Canada’s Eight Billion Dollar Nuclear Liability – Backgrounder

In 2012, the Conservative government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper amended the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act to give the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) total authority and decision-making power over all nuclear-related projects. 

The CNSC is currently conducting environmental assessments of three contentious radioactive waste “disposal” projects. Each is the brainchild of a consortium of private multinational corporations operating under the name “Canadian National Energy Alliance.”  The consortium consists of the scandal-ridden SNC-Lavalin, currently facing criminal charges for fraud and corruption in a Canadian court, and two U.S.-based corporate partners (Fluor and Jacobs), both of whom have also faced criminal charges of a similar nature in the past.

This consortium was hired in 2015 by the Harper government to operate the Government of Canada’s nuclear sites and reduce Canada’s eight billion dollar radioactive waste liability. The consortium received all the shares in a new corporation called “Canadian Nuclear Laboratories” (CNL) that had been created the previous year as a subsidiary of the federal crown corporation Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL).  In effect, this privatized AECL.  Roughly 3000 former AECL employees now work for CNL, mostly at the Chalk River Laboratories. Billions of taxpayers’ dollars are funneled into the private consortium through the ghost of AECL.

The three proposals being assessed by CNSC are:

(1) an above-ground mound, five to seven stories high, covering 11 hectares of land, for permanent disposal of one million cubic meters of mixed radioactive wastes at Chalk River, less than a kilometer from the Ottawa River;

 (2) the permanent entombment of Canada’s first electricity-producing nuclear reactor, the Nuclear Power Demonstration reactor, by encasing its radioactive remains in concrete and abandoning them only 100 meters from the Ottawa River; 

(3) the permanent entombment of the radioactive remains of another prototype nuclear reactor, the Whiteshell Reactor No. 1, at the Whiteshell Laboratories, right beside the Winnipeg River in Manitoba. 

All three projects run counter to guidance of the International Atomic Energy Agency. 

Even as the consortium and CNL promote their disposal projects, they are soliciting proposals to build new nuclear reactors at the Chalk River and Whiteshell federal nuclear sites.  The CNSC secretly lobbied the government to have new nuclear reactors under a certain size exempted from Bill C-69, the new Impact Assessment Act. However, any reactor–regardless of size–will create accident risks and its own legacy of radioactive wastes. 

CNSC has long been recognized as a “captured” regulator. It has never denied a license for any major nuclear project. Its lobbying to have small reactors exempted from impact assessments–if successful–would minimize effective public participation in planning and decision-making for nuclear projects. 

Greens talk radioactive waste, Chalk River and SNC-Lavalin

September 5, 2019, Ottawa Citizen, TAYLOR BLEWETT

Leveraging one of the year’s top political controversies, federal Green party candidates staged an event Thursday to highlight their concerns about potential contamination of the Ottawa River and a government they describe as too cosy with SNC-Lavalin to care.

Standing in the sand on Westboro Beach, Ottawa Centre Green party candidate Angela Keller-Herzog gave the assembled crowd a quick refresher on the nuclear situation at Chalk River, 200 kilometres northwest of Ottawa.

On the eve of the 2015 federal election, former prime minister Stephen Harper’s government selected a consortium of companies, including engineering firm SNC-Lavalin, as its preferred proponent to manage and operate Canadian Nuclear Laboratories — the organization proposing a “near surface disposal facility” for radioactive waste at Chalk River.

It’s a plan, now under review, that’s been in the works for several years, and CNL is adamant about its safety. “It will actually take waste out of areas with very little containment, and put it into an area that is engineered and contained away from the environment,” said Sandra Faught, manager of regulatory approvals for the facility at CNL.

Despite such assurances, the proposed facility has generated fierce criticism from community, Indigenous and environmental advocates for as long as it’s been in the public eye.

At Thursday’s press conference, the Greens breathed fresh life into these concerns by emphasizing the involvement of one of the most controversial names in politics right now: SNC-Lavalin.

“Poor nuclear waste decisions have fallout for millennia — this is too important a job to be handed to SNC and corner-cutting, profit-seeking foreign corporations with dubious ethical background,” said Keller-Herzog.

As an MP, she said, she would champion the creation of a federal policy guiding the management of non-fuel radioactive waste (the kind the Chalk River disposal facility would deal with.)

She also raised a new concern — that the Liberal government, including Environment Minister and Ottawa Centre MP Catherine McKenna, have created an exemption that would allow small modular nuclear reactors to skip the new environmental review process they introduced in Bill C-69.

Both CNL and the federal government are focused on the opportunities presented by these portable, less powerful reactors.

“Canada is well positioned to become a global leader in the development and deployment of SMR technology,” reads a Natural Resources Canada webpage, while CNL envisions itself as a “global hub” for small modular reactor innovation.

In the spring of 2018, CNL invited SMR proposals to develop a “demonstration project” at one of its sites. This would be the first small modular reactor in Canada.

“I ask you: If experimental, unproven nuclear reactors don’t have to undergo impact assessment, then what’s the point?” said Keller-Herzog. “In other words, the Liberal government, Minister McKenna and senior public servants are lining up their ducks to pave the way for the plans of SNC-Lavalin and its American partners. Does that sound familiar?”

This newspaper contacted McKenna’s ministerial office about the decision to exempt small nuclear reactors — under 200 thermal megawatts —  from the list of projects that would require environmental assessment under Bill C-69.

