Citizens ask Auditor-General to probe origins of plan to create a giant mound of radioactive waste beside Ottawa River

(Ottawa, June 26, 2017) A petition to the federal environment commissioner Julie Gelfand, filed on June 20 with the Office of the Auditor-General, seeks the commissioner’s help in probing the origins of the radioactive waste dump proposal that has been ringing alarm bells for citizens’ groups, business owners and residents of Quebec and Ontario since the environmental impact statement for it was released in March, 2017.

According to critics, the proposed radioactive landfill, the so-called “Near Surface Disposal Facility”, is on a fast track to approval despite the fact that it does not meet safety standards established by the International Atomic Energy Agency.  Critics of the plan include a number of retired scientists from Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL).

A former Director of Safety Engineering and Licensing at AECL notes that problems with the plan include an unsuitable location next to wetlands that drain into the Ottawa River and inadequate technology.  Other scientists point out that the disposal facility would contain materials such as plutonium that will be radioactive for more than 100,000 years. After a period of “institutional control”, the wastes would be abandoned and the mound would deteriorate, leaking contaminants into the environment and the Ottawa River essentially for eternity.

Citizens groups want to know how such a flawed proposal could have emerged after the federal government spent $1.15 billion between 2006 and 2015 on a program to clean up its “legacy” radioactive wastes. At the time, it was estimated that $10 billion was needed to clean up Canada’s nuclear legacy liabilities, including contaminated waste areas, buildings and plutonium left over from Canada’s role in Cold War nuclear weapons production. A disposal facility was expected to be operational by 2035, reflecting the lengthy process required for characterizing wastes, selecting appropriate technologies, choosing a site, and licensing an environmentally acceptable facility.

Johanna Echlin, of the Old Fort William Cottagers’ Association, notes that an abrupt U-turn took place when the previous conservative government privatized Canada’s nuclear facilities, set up Canadian Nuclear Labs, and awarded a 6-year contract to a multinational, private-sector consortium to manage Canada’s federally-owned nuclear business and radioactive wastes in September 2015.

“We are very concerned that the contract negotiated with SNC Lavalin and others, emphasizes low cost, disposal of all wastes, and completion of a facility within six years,” Echlin said. “It appears the consortium may have won the bid to manage Canadian Nuclear Labs by proposing a quick and dirty approach to dealing with Canada’s nuclear wastes that reduced the cost of “cleanup” from $10 billion to $600 million. We want to know who said it was okay to ignore over a billion dollars worth of work on the previous cleanup plan.“

Echlin questions the former conservative government’s decision to privatize AECL and says that citizens’ groups see it as an abdication of responsibility by the Government of Canada to look after its radioactive wastes properly.

Dr. Ole Hendrickson, researcher for Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area says “It appears that annual expenditures for AECL more than doubled to almost one billion dollars after privatization. We are asking the Minister of Natural Resources to account for this increase”.

The petition to the environment commissioner was co-signed by Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area and the Canadian Environmental Law Association.

Theresa McClenaghan, Executive Director and Counsel for the Canadian Environmental Law Association, notes the petition is aimed at ensuring that funding has been appropriately allocated towards safely and efficiently reducing risks to Canadians.  McClenaghan states, “If the proposed facility fails to meet regulatory requirements for health, safety and protection of the environment, a great deal of money, time and effort will have been wasted in a misguided effort to accelerate the reduction of the nuclear legacy liabilities currently on the balance sheet of the Government of Canada”.

The petition presents a series of 15 questions for the Minister of Natural Resources Canada, James Carr. The Minister is required to respond to the questions within 120 days of receiving them from the Office of the Auditor-General.

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