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First Nations and allies resist proposed radioactive waste repository

If Canada is to have a just transition away from fossil fuels, then it cannot be based on nuclear power

EnvironmentIndigenous Politics

Concerned residents protest against the burial of highly radioactive nuclear fuel waste in the heart of northwestern Ontario. Photo supplied by the authors.

On April 30, 2024, First Nations leaders organized a rally in Anemki Wequedong (Thunder Bay) to protest a proposed nuclear waste repository in northwestern Ontario between Ignace and Dryden. The speakers included representatives of Grassy Narrows First Nation, Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, Ojibways of Onigaming First Nation, Gull Bay First Nation, and Fort William First Nation.

Michele Solomon, Chief of Fort William First Nation, welcomed all the participants to her traditional territory and stated that her community is “strongly opposed to the transportation of nuclear waste through our territory and we will stand by that, we will continue to stand by that, and we stand with all those who are also opposed.”

Another leader from the Robinson-Superior Treaty area, Chief Wilfred King of Gull Bay First Nation, told the crowd, “We fully support the First Nations that are against the burying of nuclear waste in our territories. …. we vehemently oppose the transportation of any nuclear waste through our territory.” According to King, his community’s position was grounded in concerns with potential accidents along the transportation route. “We have many rivers and tributaries that intersect the Trans Canada Highway and we feel that this will have a very serious impact to our resources and our territory should there be a spill.”

A similar position was expressed by Rudy Turtle, Chief of Grassy Narrows, whose traditional territories are situated in Treaty 3 and downstream from the proposed repository. “[A]s Grassy Narrows First Nation we are saying no to nuclear waste. We are saying no to any kind of dumping within our traditional territory.” Turtle continued, “I’m thinking ahead I’m thinking of two, three, four, generations ahead and I know I won’t be around, but I hope that one day one of my great-grandchildren will say great-grandpa stood up for us, great-grandpa stood up for us spoke up for us now we’re able to enjoy our Earth.”

Environmental injustice by design

The proposal for a repository in the Ignace area is being advanced by the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), a not-for-profit corporation comprised of the nuclear power companies that generate and own the radioactive wastes. The 2002 Nuclear Fuel Waste Act required Canada’s nuclear power generation companies (Ontario Power Generation, New Brunswick Power Corporation and Hydro-Québec) to establish and fund the NWMO and tasked them with the long-term management of Canada’s used nuclear fuel. After an initial study, in 2005 the NWMO submitted a plan to the federal government to dispose of Canada’s used nuclear fuel in a deep geological repository (DGR). Two years later the federal government agreed.

The NWMO’s process to select a site for the DGR officially began in 2010, when it opened calls for “expressions of interest” from potential host communities. After initially examining over 20 communities, in 2020 the NWMO short-listed two Ontario municipalities as potential “hosts” for all of Canada’s high-level nuclear waste: Ignace and South Bruce. Both municipalities have signed hosting agreements with the NWMO, and have committed to deciding whether or not they are “willing hosts” by the end of 2024.

In both cases, the NWMO has indicated that the proposed DGR would only move forward with the support of adjacent Indigenous communities. South Bruce, neighbouring the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station, lies within the traditional territory of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation, which includes Saugeen First Nation and Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation. Ignace, located on the Trans-Canada Highway, is a small community reliant on forestry and eco-tourism. It lies on the traditional territory of the Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation and the Ojibway Nation of Saugeen.

The site-selection process has been riddled with controversy. The nuclear industry funds the NWMO and appoints its board members. As a result, despite being structured as a not-for-profit corporation, the NWMO is effectively controlled by industry. In some cases, the large sums of money the NWMO has paid Indigenous and municipal governments as part of its site selection process have led to accusations of governments being bought off by the nuclear industry. Communities downstream from the repository site, as well as the many along the transportation route, are effectively excluded from the ‘willingness’ decision. In the case of the proposed DGR in northwestern Ontario, the NWMO’s “host” community of Ignace is 45 kilometres east of the proposed DGR site and is not just upstream but in a different watershed. There are smaller communities closer to the site who are not part of the NWMO’s “willingness process.” While the NWMO has stated that the DGR would not proceed without the support of Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation, other First Nations with historic and ongoing land use near or overlapping the project area are not being afforded the same respect.

The process is an example of structural injustice. By seeking ‘expressions of interest’ from individual communities, the industry made it inevitable that the poorest communities—including those with the fewest resources to represent their residents’ interests vis-à-vis the nuclear industry—would be the first to step forward. And the process is unfolding in the context of ongoing poverty and economic deprivation in many Indigenous communities in Canada, making it incredibly difficult for many First Nations to say “no” to most proposals for what is presented as development or the more benign sounding advance funding agreements to “learn more” about the project. The fact that a nuclear waste dump appears to be an opportunity to some people and municipalities in northwestern Ontario says more about the deplorable track record of capitalist development in the North than it says about the actual benefits associated with the NWMO’s proposal.

Concerned residents protest against the burial of highly radioactive nuclear fuel waste in the heart of northwestern Ontario. Photo supplied by the authors.

