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Dispute over Ottawa River nuclear waste dump: more transparency needed

Fight over Ottawa River nuclear waste dump getting political, but Liberals downriver standing behind the project—or staying quiet, The HillTimes, By PETER MAZEREEUW, BEATRICE PAEZ      Aplan to bury low-level nuclear waste at a site near the Ottawa River is raising opposition from municipalities and environmentalists. The company behind the project, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, says it’s safe. The Near Surface Disposal Facility proposal is in year three of an environmental assessment handled by a regulator the Liberal government is on the verge of stripping of that responsibility.

A proposed dump for low-level nuclear waste near the Ottawa River has stirred up opposition from community groups, environmentalists, and municipalities worried the waste could leach into the river that flows past about 50 federal ridings, including Ottawa Centre, the home of Parliament Hill and Canada’s environment minister, Catherine McKenna.

Members of Parliament from riverside ridings closest to the site of the proposed dump at thesprawling nuclear laboratories at Chalk River, Ont., are largely staying out of the fray. That includes Ms. McKenna, who has the final say over an environmental assessment for the project that is being conducted through a Harper-era assessment process, which she and an independent review panel have discredited………

Several Liberal MPs from ridings just downstream of the site declined to comment on or be interviewed about the proposed project, as did Natural Resource Minister Amarjeet Sohi (Edmonton Mill Woods, Alta.), , while two others organized or held information sessions on the subject for their constituents.

Ms. McKenna told The Hill Times during a press conference that she “heard” concerns from her constituents about the project, but didn’t say whether she shared them. Her office did not respond to numerous interview requests on the subject.

The Ottawa Riverkeeper environmental group and the NDP candidate in Ottawa Centre, Emilie Taman, are among those who say they will raise the issue during the upcoming election campaign. Municipal politicians in Montreal and Gatineau have already expressed their opposition. CNL staff, meanwhile, are trying to spread the word about the safety and safeguards planned to keep the proposed dump, which is located less than one kilometre from the Ottawa River, from harming the environment, or people around and downstream from Chalk River.

No ‘public trust’ in assessment system

The Near Surface Disposal Facility to hold the low-level nuclear waste is being proposed by Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL). It is part of a complicated arrangement of private and public organizations created under the previous Conservative federal government, which privatized the operation of the Chalk River nuclear facilities that had been run by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL), a Crown corporation, in 2013.

Under the new model, the part of AECL that ran the labs was shrunk down to a shell of its former self, with most of its employees transferred to CNL. The government pays CNL to run the Chalk River facilities, and AECL—and by extension, the federal government—keeps both the assets and liabilities tied to the site.

CNL is owned by a consortium of companies that mounted a bid for the right to run Chalk River. It includes Quebec’s SNC-Lavalin and U.S. engineering firms Fluor and Jacobs, which call themselves the Canadian National Energy Alliance.

The Near Surface Disposal Facility, commonly abbreviated as NSDF, is three years into an environmental impact assessment overseen by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, a regulator for the nuclear industry.

It started the assessment in 2016, months after Ms. McKenna was given a mandate letter from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) that tasked her with reviewing the process immediately “to regain public trust and help get resources to market.”

Ms. McKenna struck an expert review panel that same year, which spent seven months surveying environmental groups, project proponents, academics, government officials, and other stakeholders about the environmental assessment process established by the previous Conservative government in 2012. Some said that CNSC should continue to be responsible for conducting assessments, given the technical expertise of its staff, but others said it was too close to industry, creating an “erosion of public trust” in the process and its outcomes. The panel recommended that CNSC be stripped of its role conducting assessments on nuclear projects.

Ms. McKenna tabled a bill in Parliament, C-69, which did just that. An omnibus bill that has been subject to criticism by Conservative politicians, industry, and some environmentalists, C-69 would put the power over assessments into the hands of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, which it would rename to the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada. CNSC officials would still play a role, occupying some of the seats on review panels struck to guide assessments of nuclear projects. The Senate sent Bill C-69 back to the House last week with nearly 200 amendments, including those that would put more power over reviews back into the hands of CNSC officials.

In the meantime, however, the NSDF nuclear dump proposal is being evaluated under the old assessment system. Isabelle Roy, a spokesperson for CNSC, said in an email statement that the projects currently being examined “would not be subject to Bill C-69 if it passes,” and that the decision will ultimately be made by its independent commission. Ms. Roy said CNSC is awaiting CNL’s response to public comments regarding concerns about the project. ………

More transparency needed on what CNL considers low-level waste, experts say

In the face of public concerns that one per cent of the waste in the engineered mound would be intermediate-level waste, Ms. Vickerd said, CNL has since tweaked its proposal, limiting it to low-level waste.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a near-surface disposal facility doesn’t have the capacity to safely contain and isolate intermediate-level waste, which, by its definition, has long-lived radionuclides. Such waste, it says, has to be buried underground, by up to a few hundred metres.

Michael Stephens is a former AECL employee whose career in the nuclear industry spanned 25 years, including 16 years at the Chalk River labs, where he helped oversee the decommissioning of nuclear waste. He is one among several retired AECL employees who have decried the project as environmentally unsound.

Mr. Stephens said his main contention with NSDF is the criteria CNL is using to determine what the mound can hold. “What bothered me from the outset was originally the proposal [called] for intermediate-level waste [to be dumped],” he said. “That, by definition, is a non-starter.”

Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, a non-profit organization that aims to educate the public on nuclear-energy issues, said the lab seems to be trying to push the limits of what it can reasonably get away with. “If you put forward an outrageous, totally unacceptable proposal, you can trim it and see how far you can go,” Mr. Edwards said. “CNL [was urged by the Harper government] to act quickly, to find a timely remediation to reduce Canada’s nuclear liability, in a … cost-effective manner. That’s code for relatively quickly, cheaply.”

Mr. Edwards has worked as a nuclear consultant; in 2017, he was hired by the federal auditor general’s office to consult for its performance audit of CNSC.

He said scrapping the idea of adding intermediate-level waste only goes “a little way” to addressing the larger issue. “What we’re talking about is a mound of literally hundreds of radioactive materials. All have different chemistries, and have different pathways to the environment, to the food chain,” he said………

Another concern for him is the plan to transport and dump the waste of other decommissioned plants, including from Whiteshell Laboratories in Pinawa, Man. “How do they know what’s in those containers? As far as we know, if they get the go-ahead to drive those containers right into where the mound will be, they’ll simply put them there, bury them … without having properly identified what’s in there,” he said.

Mr. Stephens echoed Mr. Edwards’ concerns about what, he said, could conceivably wind up in the dump. CNL, he argued, hasn’t been transparent about whether, for example, it would dump packaged solid waste, which could have varying degrees of toxicity, or building rubble that’s just been slightly contaminated…………

June 11, 2019 - Posted by | Canada, politics, wastes

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