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Radioactive Waste

Algonquin First Nations standing firm to prevent a giant radioactive waste mound next to the Ottawa River in their unceded traditional territory

It’s been a long seven years since the multinational corporations that run Chalk River Laboratories on behalf of the federal government came up with a plan to build a radioactive waste dump, known as the Near Surface Disposal Facility (NSDF). The Chalk River property on the shores of the Ottawa River has been accumulating a mix of radioactive and other toxic wastes since 1945. Seventy years later, in 2015, the federal government contracted SNC-Lavalin and its partners to get rid of the $8 billion mess as quickly and cheaply as possible through their wholly-owned subsidiary, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories.

CNL’s plan for the NSDF involves dumping radioactive, contaminated soil, old buildings and equipment – not only those currently at Chalk River but others brought from federal nuclear sites in Manitoba and Québec – in a 1 million cubic metre mound, seven stories high, and covering it with layers of synthetic material, sand, rockfill, and soil. CNL says the mound will protect the environment for over 500 years. But who knows what corporate or government players will be around in even a hundred years to take responsibility for the results?

The Ottawa River (Kichi Sibi) is a Canadian Heritage River that flows past Parliament Hill. For all people in its watershed, the river has inexpressible value as a source of life for humans and all living things. For the Algonquin Anishinaabeg, who have lived in this territory since time immemorial, the Kichi Sibi is a living sacred being.

Five of the federally-recognized Algonquin First Nations who hold Indigenous title to their original and unsurrendered homelands – one in Ontario and four in Quebec – have been very active on the proposed NSDF. The project proponent, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), and the nuclear regulator began direct communication with one of the Algonquin First Nations during the environmental assessment process, after the site and design were chosen. However, four of the First Nations were not consulted at all until more than five years after the process began. This is considered much too late by the First Nations, and some legal experts say it demonstrates a failure of the Crown to uphold its duty to consult Indigenous Peoples on decisions affecting their treaty rights.

For the past two years, the Algonquin Anishinaabeg peoples have been expressing deep concerns about the proposal to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), which regulates the nuclear industry for the federal government. On June 2nd, 2022, in the midst of a five-day final licensing hearing for the NSDF, the CNSC heard a full day of deputations from the Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn, Kebaowek First Nation (KFN), Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation (KZA), Mitchikanibikok Inik (the Algonquins of Barriere Lake), and Wolf Lake First Nation regarding both the proposal and the process for consultation. The Kitchissippi–Ottawa Valley Chapter of the Council of Canadians also spoke as allies on the issue of Duty to Consult.

After the hearing, the CNSC took the unprecedented step of deferring its approval to allow further engagement and consultation with Kebaowek FN and Kitigan Zibi. On June 27th, 2023, there will be another “final” hearing (online; we will post a link here when we get one) where First Nations will speak to the CNSC on their concerns about CNL’s proposed radioactive waste mound. Both have already submitted written briefs. They make clear that the consultation process was too little, too late, and woefully inadequate. They are both also deeply concerned about the impact this dump – as currently designed and located – will have on the Kichi Sibi (Ottawa River) and all future generations of all life in and around the river.

Both Kitigan Zibi and Kebaowek FN are urging that CNL go back to the design and siting phase to allow for their free, prior and informed consent (FPIC). The need for “free, prior and informed consent” of Indigenous Peoples before radioactive waste is stored or disposed of on their land is laid out in Article 29(2) of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). In 2021, Canada affirmed UNDRIP as a universal international human rights instrument with application in Canadian law. The Assembly of First Nations has also called for free, prior and informed consent before radioactive waste is disposed of at Chalk River in a resolution passed in 2017.

Unfortunately, the NSDF proposal is just the latest example of an ongoing history of colonialism and lack of consent for nuclear projects at Chalk River. In response, the Council of Canadians is asking all allies to show their support for free, prior, and informed consent by the Algonquin Peoples in the coming weeks.

Many settler communities in the Ottawa River watershed are also concerned about the plan. The City of Ottawa passed a motion of concern in 2021, while over 140 municipalities in Ontario and Québec and the Montreal Municipal Council oppose the plan. In view of the widespread concern and likely adverse environmental effects, the CNSC’s decision on the NSDF project must be a referral to the Governor in Council (i.e., Cabinet), as directed by section 52 of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012.

Note: Find the Algonquin First Nations’ and other submissions to the CNSC regarding the NSDF plan here.

Here are six reasons to oppose this project and protect the Ottawa River, protect the environment, protect human health, and respect Canada’s obligations to First Nations peoples.

1. The proposed site is unsuitable for a dump of any kind. It is less than one kilometre from the Ottawa River, a drinking water source for millions of Canadians. The site is tornado and earthquake prone, on a major fault line. The site is partly surrounded by wetlands, heavily forested with mature trees, and the underlying bedrock is porous and fractured.

2. The mound would contain hundreds of radioactive and hazardous chemicals, and tonnes of heavy metals. Radioactive materials destined for the dump include tritium, carbon-14, strontium-90, four types of plutonium (one of the most dangerous radioactive materials if inhaled or ingested), up to 80 tonnes of uranium and a very large quantity of cobalt-60 medicinal waste that will emit intense gamma radiation requiring workers to use lead shielding. The 25 long-lived radionuclides will remain radioactive for 100,000 years.

Dioxin, PCBs, asbestos, mercury, up to 13 tonnes of arsenic and hundreds of tonnes of lead will go into the dump. It will also contain thousands of tonnes of copper and iron and 33 tonnes of aluminum, tempting scavengers to dig into the mound after closure.

3. The mound would leak radioactive and hazardous contaminants into the Ottawa River during operation and after closure. Many ways the mound would leak are described in the environmental impact statement. The mound is expected to eventually disintegrate in a process referred to as “normal evolution.”

4. There is no safe level of exposure to the radiation that would leak into the Ottawa River from the Chalk River mound. All of the escaping radioactive materials would increase risks of birth defects, genetic damage, cancer, and other chronic diseases. The International Atomic Energy Agency says radioactive wastes must be carefully stored out of the biosphere, not in an above-ground mound.

5. International safety standards do not allow landfills to be used for disposal of “low level” radioactive waste. Some of this is intermediate-level waste, not only low-level as CNL insists. Canada will shirk its international obligations as a signatory to an international nuclear waste treaty if it allows this dump to be built.

6. The giant Chalk River mound would not reduce Canada’s $8 billion federal radioactive waste liabilities and could in fact increase them. Remediation costs could exceed those of managing the wastes had they not been put in the mound.

Eva Schacherl is a member of the Ottawa chapter of the Council of Canadians. If you have any questions or would like to get involved with the Ottawa chapter, please reach out to ottawa.cofc@gmail.com.

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