Environmental risk

One of the nuclear industry’s favourite promotional lines about deep geological repositories is that there is an “international consensus” about DGRs being the best option for containing nuclear fuel wastes. But it’s a consensus largely limited to the nuclear establishment, while the reality is that there is no approved and operating DGR for high level waste anywhere in the world, despite decades of effort and hundreds of millions of dollars spent in pursuit of an operating licence. These nuclear waste burial schemes create substantial risk—risk to the environment, and risk to human health—at each of the several steps between current storage and any eventual stashing of these hazardous materials deep underground.

Those risks will begin at the reactor site, when the waste must be transferred from the current storage systems into transportation casks. All of Canada’s commercial reactors are the CANDU design, where 18 months in the reactor core turns simple uranium into an extremely complex and highly radioactive mix of over 200 different radioactive ingredients. Twenty seconds exposure to a single fuel bundle would be lethal within 20 seconds. As a result, the fuel bundles are handled so there is no exposure to air. The bundles are moved underwater from the reactor core into the irradiated fuel bays. After a minimum of 10 years, dry storage containers are submerged for loading into that same pool that has been cooling and shielding the wastes until the temperature is low enough for transfer. The dry storage containers are then moved to on-site storage buildings.

However, the NWMO has been silent on how the transfers from the dry storage containers to the transportation containers (for shipment via road or rail) would be carried out, saying only that it’s up to the “waste owners.” Keep in mind that there has been no internal monitoring of the fuel bundles, and their condition after as long as several decades in dry storage is unknown. At this and later stages, defects in the fuel bundles is a significant concern, as the more damaged a fuel bundle is, the higher the radiation dose will be, potentially affecting both workers and the environment.

According to the NWMO’s conceptual transportation plans, the wastes will be shipped in two to three trucks per day for fifty years, in one of three potential containers. One, the “basket container” is still in the conceptual stage. The second potential container was designed for moving dry storage containers very short distances within the reactor stations. The third was designed by Ontario Hydro in the 1980s and subjected to limited and not wholly successful drop tests of a half-scale model before being certified by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. This third design has since been warehoused by Ontario Hydro (with its certification renewed by its replacement utility, Ontario Power Generation) before being taken over by the Nuclear Waste Management Organization. None of these transportation packages have been subject to full scale testing.

There are two sets of risks during transportation. During normal operations there will be low levels of radiation emanating from each shipment. The NWMO did calculations in 2012 and 2015 and concluded that the levels of radiation exposure will be “acceptable.” Yet radioactive exposure is a combination of dose, distance and duration, so if any of the variables are different than those NWMO plugged into their calculation, the risk factors change. The second set of risks during transportation are those that would result from an accident, particularly one where the container was breached.

When the waste arrives at the repository site it will again be transferred, this time from the transportation containers to the containers for underground placement. Those transfers will happen in a facility euphemistically named the “Used Fuel Packaging Plant,” employing a series of hot cells in which the waste bundles will be exposed to air for the first time since they were created in the reactor core. These transfers will be technically challenging and potentially highly contaminating.

During operations of the deep geological repository, water will become contaminated during the washing down of the nuclear waste transportation packages. Contaminated water will be pumped from the underground repository. Operations will also generate low and intermediate level wastes, both solid and liquid.

Once deposited underground, the nuclear waste itself will contaminate the deep groundwater in the near or long term and that contamination will eventually reach surface water in the vast watershed.

The NWMO’s candidate site in Northwestern Ontario is located half-way between Ignace and Dryden. Because it is at the height of land for the Wabigoon and the Turtle River systems, there are concerns about releases to the downstream communities, including Rainy River and Lake of the Woods. If and when the radioactive releases occur from the deep geological repository, there will be no means to reverse the impacts.

Decades of opposition

This is not the first nuclear waste repository proposed in Northwestern Ontario. In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, Atomic Energy Canada Limited (AECL)—a federal Crown corporation focused on nuclear technology—was directed by the governments of Canada and Ontario to develop a repository for spent nuclear fuel. Northern Ontario, with its supposedly stable rock formations, was deemed ideal for a DGR.

However, public opposition repeatedly put a wrench into AECL’s plans. Many municipal and First Nations governments passed resolutions and issued statements opposing the disposal of nuclear waste in the region. In 1998 a federal environmental assessment panel concluded that AECL’s concept lacked public acceptance and had not been demonstrated “safe and acceptable.” The proposal was subsequently shelved, until the NWMO, which was established four years later, revived it, adopting an approach very similar to the previous AECL concept as the basis of its 2005 recommendation to the federal government.

The establishment of the NWMO did not quell Indigenous, municipal, and grassroots resistance to nuclear waste disposal. In addition to the speeches at the rally in Aenmki Wequedong (Thunder Bay) a growing number of First Nations have passed resolutions or issued statements opposing the transportation and/or disposal of nuclear waste in northwestern Ontario, including Lac Seul First Nation, Ojibway Nation of Saugeen, Grassy Narrows First Nation, Fort William First Nation, and Wabaseemoong Independent Nations.

