Hill Times Op Ed: If we’re going to spend a billion dollars a year managing our nuclear waste, let’s do it right

December 7, 2020

by Lynn Jones

https://www.hilltimes.com/2020/12/07/270469/270469

OTTAWA—A contract quietly signed during the 2015 federal election campaign between Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) and a multinational consortium is costing Canadians billions of dollars and increasing risks to health from deadly radioactive pollutants. 

The multi-billion dollar contract was an attempt by the former federal Conservative government to reduce Canada’s $7.9-billion nuclear waste liability quickly and cheaply by creating a public-private partnership or GoCo (government-owned, contractor-operated) contract.

The GoCo contractor is called the “Canadian National Energy Alliance” (CNEA) even though the majority of its members are foreign corporations. It currently consists of Fluor and Jacobs, two Texas-based multinationals involved in nuclear weapons production, and SNC-Lavalin. Under the contract, the consortium assumed control over all Canada’s federal nuclear facilities and radioactive wastes.

Since the GoCo contract was signed, costs to Canadian taxpayers appear to have almost quadrupled. According to AECL financial reports, its parliamentary appropriations rose from $327-million in 2015 to $1.3-billion (approved) for the year ending March 31, 2021. AECL’s nuclear waste liabilities have not gone down, but rather appear to have increased by about $200-million.  

The Crown corporation, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, was supposed to oversee the contract on behalf of the Government of Canada but may not have been in a position to do so. Serious problems at AECL were identified by the Auditor General in a 2017 report. Problems included lack of a board chair, lack of a CEO, no board directors at all for 2016 and most of 2017, failure to hold public meetings and lack of experience with the GoCo model.

Since 2015, it appears that the GoCo contractor has spent hundreds of millions of our tax dollars promoting three radioactive waste facilities that we believe to be quick, cheap, and substandard. They are: a giant, above-ground mound beside the Ottawa River at Chalk River, Ontario, for one million tonnes of mixed radioactive and non-radioactive wastes including plutonium, and entombment in concrete of two old nuclear reactors beside the Ottawa and Winnipeg rivers which provide drinking water to millions of Canadians. 

More than two dozen submissions to the Impact Assessment Agency from ex-AECL nuclear waste experts including senior scientists and senior managers highlight serious concerns about the three projects and point out that they fail to meet international safety standards. 

The consortium’s own studies show that all three facilities would leak radioactive contaminants into the environment and drinking water sources for millennia.

The consortium’s own studies show that all three facilities would leak radioactive contaminants into the environment and drinking water sources for millennia.

According to the consortium’s draft environmental impact statement, it appears that the giant Chalk River mound is expected to eventually disintegrate, in a process referred to as “normal evolution”. At that time, its radioactive and hazardous contents would flow out of the mound into surrounding wetlands that drain into the Ottawa River less than a kilometre away. 

Hundreds of concerns about the three projects have been voiced by federal and provincial government departments, First Nations, civil society groups, 140 Quebec municipalities, nuclear waste experts, and concerned citizens. And yet the projects continue to lumber forward and the consortium continues to receive almost a billion dollars a year from Canadian taxpayers. 

Does anyone in government have their eyes on this ball? Did they notice when AECL renewed the GoCo contract early in the pandemic lockdown, 18 months before expiry, despite the recent conviction of consortium partner SNC-Lavalin on a charge of fraud? Are they concerned by the rapidly rising costs and substandard proposals?

…the giant Chalk River mound is expected to eventually disintegrate, in a process referred to as “normal evolution”. At that time, its radioactive and hazardous contents would flow out of the mound into surrounding wetlands that drain into the Ottawa River less than a kilometre away. 

Are they aware that the consortium is bringing thousands of truckloads of radioactive waste to Chalk River from other federal facilities in Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec? The Chalk River Laboratories site is not a good place to consolidate federal nuclear waste either for temporary or for long-term storage. It is seismically active and adjacent to the Ottawa River, source of drinking water for Ottawa-Gatineau, Montreal, and many other communities.

With all of the problems currently facing the world, one might ask, “Why should Canadians care about this nuclear waste problem?”

Radioactive waste is the deadliest waste on the planet. Nuclear reactors create hundreds of dangerous radioactive substances that remain toxic to all life for hundreds of thousands of years. Exposure can cause serious chronic diseases, birth defects, and genetic damage that is passed on to future generations. According to the U.S. National Research Council, there is no safe level of exposure to ionizing radiationreleased from nuclear reactors and nuclear waste facilities. And yet Canada is pouring billions of dollars into projects that will not keep these poisons out of our environment and drinking water.

The Ottawa River is a Canadian Heritage River that flows past Parliament Hill—surely we don’t want to be the generation responsible for permanently contaminating it with radioactive waste.

Surely we can and must do better. The Ottawa River is a Canadian Heritage River that flows past Parliament Hill—surely we don’t want to be the generation responsible for permanently contaminating it with radioactive waste.

If we are going to spend a billion dollars a year managing our nuclear waste, let’s do it right. Let’s meet or exceed international standards and build secure storage facilities, well away from drinking water sources. Let’s make sure the wastes are carefully packaged and labelled and stored in monitored and retrievable conditions. This approach will create thousands of good, long-lasting careers in the nuclear waste and decommissioning field and show the world what top tier radioactive waste storage facilities look like.

Hill Times photo by Andrew Meade