CCRCA comments on draft project list for Bill C-69

see also comments by Dr. Gordon Edwards, President of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility here

Comments on the Discussion Paper on the Proposed Project List

Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area (Ole Hendrickson)

May 29, 2019

The proposed new project list attempts to identify so-called “major” projects, or projects with “the greatest potential for adverse environmental effects.”  The list makes extensive use of the concept of “thresholds”.  Only projects that exceed a threshold would be assessed under the new Impact Assessment Act.  The discussion paper says that projects “below these thresholds will be considered by the other regulatory regimes.”  

However, even a small project, such as a uranium mine or a small nuclear reactor, can have significant adverse environmental effects on the community where it is located.  Furthermore, impact assessments differ from regulatory regimes by providing important features such as an early planning tool with public participation, and enhanced information access – features that are important for projects of any size.

Annex 1 of the discussion paper – entitled “What we heard when we consulted on the approach to creating a new project list” states the following:

Many commenters recommended against using thresholds at all or if thresholds were used, they should be precautionary for environmental protection and should be based on science and not practical considerations like the number of projects that might require assessment.  

However, the discussion paper provides no explanation of why these comments were rejected and thresholds were used.  It does not state whether thresholds were based on science, or if so, how they were determined.  These serious deficiencies in the discussion paper raise concerns about all the entries in the new project list.

Annex 2 of the discussion paper compares the proposed new project list to the current list.  It indicates that for many project types, thresholds for triggering an assessment have been increased.  For example, the length of a pipeline or the production capacity of a mine that would trigger assessment are increased with no justification.

In the absence of any justification for the use of thresholds, or any explanation for how thresholds were determined, use of thresholds in the proposed new project list should be rejected.  All federally-funded or federally-regulated projects, or projects taking place on federal land, have a potential to cause significant adverse environmental effects, and should receive at least a basic level of federal assessment.  Thresholds should not be used to allow smaller projects to proceed without assessment.

Specifically, with regard to the section of the project list dealing with nuclear activities:

1.  “The construction, operation and decommissioning of a new nuclear fission or fusion reactor”, which is on the current project list, should be retained on the new project list.

The current Regulations Designating Physical Activities (the “project list”) require assessment of any new nuclear reactor.  The Discussion Paper on the Proposed Project List proposes that a new nuclear reactor with a thermal capacity of less than 200 MW thermal capacity that is not on an existing nuclear site, or a new reactor with a thermal capacity of less than 900 MW on an existing site, be exempted from impact assessment.  

According to the discussion paper, the 200 MW “threshold” is intended to allow so-called “small modular reactors” to be built anywhere in Canada without impact assessment.  An accident in a nuclear reactor much smaller than 200 MW could have major adverse environmental and health effects.  Environmental contamination has still not been cleaned up from the 1952 partial meltdown of the NRX reactor (which was 10 MW thermal at the time) at the Chalk River Laboratories   Radioactive wastes such as tritium, strontium-90 and carbon-14 are leaking into the Ottawa River from where the damaged reactor core is buried and liquid wastes from the accident were dumped.  

Section 22(1)(a) of the new Impact Assessment Act  states that “The impact assessment of a designated project, whether it is conducted by the Agency or a review panel, must take into account… the effects of malfunctions or accidents that may occur in connection with the designated project.”  The current requirement to assess all new nuclear reactors should be retained on the project list.

2.  “The decommissioning, abandonment or refurbishment of a nuclear fission reactor” should be on the project list.

The Comprehensive Study Regulations, which applied to the pre-2012 version of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, required a comprehensive study assessment of decommissioning or abandonment of “a Class IA nuclear facility that is a nuclear fission reactor that has a production capacity of more than 25 MW (thermal).”  Decommissioning of smaller nuclear reactors, and of other class IA nuclear facilities, required at least a basic environmental screening before 2012.

