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Radioactive waste and Indigenous consent

You have heard this story before: an extractive industry is looking to dump toxic waste near an Indigenous community. This time, it’s radioactive waste that persists for tens of thousands of years. The nuclear industry has been raking in billions while trampling on community health, Indigenous rights and cultures every step along the nuclear power generation process.

Uranium mining has already displaced Indigenous peoples and contaminated their territories

Uranium mine and mill tailings constitute the largest volume of radioactive waste in Canada. Saskatchewan is home to vast reserves of uranium, and all of Canada’s current uranium mines are located in northern SK. Many of these mining operations displaced Cree and Dene people from their homes and territories, reported  MiningWatch Canada. “The environmental effects of uranium mining include the contamination of ground water with dissolved metals and radioactive materials, dispersal of radioactive dust, and releases of radioactive gas into the air. When uranium ore is processed, 85% of the radioactivity is left behind in the tailings, and must be managed safely for hundreds of thousands of years.”

Candyce Paul, a community leader of English River First Nation, said in an interview that “the entire bioregion of northern Saskatchewan has been irreversibly damaged by the colonialist economy and uranium mining industry.” Nearby uranium mines, Dene communities report radioactive dust lingering in the air, effluent escaping into the waterways, local fish contaminated, and community health in peril. “The consultation process is farcical,” said Paul. The industry failed to provide First Nations with the resources and time necessary, disregarded traditional knowledge, and conducted meetings behind closed doors and signed agreements without consulting the community. For their work against nuclear waste storage in Saskatchewan, Candyce Paul and the Committee for Future Generations was awarded the 2012-2013 Saskatchewan Eco-Network Environmental Activist Award, and in 2013 received the Council of Canadians Activists of the Year award.

The community of Elliot Lake, Ontario suffered a similar fate. Once a mining boomtown dubbed the Uranium Capital of the World, Elliot Lake and the nearby Serpent River First Nation are still reeling from the impacts of the extractive industry. During the height of the uranium industry, hundreds of miners contracted lung cancer from inhaling the toxic dust, but none knew how dangerous that dust was until 1974. A 2008 report by the Serpent River First Nations revealed that “Serpent River First Nation has and still experiences severe detriment and unmitigated environmental, health, social, cultural, and economic impacts from uranium mining, milling and tailing disposal. Serpent River Watershed still holds several million tons of radioactive uranium tailings…[and] these radioactive tailings are still affecting the traditional livelihoods of our community members and the ecosystems that rely on the waterways to survive.”

Indigenous concerns still ignored by nuclear industry while processing uranium into fuel

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has recently approved a 10-year relicensing application by Cameco for their refinery and incinerator in Blind River, ON, despite clear testimonies of environmental racism, long-term health concerns, and violation of Indigenous cultural rights of the Mississaugi First Nation, located less than 1 kilometre from the facility.

As part of the hearing leading up to the relicensing decision, Nokomis Zhaawanaankwod Ikwe Joan Morningstar from Mississaugi First Nation addressed human health concerns arising from the historic operation of the Cameco plant, and a public health expert has called for a community health study. She also drew attention to the removal from their traditional territory of historical items and other violations of their cultural rights. Despite all these concerns, in February 2022, CNSC approved Cameco’s application.

Racism, poverty and radioactive waste

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization, an organization representing the nuclear industry, is in the process of identifying a willing community to store the highest-level radioactive waste produced –the spent fuel from nuclear reactors. Both settlers and First Nations communities have reported that the NWMO uses predatory and divisive tactics to pressure communities to accept the nuclear storage site in their community.

“For three years, from 2010 – 2013, The Nuclear Waste Management Organization vigorously promoted its agenda to locate a radioactive waste repository in the Pinehouse region. By pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into that effort, NWMO and its paid local agents succeeded in sowing deep divisions among the local residents, who were torn between genuine, long-term environmental concerns and the promises of short-term, boom-town economic growth offered by the nuclear industry,” reported Briarpatch Magazine.

Currently, two candidate sites are still in the running as a location for the Deep Geological Repository, The Revell Park area west of Ignace, which is the traditional territory of Anishinabe, including some Saulteaux, Peoples, and the area just north of Teeswater in the amalgamated municipality of South Bruce, which is the unceded traditional territory of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation.

Since 2010 – the NWMO has spent more than $3 million in Ignace and is also making connections with nine area First Nation communities and councils. Meanwhile, Grassy Narrows First Nations have not been meaningfully engaged in the process, although the proposed DGR is in the headwaters of the Wabigoon River, which flows through the heart of their community. The community is still fighting for justice after mercury was dumped in the river over 60 years ago, destroying their ecosystem, health and way of life. Grassy Narrows has told the NWMO and the federal government that they will never accept this nuclear waste dump.

The Saugeen Ojibway Nation (SON) has not responded directly to the DGR proposal on their territory, but in 2020, the community voted down a similar proposal for a nuclear at the Bruce nuclear power plant near Kincardine, Ontario. “We were not consulted when the nuclear industry was established in our territory,” SON said in a statement. “Over the past 40 years, nuclear power generation in Anishnaabekiing has had many impacts on our communities, and our land and waters.”

Radioactive waste is created at every step of uranium mining and milling, processing and refinery, and nuclear power generation. Throughout Canada’s history of nuclear exploitation, the government and the industry have ignored, undermined or outright deceived Indigenous Peoples. Today, government and the nuclear industry continue to violate Indigenous rights, whether by directly committing environmental racism or through manipulation and divisive tactics.

The federal government has only recently embarked on the process to modernize its policy for radioactive waste management and decommissioning. However, the draft policy pays little more than lip service to our obligations to get free, prior, and informed consent from Indigenous Peoples. The policy must acknowledge the historical injustice and its impacts on affected communities and give specific and fulsome guidance for protecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

No community can be said to have given free, prior and informed consent if they do not have access to the necessary information to understand the subject they are being asked to decide upon. We need an independent, arms-length, regulatory and oversight agency, mandated by a federal policy that ensures communities are consulted, informed, and protected. It must ensure that communities have the capacity to take part in technical reviews, and ultimately allow refusal to accept the waste, including its through-transport.

The federal government is about to update its policy on radioactive waste for the first time in over 20 years. They’re accepting comments on the Draft policy for Radioactive Waste Management and Decommissioning until April 2, 2022.

Written with research and compilation from chapter activists Ann Pohl and Marilyn Hay