Instructions for radioactive waste: store in a dry place

Protesters (from left, Ole Hendrickson, Venetia Crawford and Lynn Jones) take to the waters of the Ottawa River to register opposition to plans to store nuclear waste at Chalk River within a kilometre of the Ottawa River.  
Photo: A. Keller-Herzog

By Angela Keller-Herzog

Water is life. That is why cities like Gatineau and Montreal oppose nuclear waste sites upstream on the Ottawa River.

Not Ottawa. On April 14, our city council unanimously adopted a motion which raised some concerns but did not oppose the construction of a nuclear waste Near Surface Disposal Facility within a kilometre of the river at Chalk River. Nor did council oppose the entombment of an experimental reactor at Rolphton.

City council did express various concerns and urged some action. It wants to stop the transport of nuclear waste from Manitoba to Chalk River due to transportation risks (is Ottawa on that route?). It urged prevention of precipitation from entering the disposal facility (virtually impossible). It asked the federal minister of environment to initiate a regional environmental assessment (when she was minister, Catherine McKenna told us this was not federal jurisdiction). And it requested the nuclear safety regulator to commit to “prompt notification of spill/release events to City of Ottawa.” In short: deflection.

What happened to the earlier resolution that strongly opposed the nuclear waste siting? Why was that motion replaced by an alternate motion at the environment committee meeting just minutes after it started on March 30? Most of the 30 public delegations, including the Glebe Community Association, the Community Associations for Environmental Sustainability and the Council of Canadians, spoke against the nuclear waste site and the reactor disposal at Rolphton.

Did council even consider the scientists who spoke to very specific risks? Dr. Ole Hendrickson stated that the nuclear wastes will need to be kept out of the biosphere for hundreds of thousands of years. The safeguarding plans for Rolphton are designed for 100 years; for the disposal facility, they are designed for 300. The problem is not so much short-term risk; rather, it is the long-term certainty of contamination of the Ottawa River with radioactive substances and other toxins, including arsenic, lead, dioxins, PCBs and mercury, that will go into the waste facilities.

The city’s senior water engineer, Ian Douglas, steadfastly compared the status quo (a site requiring clean up) to the “engineered” waste facility and found the latter better. But he neither considered nor provided other alternatives, like moving the site further away from the river or long-term rolling stewardship. These are the solutions advocated by independent nuclear scientists, which the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) consortium’s environmental impact statement deems as too expensive.

The opposition of community groups, environmentalists and scientists to the near-river waste dump and entombment match those of Indigenous communities. In a March 2020 joint declaration by the Anishinabek Nation and the Iroquois Caucus on nuclear waste storage, key principles included no abandonment, better containment and “away from water bodies.”

In whose interest is it to abandon nuclear waste so close to the river when safer locations can be found? What motivated the back-room manoeuvres at City Hall resulting in the 180-degree about-face? Here are some dots to connect:

The contract awarded to CNL in 2015 by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government was the largest federal contract ever granted. The Trudeau government maintained it. It pays close to a billion dollars a year to Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd, most of which goes to CNL.

The City of Ottawa is dependent on the federal government for infrastructure funding (currently through Catherine McKenna).

SNC-Lavalin is the key player in the CNL consortium. The nuclear business, including nuclear waste management and nuclear technology development, has become a lifeline for the company.

Ottawa awarded SNC a key part of the phase II LRT contract (with bid evaluation irregularities) and would not like to see the company go under.

The City of Ottawa lobby register shows that CNL’s professional lobbyist, Jeff Polowin, made the rounds of Ottawa City Council in the month prior to the council decision.

Councillors say they are glad the motion passed. My question is how did it come to this? What happened behind the scenes? My worry is that the current CNL “plan A” virtually guarantees that the waters of the Ottawa River will be tainted with radioactive and carcinogenic leachate in the centuries to come.

We will not be good ancestors.

Angela Keller-Herzog is the executive director of Community Associations for Environmental Sustainability (CAFES) and a resident of the Glebe.

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