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Approval of a contentious radioactive waste facility in Deep River, Ont., is bringing flaws in Canada’s nuclear waste management to the fore, say area politicians.

The waste facility will be at Chalk River Laboratories, about 190 kilometres northwest of Ottawa. When complete, it will resemble a large grassy mound and hold up to one million cubic metres of low-level radioactive waste. Located about one kilometre from the Ottawa River, the project has met with opposition at every step of the regulatory process.

In the days after the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) greenlit the project, some municipal and federal politicians highlighted issues with the systems and institutions that deal with Canada’s nuclear waste.

Their concerns are rooted in privatization, legislation, perceived conflicts of interest and radioactive waste governance structures.

Liberal MP Sophie Chatel, whose Quebec riding is across from Chalk River Laboratories, says she is disappointed with the process and is now working with Indigenous communities to improve it with legislative updates.

The Chalk River waste facility was opposed by a majority of Algonquin Nations, the Assembly of First Nations, more than 140 municipalities, environmental organizations and concerned citizens, largely because of its position near the Ottawa River, which supplies drinking water to millions of people downstream.

“My biggest frustration through all of that is not having the ability to debate alternatives,” Chatel emphasized. This “legislative framework flop,” as Chatel calls it, occurred because the safety commission does not have the authority to examine other sites.

“Perhaps there were better alternatives, perhaps not. But we would never know because the consultation was on a single project,” Chatel told Canada’s National Observer in a phone interview last week.

Liberal MP Sophie Chatel stands beside Canadian Nuclear Laboratories president and CEO Joe McBrearty during a tour of Chalk River Laboratories. Photo submitted by Sophie Chatel

“When a private company is making a submission for a project involving the management of nuclear waste, I think the commissioner should have broader power to look at alternatives and the CNSC should have the mandate to do environmental impact assessments of these alternatives,” said Chatel. “And then together, as a community and with Indigenous (people), we decide on what is the best site, not the private sector.”

Because nuclear waste management is a question of safety, as well as a moral and ethical issue, the government — not the private sector — should lead decisions on where waste storage facilities are built, said @SophieChatel1

Chatel intends to ask Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson to update Canada’s Nuclear Safety and Control Act, so going forward, regulators can do environmental impact assessments for alternative sites and ensure First Nations have a bigger role in these decisions, as stipulated by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Chatel and other politicians also want to reverse the Harper government’s decision to privatize some nuclear waste management decisions.

Harper-era privatization

Chalk River Laboratories was once run by the Crown corporation Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL). In 2015, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government turned it into a government-owned, contractor-operated model. Harper also sold AECL’s Candu reactor business to a division of SNC-Lavalin for $15 million.

Black and white photo of an old nuclear research facility
Chalk River Laboratories in 1945. Photo from the National Research Council of Canada archives

Today, day-to-day operations for Chalk River Laboratories and other AECL-owned sites are contracted out to Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, owned by a private consortium comprised of AtkinsRéalis — formerly SNC-Lavalin — and two Texas-based multinationals: Fluor and Jacobs.

The SNC-Lavalin scandal tarnished the engineering giant's name, but divisions of the Montreal-based company have a firm grip on Canada’s nuclear industry, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said at a press conference in April.

“This is the same company that can't run a railway in Ottawa,” said May. “So the question is: ‘What could go wrong?’ Just about everything.”

The Crown corporation website says the government-owned, contractor-operated model lets it use private sector expertise “to achieve the best possible outcomes” for waste management and Chalk River Laboratories’ operations “all while reducing costs and risks to the people of Canada.”

Some politicians believe the private sector shouldn’t be in charge of safely managing Canada’s radioactive waste.

“There's going to be one million cubic metres of radioactive waste that's going to be around for 500 years next to the water source of millions of people, so we can't take this lightly,” said Maja Vodanovic, mayor of the Montreal borough Lachine.

“We have to have some kind of surveillance over this. We can't leave it to a private enterprise.”

Because nuclear waste management is a question of safety, as well as a moral and ethical issue, the government — not the private sector — should lead decisions on where waste storage facilities are built, said Chatel.