“Previously all nuclear reactors would have been designated projects, regardless of size and location,” according to the Canada Gazette entry regarding the exemption.

In response, spokesperson Caroline Thériault sent a statement: 

“A robust project list ensures good projects can move forward in a timely and transparent way that protects the environment, rebuilds public trust and strengthens our economy. This list covers all major projects within federal jurisdiction those pose significant environmental risk.”

Even without a spot on the Bill C-69 project list, small modular reactor would still be subject to scrutiny.

According to a statement from the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, “New nuclear projects below the 200 MW thermal‎ threshold are subject to licensing and assessment processes by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.”

Alexandre Deslongchamps, spokesperson for the minster of natural resources, noted that the CNSC “is peer-reviewed and world-renowned” and “will only approve projects if it concludes that they are safe for people and the environment, both now and in the future.”

With files from the Financial Post

Comment from Mark Mackenzie: I am flabbergasted as to how a facility can get away with calling a 7 storey high dump a ‘Near Surface Disposal Facility’. At 7 stories high, I invite any Chalk River executive to jump off and tell us how close they were to the surface…. There is no reason to jeopardize the incredible value of the Ottawa River for a nuclear dump within 1 kilometre. The CNSC is hardly an effective regulatory body as they merely rubber stamp whatever the profit oriented nuclear industry wants. SNC Lavelin ‘anything for a buck’ is the Canadian partner. Great group today bringing awareness to the importance of this issue. Three Green Party candidates – Angela Keller-Herzog, Lorraine Rekmans and Claude Bertrand were highly articulate about how the Ottawa River needs to be protected.

Comment from Lynn Jones: Someone should tell the NRCan spokesperson that CNSC was outed long ago as a “captured regulator” that is world renowned for nothing other than promoting the industry and the projects it is supposed to regulate. Even the international nuclear industry refers to Canada’s “benign regulatory environment” when touting Canada as the place to come and tap into the public purse to develop small nuclear reactors.

Two nuclear waste dumps threaten the Ottawa River

A multinational consortium wants to build two nuclear waste dumps alongside the Ottawa River upstream of Ottawa-Gatineau, one at Chalk River, Ontario and the other at Rolphton, Ontario. Both dumps disregard international safety guidelines and would leak radioactive materials into the Ottawa River, endangering drinking water for millions of Canadians living downstream.

Background:

In 1944 Chalk River Laboratories (CRL) were established to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. Starting in 1952 the Labs were operated by “Atomic Energy of Canada Limited” (AECL).  Besides producing plutonium, the labs established a prototype nuclear power reactor (NPD) upstream of Chalk River at Rolphton, and extracted “medical isotopes” from irradiated fuel. These activities and two serious accidents created large quantities of dangerous radioactive wastes. Cleanup costs are estimated at $8 billion.

The Harper government radically restructured AECL in 2015, creating a subsidiary called Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) and contracting a multinational consortium including SNC Lavalin, to operate the subsidiary and reduce the federal government’s nuclear cleanup liabilities quickly and cheaply. All four consortium members face or have faced criminal charges for fraud and corruption*. Annual costs to taxpayers tripled shortly after restructuring.

In 2016, CNL proposed to construct a giant, above-ground mound of radioactive waste (NSDF) at Chalk River and to entomb in concrete the NPD reactor at Rolphton. Both proposals disregard International Atomic Energy Agency safety standards and would permanently contaminate the Ottawa River with radioactive materials such as plutonium, caesium, strontium and tritium, some of which will be remain hazardous for over 100,000 years.  CNL is also moving to bring thousands of shipments of radioactive waste (including highly toxic used fuel rods) to Chalk River from other federal sites in Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec.


Independent experts, retired AECL scientists, Citizens’ groups, NGOs, 140 Quebec municipalities and several First Nations have been sounding alarm bells about the projects via written comments, resolutions, press conferences, and protests including a boat flotilla on the Ottawa River in August 2017 and a Red Canoe March for Nuclear Safety through the streets of downtown Ottawa in January of 2018.


In April 2018, CNL was granted a 10-year license despite widespread concern over license changes that would make it easier for the consortium to get its nuclear waste projects approved. Canada’s nuclear regulator, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), granted the new license.  The CNSC is also in charge of environmental assessment (EA) and licensing for nuclear waste projects. The CNSC is perceived to be a “captured” regulator that promotes projects it is charged with regulating, according to Canada’s Expert Panel on EA reform. The CNSC’s mishandling of EAs for the consortium’s nuclear waste projects is described in Environmental Petition 413 to the Auditor General of Canada.

* The consortium, known as Canadian National Energy Alliance, includes: SNC-Lavalin,debarred by the World Bank for 10 years and facing charges in Canada of fraud, bribery and corruption; CH2M agreed to pay $18.5 million to settle federal criminal charges at a nuclear cleanup site in the U.S.; Fluor paid $4 million to resolve allegations of  financial fraud related to nuclear waste cleanup work at a U.S. site; Rolls-Royce PLC,  parent company of consortium member Rolls-Royce Civil Nuclear Canada Ltd., recently agreed to pay more than CAN$1 billion in fines for bribery and corruptionin the U.K., U.S. and Brazil. **NB** since this post was first published, membership in the consortium has changed. Rolls Royce is no longer listed as a consortium member on the CNEA website and Texas based Jacobs Engineering has recently acquired CH2M.