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Chalk River Nuclear Waste Site Causes Concerns Among First Nations

Construction of a nuclear waste landfill site has been authorized by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. The site will be built near a large research facility called Chalk River Laboratories in Deep River, Ontario.

There has been significant opposition to the project from nearby municipalities, activist groups, and First Nations leaders. A public commission was assembled in 2016, which allowed the public to share their opinion about the construction of the nuclear waste site. The project is estimated to cost $475 million. It will be constructed within one kilometre of the Ottawa River on a lot larger than 50 acres. The storage site will used to store approximately one million cubic meters of low-level radioactive waste, upwards of 90 per cent of which is already at Chalk River. The site will not house used fuel from nuclear reactors.

Low-level radioactive waste is made up primarily of radionuclides, which have a half-life of fewer than 30 years. At the site, there will also be low levels of long-lived radionuclides, which have half-lives greater than 30 years. 

The Chalk River site already has a history of nuclear contamination after decades of nuclear research was done there by Atomic Energy Canada Ltd., a Crown corporation. It was the 1940s when a nuclear reactor opened and operated until 2018. Canadian Nuclear Laboratories -CNL- must apply for a separate operating license to operate the facility after it has been constructed. The new facility will store contaminated soil, building materials, and equipment from the previous facility. 

In the first decades after operations began at the Chalk River site in the 40s, two separate accidents occurred on site. They were among the first nuclear accidents seen in the world. This history creates greater concern for nearby community members. 

Among the concerns voiced to the Commission were fears of disaster occurring during transportation or that contaminants might escape the facility. 

The safety commission determined that the facility design is “robust” and is “not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects.” The Commission determined fish, local mammals, birds, and Indigenous peoples will all remain unaffected by the site. Drinking water will also remain unaffected. The CNL will have to abide by specific monitoring requirements for the entirety of its use.

The common denominator among what local Chiefs are asking is that the storage site be placed elsewhere, with the primary concern being proximity to drinking water.

First Nations in Quebec and Ontario have made their opposition to the project heard. The construction will be taking place on ancestral land near the Ottawa River. The Ottawa River provides drinking water to Ottawa, and many First Nations community members and leaders fear that a malfunction at the deposit site would wreak havoc on the local waterway, rendering the water undrinkable.

First Nations leaders feel the location of the site needs to be reconsidered. As stewards of the land, they have voiced their fears of ruining the local drinking water and destroying the land for future generations. There has also been mention of the Ottawa River being contaminated with tritium, a radioactive substance. They argue the newly installed water treatment facility on site will not be able to remove tritium from the water before it runs off into Perch Lake, which will be used as a dilution system. 

Among the leaders voicing their displeasure is Kebaowek First Nation Chief Lance Haymond, who wrote Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a letter in August stating that “radioactive waste stored less than one kilometre from the Kichi Sibi-Ottawa River is a risk we collectively cannot afford.” 

“The Kichi Sibi holds immense spiritual and cultural significance for our communities and is at the heart of their ancestral land. The fact that the project has progressed despite its blatant disregard for the fundamental Indigenous right of free, prior and informed consent, as confirmed both by Canadian and international laws, further exacerbates the issue,” he said in the same letter. 

The CNL believes the new storage site will pose no risk to the drinking water and will have no ill effect on the wildlife. They have fully rejected the complaints of local First Nations leaders who claim they were not adequately consulted at any point in the process. The Commission states it has fulfilled its environmental and legal requirements for the project to move forward. Canadian Nuclear Laboratories has also reaffirmed their belief that the levels of tritium will far and away be below the standards for water quality in Ontario.  

“Overall, the evidence on the record demonstrates that the duty to consult has been met and that the honour of the Crown has been upheld,” the Commission wrote in their decision. 

Despite the positive messaging from the Commission involved in the creation of the site, the Canadian Environmental Law Association said they are “extremely disappointed” by the Commission’s decision to proceed with construction. The CELA has also made its concerns clear about the potential leaks at the NSDF site into the Ottawa River wetlands. 

“The design of this facility is tantamount to an ordinary domestic landfill, and we know that such facilities always eventually leak to the surrounding environment,” Theresa McClenaghan, CELA executive director, said in a release. 

The site is described to be an “engineered containment mound,” which will be constructed on a wooded hillside. The project, which is expected to take three years and will undergo scheduled monitoring for a minimum of three centuries, is signed to last 550 years, long enough to allow for radioactive decay. The facility will be equipped to receive waste from other nuclear research sites, universities, hospitals, and private companies. 

The Commission argued that the construction of the facility on sloped rock causes the water to flow away from the Ottawa River, reducing risk. 

Last summer, Algonquin First Nations, among many others. Called on the federal government to abandon the project, citing the location is on unceded territory. 

“They’re going to build a water treatment plant to try to eradicate radium out of the radioactive water, and then they’re going to put it into the Ottawa River where all the folks here in Ottawa are going to be drinking it,” said Chief Lance Haymond of Kabaowek First Nation. 

“We need to wake up, take our heads out of the sand and recognize what a danger Chalk River poses. Not only to Algonquin and Anishinaabe people but to all Canadians.” 

Algonquin Secretariat and the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council -representing seven Algonquin Nations- have claimed the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has failed to fulfill their duty of receiving approval from Indigenous people before major construction takes place on their land, citing article 29 (2) of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of indigenous peoples (UNDRIP). 

“The Chalk River nuclear site was created without free, prior and informed consent. We have never agreed to this, and it continues to be operated on our unceded territory,” says Chief Dylan Whiteduck of Kitigan Zibi. “We have consistently expressed our opposition to further nuclear development in our Algonquin territory.” 

Construction is expected to take three years to complete. Once it has been completed, CNL must seek further permission from the Commission before they are allowed to store nuclear waste.

– Matthew Harrison, U Multicultural

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