The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) passed a resolution at its general assembly last week calling for an urgent meeting with Ottawa over nuclear waste transport and disposal decisions.
The resolution was led by Chief Lance Haymond of Kebaowek First Nation, who opposes the current proposal to build a radioactive waste disposal facility within a few hundred metres of the Ottawa River, known as the Kichi Sibi in Algonquin.
If the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission approves the site, the near-surface disposal facility would hold up to a million tonnes of radioactive and hazardous waste in a large mound. It would store low-level and intermediate radioactive waste, 90 per cent of which is from Chalk River Laboratories, a Canadian research facility that tests new nuclear technology.
Low-level radioactive waste includes contaminated equipment, such as protective shoe covers, clothing, rags, mops, equipment and tools, used at the Chalk River Laboratories, which is managed by Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, a contracted private entity owned primarily by SNC-Lavalin.
Over 400 nations are affected by Canada’s nuclear policies, Haymond told Canada’s National Observer. This makes the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) into Canadian law all the more relevant to nuclear policy, particularly around getting the free, prior and informed consent of First Nations when developing future nuclear and nuclear waste projects, he explained.
Many First Nations in the North are troubled by the prospect of nuclear waste being transported and stored on their territories and close to their waterways. For example, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization is expected to make its decision on another major waste disposal project — a deep geological repository that will house all of Canada’s used radioactive fuel rods for thousands of years — in 2024.
Two sites are proposed for the repository, both in Ontario: one in South Bruce, 180 kilometres northwest of Toronto, and one in Ignace and the surrounding area, which is 250 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation, the political organization that represents 49 First Nations in northern Ontario, has vehemently opposed building the waste facility in the North. In 2022, the organization passed a resolution stating concerns over watersheds that lead into Hudson Bay.
However, Grand Council Treaty 3, which represents the First Nations where Ignace is located, currently has relationship agreements with the Nuclear Waste Management Organization.
On the AFN resolution, Chief Lance Haymond of Kebaowek First Nation said: “It’s really to put a message out there that it's not acceptable that our territories are going to become nuclear waste dumps.”
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Comission welcomes meeting with Indigenous leaders and communities on all matters under its jurisdiction, including waste disposal and transport, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Comission said in a statement.
On the AFN resolution, Haymond said: “It’s really to put a message out there that it's not acceptable that our territories are going to become nuclear waste dumps.”
Last month, Haymond, alongside other Algonquin leaders, called out Ottawa for what they argued was a rushed consultation process given the challenges of securing funding for Indigenous-led assessments. Other critics of the process included Kitigan Zibi Chief Dylan Whiteduck, as well as grand chiefs Savanna McGregor and Lisa Robinson, who are leaders of the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council and Algonquin Nation Secretariat, respectively.
“We were only given eight months to do our work when [Canadian Nuclear Laboratories] and others were given six years,” Haymond said, referring to the consultation process over the near-surface facility.
Haymond also slammed Canadian Nuclear Laboratories for only offering one site so close to the Ottawa River.
“We weren’t even given that opportunity to propose an alternative, it was a done deal,” Haymond said. “They decided that they're going to deal with the legacy waste at Chalk River, and we've been chasing our tail ever since.”
The Algonquin leaders argued the facility's proximity to the river, which supplies water to millions, including Algonquins, is a major red flag. Ontario and Quebec gave the river the status of a Canadian Heritage River, and it holds the utmost spiritual and historical importance for the Algonquin nation.
The assessment also identified potential risks to Indigenous harvesting rights and the environment, including contamination concerns to local moose, migratory birds and fish.
An official hearing for the near-surface nuclear waste facility is scheduled for Aug. 10.
— With files from Natasha Bulowski
Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative