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Chalk River Nuclear Waste Dump Approved Without Free Prior, Informed Consent

Chalk River nuclear waste dumps approved without free, prior, informed consent 

Last week, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission approved a controversial proposal to build a radioactive waste disposal facility at the Chalk River site in Deep River, Ontario – despite years of opposition to the project by Algonquin First Nations, environmental organizations, and Council of Canadians members and chapters. 

The project, which is proposed by the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) and referred to as a Near Surface Disposal Facility (NSDF), is situated one kilometre from the shore of the Ottawa River, on unceded, unsurrendered Algonquin territory. It involves dumping radioactive, contaminated soil, as well as old buildings and equipment, in a 1-million cubic metre mound – seven stories high – and covering it with layers of synthetic material, sand, rockfill, and soil. The material would include not only the waste from the crown-owned nuclear lab currently operating at Chalk River but also waste that will be brought in from federal nuclear sites in Manitoba and Québec. 

This glorified land fill is expected to leak, exposing the air, land, water, health, and wellbeing of all lives alongside the Ottawa River to hazardous and radioactive contaminants. Yet, in its announcement approving the project, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission found that it is “not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects.” 

Concerns about the safety and environmental impacts of the site have come from all sources. Kebaowek First Nation and Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, despite being consulted quite late in the process, managed to conduct a very thorough assessment of the proposal. Their report extensively documented the potential destruction the project would have on moose, bear, wolves, fish, freshwater wildlife, and forests, as well as on the traditional food system, way of life, and ecosystem balance that these species uphold.  

The project also threatens the drinking water of millions of people, prompting opposition from 140 municipalities on both sides of the Ottawa River, including Gatineau and Montreal. A week before the licensing approval, scientists from the Museum of Nature also raised concerns about the site’s threat to two endangered species living in the Ottawa River, the Hickorynut mussel and lake Sturgeon.  

Most notably, the NSDF received approval despite fierce opposition from Algonquin communities. In their media release, Chief Lance Haymond of Kebaowek First Nation expressed his frustration with the decision: “It is undeniable that the safety and health of people and the environment will be profoundly impacted for generations to come through this project.” Chief Casey Ratt of Mitchikanibikok Inik (Algonquins of Barriere Lake) called the approval “an act of disregard against Indigenous lands and rights.” Ten out of eleven Algonquin First Nations opposed the NSDF proposal, while Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation gave their consent and entered a formal partnership with CNL in June 2023. 

Approval was a foregone conclusion, consultation was an afterthought 

Last week’s decision did not come as a surprise to those who have been following this project, given the clear pro-industry bias and disrespect for Indigenous protocols shown by the regulator. “They always knew they wanted to do this, and they were going to do it with or without us,” said Chief Dylan Whiteduck of Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg.  

At a regulatory hearing in June 2022, five Algonquin First Nations testified that they were not adequately consulted with about the project, or did not even receive adequate correspondence. Instead of returning to the drawing board, the Commission merely extended the timeline for additional consultation and engagement with Kitigan Zibi and Kebaowek First Nations, and then went on to ignore the communities’ recommendations. During this time, the First Nations conducted an assessment outlining the impacts of the NSDF on their culture, land, water, and wildlife before arriving at the conclusion that the project must not go ahead. In the final hearing, however, the First Nations’ legal counsel Renee Pelletier commented that CNSC staff did not take any of those concerns seriously, and that they “did not change a single conclusion in their environmental assessments”. Clearly, the consultation process was merely a box-ticking exercise. 

Approving the NSDF project despite overwhelming opposition from the Algonquins also violates the United Nation Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Article 29(2) of UNDRIP states that “no storage or disposal of hazardous materials shall take place in the lands or territories of Indigenous peoples without their free, prior, and informed consent.” Chief Haymond was clear that “the duty to consult has still not been fulfilled, and therefore, no consent for this project will be given by the Algonquin nations.” Despite the clear opposition from ten out of eleven federally-recognized Algonquin First Nations, the project went ahead. 

The NSDF project is a continuation of what Kitigan Zibi and Kebaowek have called “the nuclearization of the Kichi Sibi” (Ottawa River). No Algonquin consultation or consent was sought when the Chalk River Laboratories site was constructed in 1944, and Algonquin people were dispossessed and excluded from accessing their own traditional territory. With the latest approval of the NSDF, Canada is blatantly deepening the history of dispossession, displacement, and marginalization of Algonquin peoples while paying lip service to truth and reconciliation.   

Independent regulator or a rubber stamp for industry? 

The latest licensing approval granted by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, ostensibly an independent, arm’s length regulator of the nuclear industry, further underscores the regulatory body’s track record of greenlighting every project that comes under its review. The agency is supposed to regulate the nuclear industry, yet it reports to Natural Resources Canada, the same ministry responsible for promoting nuclear development. 

The revolving door between nuclear industry and CNSC staff is hard to ignore, and we have documented them before. The current CEO of the CNSC, Rumina Velshi, previously worked for Ontario Power Generation, one of the largest owners of nuclear power plants. Algonquin chiefs Haymond and Whiteduck have also expressed their lack of confidence in the Commission, calling the CNSC “a captured regulator.” Referring to the cozy relationship between CNSC and the proponent, CNL, chief Whiteduck said: “Both your organizations … hold biased opinions and are in conflict.” As a result, the chiefs were “disappointed, but not surprised” at the Commission’s decision this week.  

The CNSC’s appearance of bias is not new. A federal review expert panel in 2017 reported that “a frequently cited concern was the perceived lack of independence and neutrality because of the close relationship the CNSC have with the industries they regulate,” and that “the term “regulatory capture” was often used.” The report critiqued both the National Energy Board and the CNSC, and while the former has undergone significant review and renewal, the latter continues to rubber stamp industry projects. 

Algonquin First Nations have made clear that they are exploring all legal options, including a judicial review, to fight this decision and stop the project in its tracks. You can follow their efforts and contribute to their legal challenge at stopnuclearwaste.com. From all corners of the Kichi Sibi and across Turtle Island, the Council of Canadians and our allies will continue to stand in solidarity with the Algonquins to protect the land, water, Indigenous rights, and wellbeing of future generations.  

The government of Canada must rescind the approval of the NSDF, clean up the Chalk River site, and develop a lasting solution for managing our radioactive waste in collaboration with Indigenous peoples. Along the way, we need a complete revitalization of the nuclear regulator to center environmental and human health and the rights, dignity, and true consent of Indigenous peoples – not the interests of the nuclear industry. 

Vi Bui

Vi Bui is the Ontario, Quebec, Nunavut Regional Organizer at the Council of Canadians.