Hill Times article July 2017

‘Taxpayers are getting a bad deal,’ residents protest proposed nuclear waste disposal site north of Ottawa

The proposed ‘near surface disposal facility’ at Chalk River nuclear site sparks petition to Canada’s federal Auditor General Michael Ferguson.

Auditor General Michael Ferguson. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

By IAIN SHERRIFF-SCOTT PUBLISHED : Monday, July 17, 2017 12:00 AM

Residents of a small community in Eastern Ontario and West Quebec are banding together to fight a plan to store nuclear waste along the banks of the Ottawa River over concerns lapse safety protections could spill highly radioactive deposits into the ecologically sensitive waterway.

The Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area and the Old Fort William Cottagers’ Association, which takes in both Ontario and Quebec, has submitted a petition asking Auditor General Michael Ferguson to intervene and scrutinize plans by Crown corporation Canadian Nuclear Laboratories to construct an 11 hectares-wide near-surface disposal facility (NSDF) alongside the decades-old Chalk River nuclear reactor and atomic research facility, located about two hours north of Ottawa.

Theresa McClenaghan, a co-author of the petition and executive director and counsel for the Canadian Environmental Law Association, told The Hill Times the disposal facility is an “inappropriate solution” for the nuclear waste legacy Chalk River has left behind, describing the proposal as “exactly the same thing” as a standard landfill. “In our discussions during the site tour they acknowledged it would eventually leak, as do all landfill sites designed like that,” she said.

The petition, dated June 20, asks the federal government 15 pointed questions on the safety, environmental impact, and financial health of the project. Under the Auditor General Act, the petition must be answered by the relevant department, Natural Resources Canada, within 120 days of receiving it from the Office of the Auditor General.

As currently planned, the waste disposal facility will be 25 metres high and store up to one million cubic metres of radioactive waste. It will be constructed as a mound with 10 waste disposal sites and feature a multi-layer base liner and cover system to prevent leaks. The waste will be covered as each disposal cell is filled.

Dr. Ole Hendrickson, an environmental scientist and another petition co- author, said the proposed waste mound would start to deteriorate “fairly quickly” in the event of a major rainstorm, sending pollution into the waters of the Ottawa River, exactly like what happened at a similar CNL facility in Port Hope, Ont., earlier this summer. In that instance, heavy rainfall pushed untreated low-level radioactive wastewater to overflow into Lake Ontario. While federal authorities deemed environmental impacts from the Port Hope leak negligible, Dr. Hendrickson said it should be taken as a cautionary example of how radioactive contaminants can be affected by severe weather, as the NSDF would be filled with “much more highly radioactive materials” than the Port Hope mound.

The overflow at Port Hope is one of three emergency events to happen since the start of this year at CNL facilities regarding containment problems of low- level radioactive waste.

To prevent leaks, CNL says the base liner of the NSDF will be 1.5 metres thick, while the cover system will be approximately two metres thick. It also promises that the design will include features to enable inspection of the system and to allow for repairs if necessary, and the facility will be surrounded by an “array” of environmental monitoring system.”

A wastewater treatment plant is also slated to be built to remove contaminants from precipitation that drains through the nuclear waste placed in the mound before the cover is installed, and to treat refuse from operational activities.

The CNL expects the project to cost $250-million initially, with more than twice that amount expected to be spent in the span of 50 years. Dr. Hendrickson worried that the limited funding offered at the start of the project means future generations will bear the “undue burden” of maintaining the facility, and blamed the multinational consortium behind CNL for cutting corners to increase short-term profits.

“It is something that would have to be maintained in perpetuity; that is assuming there is money to do that,” he said. “[The NSDF] is about short term profits for a multinational consortium. I think the taxpayers are getting a bad deal.”

In 2015, the Harper government shifted the Crown corporation tasked with overseeing projects of this nature, Atomic Energy Canada Limited, over to a government-owned-contractor-operated (GoCo) model.

It awarded the six-year contract to operate CNL, a subsidiary of AECL, to the Canadian National Energy Alliance (CNEA), an international consortium made up of Canadian, U.S., and U.K. based companies in 2015, which included provisions for a two-year renewal.

Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant, right, pictured with Conservative Senator Denise Batters. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

The petition also raised concerns over the discrepancy between the steep budget increase of the AECL in the wake of the GoCo transition and the costs associated with NDSF. AECL funding has surged from $494-million annually, on average, between 2011 and 2016 to $971-million in the 2017-18 main estimates.

For the petition authors, the increasingly large funding allotments from Ottawa and relatively low cost of the NSDF project don’t add up, and appear to suggest facility operators are cutting corners to reap larger profits.

The contract for the NSDF, they noted, wasn’t subject to public scrutiny and debate.

Reached for comment, Alexandre Deslongchamps, a spokesperson for Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr (Winnipeg South Centre, Man.), said compensation for CNEA is based on its performance meeting objectives established and monitored by AECL, rather than strictly operating costs.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the country’s nuclear regulator, is ultimately responsible for approving or rejecting the NSDF project. The commission is made up of seven permanent members appointed by federal cabinet through governor-in-council orders.

The site licence renewal hearing will take place in January 2018. If approved, construction of the near surface disposal facility could commence as soon as fall 2018.

The first round of public consultation on the draft environmental impact statement on the facility will close August 16. This fall, the final impact statement is expected to be subject to public comment.

Following the final round of public comment, the CNSC will decide whether the impact statement is ready for a hearing.

The petition authors, though, expressed little faith in the CNSC, saying the regulatory body has demonstrated an “inability to protect the environment and a tendency to favour industry interests over public safety.” The groups also noted that legislative changes made in 2012 by the Harper government to the Environmental Assessment Act eliminated independent panel reviews for nuclear projects and excluded the minister of environment from the decision- making process.

Mr. Deslongchamps said the CNSC will only allow the project to proceed if it’s “convinced that it’s safe for Canadians and the environment both now and in the long-term.”

Mr. Carr, he added, supported the evaluation process, which considers potential impacts on the public, Indigenous people, and the environment.

Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant (Renfrew-Nipissing- Pembroke, Ont.), who represents the area, said she believes the minister will act in the best interests of Canadians and expressed confidence in the expertise of CNSC scientists to “keep Canadians safe,” describing the issue of disposing nuclear waste as “non-partisan.”

Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, pictured in this file photo on the Hill. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

But in a report released earlier this year, the panel convened by the Liberal government to review federal environmental assessment processes recommended stripping the CNSC of its power to conduct environmental assessments. It supported the creation of an entirely new federal agency to handle all environmental assessments.

The government has yet to respond to the report, though Ms. McClenaghan expressed hope that the enabling legislation is changed on a retroactive basis to ensure that the NSDF proposal is not handled by the CNSC.

However, Ms Gallant claimed that the petition pushes too far “beyond the scope of the proposed NSDF,” and urged Minister Carr to “limit his response to the question at hand” by applying a relevancy test to the questions.

The Hill Times