Three citizens’ groups are asking the Federal Court to review the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC)’s regulatory approval of what one expert calls a “glorified landfill” to permanently store a million tonnes of radioactive and other toxic waste just one kilometre from the Ottawa River.
The CNSC’s decision last month had already reignited opposition from First Nations and citizens groups, all of them demanding the government halt the project.
At the heart of their concern is the safety of the river, a vital drinking water source for millions of people, which could become contaminated if the facility were to leak radioactive waste.
Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area, Ralliement contre la pollution radioactive, and the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility (CCNR) anounced the court challenge in a release [pdf] this morning. They ask the court to review what they see as the regulator’s failure to adequately consider a series of factors, including excessive radiation doses from the “near surface disposal facility” (NSDF) at Chalk River, insufficient information from project proponent Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) on the waste the facility will receive, and provisions that would allow CNL to exceed its waste acceptance criteria, making its safety claims a “fiction”.
“In our view, the Commission’s decision to license the giant radioactive waste mound, one kilometre from the Ottawa River, is a serious mistake,” Concerned Citizens spokesperson Lynn Jones said in the release. “The mound is designed to last only 550 years, while much of the waste that would go into it will remain hazardous and radioactive for thousands of years.”
First proposed in 2016, the low-level radioactive waste project has faced strong opposition from nearby municipalities, First Nations, and nuclear safety groups over the course of several years of assessment, consultation, and revision. Still, on January 9, the CNSC amended the license of site operator CNL, granting permission to build a NSDF that would store contaminated soil, industrial radiation sources, and radioactive demolition debris in a 25-metre-high stack of lined and covered disposal cells.
“The commission found that its design was ‘robust,’ and that it ‘is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects’ including harms to fish, birds and Indigenous peoples, provided CNL abides by certain mitigation and monitoring requirements,” reported the Globe and Mail.
CCNR President Gordon Edwards rejected this evaluation. “It is essentially a glorified landfill operation, open to the air for the first 50 years, with an operational lifetime as a licenced facility of about 500 years,” he said [pdf] in a release. Over that time frame, “leakage is inevitable.”
“Eventually, through erosion, as well as human and non-human intrusions (e.g. digging, construction activities, excavation), or the actions of burrowing animals, tree roots, tornados, flooding, earthquakes, much of this toxic material will end up in the river,” Edwards added.
First Nations Decry Lack of Consultation
The site’s proximity to the Ottawa River—and potential impacts on black bear dens and other species such as the eastern wolf and peregrine falcon—are also a concern for the Kebaowek First Nation, reported CBC News. Kebaowek is one of the 10 Algonquin communities in Quebec that oppose the project over environmental concerns.
“Through this entire process, we feel like we’ve been only given lip service,” Kebaowek Chief Lance Haymond said January 23. “We believe the government should stop this project if it is serious about reconciliation and doing things differently with First Nations.”
Before construction can begin, CNL must obtain a permit from Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) under Section 73 of the Species at Risk Act (SARA). The Kebaowek First Nation has asked ECCC and Minister Steven Guilbeault to include the community in consultations on the SARA permit approval, CBC writes.
“We have committed to continue every effort to stop this project,” said Haymond.
On January 29, Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak issued a statement calling the facility’s approval “a step back in the progress that has been made towards reconciliation.”
“It is essential that the Government of Canada fully and directly consult with the Chiefs of the Algonquin Nations before making any further decisions that could adversely affect their lives, livelihood, or way of life,” she said.
Mistrusting the Regulator
In a February 5 open letter, a group of concerned residents from Ontario and Quebec reopened the call for Ottawa to halt the NSDF. It expressed a high level of mistrust of the regulatory agency CNSC and of the builder, CNL, which is owned by a consortium of three multinationals.
“Statements from the proponent and the regulator that the wastes are ‘only low level’ do not stand up to scrutiny,” wrote the signatories, including Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area, Éric Notebaert of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, and CCNR’s Edwards.
“Independent experts say the wastes are heavily contaminated with long-lived radioactive materials produced in nuclear reactors,” the letter states. “These materials are hazardous and can cause cancer, birth defects, and genetic mutations.”
The letter says waste from research facilities like the Chalk River Laboratories, which will be included in the NSDF, usually belongs to the “intermediate level” waste class and, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, must be stored underground, at least tens of metres below the surface.
Edwards said he considers the CNSC a “captured regulator,” citing the 2016 report of a federal expert panel on impact assessment reform. “A frequently cited concern was the perceived lack of independence and neutrality” because of the “close relationship” between the CNSC and the industries it regulates, the panel said.
On its website, the CNSC describes itself as “an independent administrative tribunal set up at arm’s length from government, without ties to the nuclear industry.” But the high level of suspicion about its means and motives, from Indigenous groups who have felt unheard, citizen activists who question the contents and the origins of the waste, and a nuclear safety expert who doubts the commission’s ability to assess the NSDF, point to community engagement problems that persist despite years of consultation.
No ‘Safe’ Level of Exposure
Edwards rejected CNL’s contention that it has come up with an acceptable design to store the waste the site is meant to contain. He said tritium, a weakly radioactive but highly mobile isotope of hydrogen and the second-most abundant constituent of the NSDF waste inventory in terms of radioactivity (even though it represents less than 1% of the waste by volume), will pose a completely preventable health risk, if or when it leaks.
A much better strategy would be to store tritium in steel drums, as nuclear operators do during reactor refurbishment, Edwards said. The drums could be stored in a vault away from the river, not in an “earthen mound.”
Tritium is “mostly harmless outside the body, but dangerous on contact with the eyes or when inhaled, ingested, or absorbed into the body through the skin or otherwise,” he told The Energy Mix.
“It will leak into the Ottawa River in the form of radioactive water molecules,” he added, while “some tritium will also escape into the atmosphere as radioactive water vapour, which may eventually come to Earth as radioactive rain, radioactive snow, or radioactive condensation (dew).”
CNSC and CNL maintain that tritium leakage is not a significant risk. Edwards countered that, just as there is no “acceptable” number of cigarettes you can smoke, there is no “acceptable” level of chronic exposure to the isotope, which is classified as a carcinogen.
Edwards added that CNL’s plans for tritium as a symptom of a larger problem: that the mound’s design is “based on convenience”.
“There are many much more toxic materials that are not as mobile as tritium going into the dump,” he said. Based on CNL’s inventory, 19 of the 31 radionuclides going into the NSDF have half-lives of more than 1,000 years, and 12 of them have half-lives of more than 15,000 years. A half-life is the period of time it takes for a radioactive element to lose half of its radioactivity, and the most toxic of the elements must go through 10 half-lives (totalling 240,000 years for the longest-lived form of plutonium) before they’re considered safe.
“Unlike tritium, some radionuclides to be included in the dump remain dangerous for many millennia,” Edwards said. And as Canada’s first permanent radioactive waste facility, this plan is setting a very bad precedent.