Minister of Natural Resources to begin a process of shifting all decision-making regarding nuclear waste back into the hands of the federal government and away from the private sector.
“Nuclear waste management is a moral, ethical issue, and I think that belongs to the government,” she said.
A House of Commons petition started by Ole Hendrickson, founder of Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area, and sponsored by Chatel, called for the federal government to pause any licensing decision until Canada’s UNDRIP obligations were met, and requested a review from an international nuclear oversight body.
The petition had received 3,127 signatures from people across the country by the time it closed on Jan. 10, more than six times the amount needed to trigger a response from the federal government.

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