Six nuclear power and research reactors built by the federal government in Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec are shut down and await decommissioning, as is the case for Hydro-Quebec’s Gentilly-2 reactor.  All six units at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station are scheduled to be shut down by 2024.  Reactor decommissioning is major looming challenge for the federal government and for utilities.  It requires determination of a preferred “end state” for the reactor site (Will it be restored for general use?), assessment of radiation exposures to workers carrying out decommissioning operations, remediation of soil and groundwater contaminated by reactor leaks, and planning for long-term management of decommissioning wastes, among other issues.

Nuclear reactor “refurbishment” – removal and replacement of major components – also should trigger an assessment that includes consideration of issues such as alternatives to refurbishment (such as renewable energy sources or enhanced conservation initiatives), and planning for long-term waste management.

With a growing number of nuclear reactors awaiting decommissioning, and ongoing debates about refurbishment of currently operating nuclear reactors, nuclear reactor decommissioning and refurbishment should be added to the project list.

3.  “The transfer of irradiated fuel or other high-level waste for off-site reprocessing, storage or disposal” should be on the project list.

High-level irradiated fuel waste is accumulating at operating nuclear reactor sites. Considerable quantities are also found at shut-down reactors.  The federal government has contracted a private consortium that includes SNC Lavalin and two U.S. companies to operate federal nuclear reactor sites (Gentilly-1, Douglas Point, Whiteshell, Chalk River) where nuclear fuel waste is stored.  The consortium wants to “consolidate” all federal high-level at Chalk River Laboratories for temporary storage.  Fifty high-level waste shipments are proposed from Whiteshell alone.  

High-level radioactive waste transport on public highways, whether for temporary storage or permanent disposal, entails serious risks to the public in the event of an accident.  If high-level wastes are shipped to Chalk River for consolidation, they will later need to be shipped again to a geological repository at a site being studied by the Nuclear Waste Management Organization.  Waste consolidation increases handling, transport and accident risks. All proposed off-site transfers of irradiated fuel or other high-level wastes (including liquids) should be added to the project list.  This will allow assessment of alternatives such as leaving wastes where they are, or transferring them to alternative locations.

4. The current project list includes a “Facility for the processing, reprocessing or separation of an isotope of uranium, thorium, or plutonium, with a production capacity of 100 t/year or more.” Separate listings should be made for processing, reprocessing, and isotope separation, and the 100-tonne threshold should be eliminated.

This current wording is problematic and confusing.  Each of these activities should be defined, and the end products of these activities should be described.  No justification is given for the 100-tonne threshold.  Separation of far smaller quantities of uranium or plutonium isotopes would create unacceptable risks of nuclear weapons proliferation.

Reprocessing traditionally refers to the chemical separation (extraction) of fissile and/or fertile material from irradiated nuclear fuel.  New reprocessing concepts would involve insertion of irradiated nuclear fuel into another reactor without actually separating the fissile or fertile materials.  Both types of “reprocessing” involve the release of fission gases and the handling of intensely radioactive irradiated nuclear fuel.  Environmental assessment should be required.

With regard to separation of isotopes, this is highly sensitive technology used to make nuclear bombs.  Uranium enrichment has never been carried out in Canada.  This activity should be listed separately, with no threshold

Unlike “reprocessing” and “isotope separation”, uranium processing is a purely chemical process.  It involves the generation of end products that can be used either for reactor fuel or further processed into nuclear weapons materials.  It generates wastes that are long-lived and pose serious health risks.  It also requires a separate listing, and any new processing facility should be assessed.

5. Any new uranium mine or mill should be on the project list, and any expansion of more than 50% in the production capacity of an existing uranium mine or mill should be on the project list.

The current project list has the following entries:  “Uranium mine or uranium mill on a site that is not within the licensed boundaries of an existing uranium mine or uranium mill;” and “Expansion of an existing uranium mine that would result in an increase in the area of mine operations of 50% or more.”  The discussion paper proposes to add a new 2,500 tonne per day production capacity threshold below which no assessment would be done; either for a new mine or mill, or for an expanded mine or mill.  

Even small uranium mines and mills can have significant adverse environmental effects.  Waste management and environmental remediation are important considerations, as well as potential adverse effects on local communities. No justification is provided for the proposed new 2,500 tonne per day threshold.  It should be rejected.  

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