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Don’t let the nuclear industry decide how to manage radioactive waste

Radioactive waste lasts for an exceptionally long time. High-level waste, such as the spent fuel rods left behind after nuclear power generation, remains extremely dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years. Yet, current oversight over the nuclear industry and the management of radioactive waste are no match for the serious risks that this waste poses.

The regulator is captured by the nuclear industry

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) is the body responsible for regulating the nuclear industry. However, the CNSC is widely regarded as a “capture regulator.” It reports to Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), but this ministry actively promotes nuclear power. For decades, the federal policy guiding the disposal of nuclear waste was less than half a page long. The federal government is modernizing the policy on radioactive waste management, but unfortunately this process is led by NRCan.

The public has long raised flags about the shortcomings of the CNSC as a regulator. A federal review expert panel reports that “a frequently cited concern was the perceived lack of independence and neutrality because of the close relationship the NEB and CNSC have with the industries they regulate,” and that “the term “regulatory capture” was often used.” In fact, the CNSC has never failed to approve a license for the nuclear industry, even when serious concerns have been raised about environmental racism and community health impacts, threats to the water and air quality, or lack of financial transparency.

There has been a revolving door between the CNSC and the nuclear industry. The current CEO of the CNSC, Rumina Velshi, previously worked for Ontario Power Generation, one of the largest owners of nuclear power plants. Under Minister Seamus O’Regan, NRCan aggressively pushed for the development of small modular nuclear reactors, or SMRs, as a climate solution – despite their unproven track record. During this process, the CNSC was caught secretly lobbying on behalf of the nuclear industry, calling the government to exempt SMRs from a full environmental impact review to allow faster commercialization of these projects.

The nuclear industry decides how to dispose of its waste

Proposals around how and where to dispose of radioactive waste come from the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO). The organization was established twenty years ago by the three provincial utilities that operate nuclear power stations, as well as the former crown corporation, Atomic Energy Canada Limited. The NWMO’s proposed solution for the most dangerous radioactive waste, the spent fuel from nuclear reactor cores, is to bury it in a deep hole – a Deep Geological Repository.

The NWMO is also responsible for developing a plan to transport that high level waste to the storage site, and they have proposed highly controversial and risky options, ranging from shipping the waste across the Great Lakes to trucking it through highly populated communities. In other words, the polluters – through the NWMO – call the shots and the CNSC rubber stamp their approval.

In 2021, NRCan announced two concurrent processes, one to modernize the federal radioactive waste policy and another to task the NWMO with developing an integrated strategy for low- and medium-level radioactive waste. These parallel processes cast doubt on the legitimacy of the consultation and federal policy development, as the strategy should come after the federal policy has been developed. On top of that, we see more revolving doors between the nuclear industry and its regulator: the person in charge of the NWMO’s “integrated strategy” development is the former lead of CNSC’s wastes and decommissioning division.

Letting the industry decide the strategy severely damages public trust. Many community groups have chosen to boycott the consultation process around the integrated strategy because they do not trust an industry-driven process to reflect their concerns. The NWMO, representing the polluters, should never be allowed to write a strategy that they themselves will later implement.

The management of radioactive waste is privatized

In 2014, the Harper government privatized two crown corporations responsible for managing radioactive waste, Chalk River Laboratories (CRL) and the Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL). They are now owned by a consortium, called CNL (Canadian Nuclear Laboratories), consisting of SNC-Lavalin and two Texas-based companies. CNL then proposed the Near-Surface Disposal Facility, a million-cubic meter of low-to-intermediate radioactive waste dump on the shore of the Ottawa River. The proposal has received fierce opposition from First Nations and downstream communities for its unsafe design, environmental and health hazards, and lack of transparency. The Council of Canadians chapters in the Ottawa area have been actively opposing this proposal. Like most government-owned, contractor-operated projects, the public still bears all the risk should the project fail.

It’s time for an independent, arm’s length oversight body

Radioactive waste comes with tremendous health and environmental risks that extend beyond our perceivable timeline. Yet, for decades, we have allowed the nuclear industry to generate massive amounts of it with little accountability. As a result, communities are bearing the brunt of the impacts, public trust is eroded, while future generations are left with an intractable problem. We urgently need an independent, arm’s length oversight body free to regulate radioactive waste management without industry influence.

Natural Resource Canada has released its draft federal policy on radioactive waste. However, it still relies on the nuclear industry to develop the waste strategies themselves.

The federal government is accepting comments on their draft policy by April 2. Add your comment today and demand an independent oversight body free from industry influence to regulate our radioactive waste.

Written with research and compilation from many Council of Canadians chapter activists