According to Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, the majority of the low-level radioactive waste is soil and debris from decommissioned buildings, along with some contaminated equipment, such as protective shoe covers, clothing, rags and equipment. Some industry experts, environmental groups and citizens warn that intermediate-level waste will likely end up in the mound.

Vodanovic is particularly troubled that there’s no independent body to verify what is going into the disposal facility. “It is going to be the consortium that produces the waste that is going to be controlling what goes into the cells.

“There's a conflict of interest that's obvious here” because private companies want to spend as little money as possible, she said.

In the private sector, there's “significant savings in not being rigorous in separating the waste,” said Chatel. “I just want to make sure that there's no temptation to do that, and that's the role of the government: to make sure that ethical and moral decisions are taken.”

In 2022, Bloc Québécois MP Monique Pauzé prompted the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development to study nuclear waste governance in Canada. Over a series of meetings, MPs considered testimony and briefs submitted by more than two dozen witnesses, including industry executives, regulators, environmental groups, concerned citizens and First Nations, and nuclear experts.

Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission

The commission is tasked with regulating the industry to protect “health, safety, security and environment.” It reports to Parliament through the natural resources minister, whose department is responsible for promoting the nuclear industry, which creates a perceived conflict of interest, some witnesses said.

“The current structure naturally induces suspicion,” wrote M.V. Ramana, a professor of nuclear disarmament at the University of British Columbia, in a submission to the committee. Ramana pointed to the international Convention on Nuclear Safety, which calls on signatories, including Canada, to ensure there is effective separation between regulatory bodies and any organizations concerned with promoting nuclear energy. “I do not think the current reporting structure constitutes an effective separation,” said Ramana.

To avoid any real or perceived conflict of interest, many witnesses suggested the commission should report to the minister of environment and climate change, instead.

Rumina Velshi, president and CEO of the commission at the time, maintained there was “no political interference in our decision-making” and no issues with the current arrangement.

The committee’s report “does not suggest that there is a conflict of interest” but noted it would be beneficial to eliminate this perception to improve public trust and confidence in Canada’s radioactive waste management. Many witnesses raised concerns about the Chalk River near-surface disposal facility, as well as other waste management plans for high-level nuclear waste.

The Bloc Québécois (BQ), which has opposed the project since 2017, added a section below the committee’s report highlighting testimony and issues it says were given short shrift by the committee. The many witnesses with concerns about waste projects and governance structures “did not obtain the same level of interest” as those aligned with the industry, it said. These individuals and groups are turning to elected representatives because they do not feel heard, the party noted.

The BQ “is extremely concerned about the hazards” at the Chalk River disposal facility, particularly the risk to drinking water, the report reads.

“The location is unacceptable. This choice of site was not guided by health or environmental priorities, but solely with industrial convenience in mind," said Pauzé, BQ environment critic, in an emailed statement to Canada’s National Observer last week.

She says Canadians and Quebecers must question the influence of the industry and the commercial interests behind this project. “It is worth remembering that the CNSC has modified the definitions of radioactive levels” and this means intermediate-level waste could be included in the disposal facility designed for only low-level waste, she said.

“The industry wants to limit its future liability. The regulator wants to minimize its future obligations. But long-lived waste will not disappear, whatever the industry or the regulator thinks,” she said.

Conservative environment critic Gerard Deltell and natural resources critic Shannon Stubbs declined a request for comment. MP Cheryl Gallant, who represents the riding where Chalk River Laboratories is located, did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.

Natasha Bulowski / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

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Wow, excellent in-depth reporting. Finally, some serious light on the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories and their for-profit enterprise at Chalk River. Let's have more of this please.

Good article. I agree with M.V. Ramana that there is a clear conflict of interest with the Department of Natural Resources being responsible for both the promotion of nuclear and regulating nuclear safety.

A sidebar on the difference between low-level and medium-level would have been welcome. I know that low-level is really not about reactors but medical waste cotton and plastic; not sure what intermediate would include.