Earlier this year, leaders from five First Nations in Northern Ontario—Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, Grassy Narrows, Wapekeka, Neskantaga, and Onigaming—formed a united front as the First Nations Land Alliance to voice their opposition to nuclear waste disposal in Northern Ontario. In a letter, they declared, “Our Nations have not been consulted, we have not given our consent, and we stand together in saying ‘no’ to the proposed nuclear waste storage site near Ignace.”

Concerned residents protest against the burial of highly radioactive nuclear fuel waste in the heart of northwestern Ontario. Photo supplied by the authors.

Regional First Nations advocacy organizations have also been vocal opponents of nuclear waste disposal in northern Ontario. For example, the Anishinabek Nation—which has many member nations along the proposed transportation route—has passed resolutions and issued numerous statements opposing the transportation and storage of nuclear waste in Anishinabek territory. The Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents some communities downstream from and along the transportation route, has passed resolutions vehemently opposing the proposed DGR. The proposed DGR site, as well as many communities downstream and along the transportation route, lie in Treaty #3 territory. While Grand Council Treaty 3 has accepted funds from the NWMO, its formal position remains opposed to the transportation and disposal of nuclear waste in Treaty #3 territory, a position it adopted in 2010. In a recent public meeting hosted by Grand Council Treaty #3 in Kenora, Grand Chief Ogichidaa Francis Kavanaugh expressed his own personal opposition, while acknowledging that it was not his decision alone.

Several municipal governments along the transportation route have also spoken out against the NWMO’s plans, including the townships of Nipigon, Red Rock, Sioux Narrows—Nestor Falls and La Vallee. In anticipation of the NWMO’s report in 2005 several larger centres in northeastern Ontario had passed resolutions opposing transportation of high-level waste through their municipality, including the cities of North Bay and Temiskaming Shores.

A number of grassroots groups opposed to the disposal of nuclear waste in Northern Ontario have emerged over the past decade, including No Nuclear Waste in Northwestern Ontario, the Sunset Country Spirit Alliance, and Nuclear Free Thunder Bay. These groups have united with other groups and individuals to form We The Nuclear Free North, an alliance of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and groups dedicated to stopping the proposed DGR that includes the longstanding groups Environment North and Northwatch, who have decades of experience as critics of the nuclear industry’s various attempts to move radioactive wastes from southern to northern Ontario.

A new Indigenous-led anti nuclear group, called Niniibawtamin Anishinaabe Aki (“standing up for the land”), was established in 2023. With members from Treaty 3, Treaty 9, and Robinson Treaty territories, Niniibawtamin Anishinaabe Aki’s mission is to support grassroots Indigenous activists opposing the NWMO’s proposal.

Plebiscites and online polls

This groundswell of Indigenous and public opposition notwithstanding, the position of the municipalities and First Nations adjacent to the proposed DGR sites is less certain. Ignace and South Bruce have both signed hosting agreements with the NWMO, which commit both municipalities to decide whether or not they are “willing hosts” in the coming months. The City of Dryden has signed a series of “Significant Neighbouring” agreements with the NWMO that includes funding and confidentiality provisions, and is currently in the process of negotiating a Benefits Agreement.

In late April, Ignace held an online poll to gauge local support for the proposed DGR. South Bruce and Saugeen Ojibway Nation will hold formal plebiscites on the issue later this year.

The Municipality of Ignace’s approach to the proposed DGR has drawn significant criticism from some observers. In 2021 the Township Council passed a resolution that it would be Council who made the decision and there would not be a municipal referendum, such as South Bruce is holding. The online poll results (which have not been released to the public) are to be combined in a consultants’ report with findings from the consultants’ interviews, and will then be delivered to an “ad hoc willingness committee” appointed by the township council in February 2024. That committee will then make a recommendation to Council, and Council will make the decision. There’s a $500,000 signing bonus if they deliver a “willingness decision” by the end of June 2024. In contrast, the South Bruce referendum is not until October 28, 2024 and Saugeen Ojibway Nation leadership has recently been reported by the media as saying they are unlikely to make their decision before the end of the year.

Hosting agreements

In March 2024, the municipality of Ignace and the NWMO signed a controversial and divisive hosting agreement for the proposed DGR. If ratified through a declaration of willingness, the agreement would require the municipality to support the DGR in perpetuity. This includes supporting the NWMO’s proposal in all future regulatory processes, as well as attending meetings to speak in support of the proposal at the NWMO’s behest. Even if the scope and nature of the proposal changes significantly, the agreement would still require the municipality to support the DGR publicly and though all future regulatory processes.

The hosting agreement would also give the NWMO significant control over how the municipality communicates with its residents and participates in future regulatory processes regarding the DGR. For example, it includes a communication protocol which “provides a framework for a coordinated approach to communications.” This includes requiring Ignace to work with the NWMO on “any media release, public event, campaign, public announcement, or statement or other disclosure…related to…the Agreement and the Project.”

In addition to requiring the municipality to formally support the proposed DGR in all future regulatory processes, the agreement also allows the NWMO to vet the municipality’s comments to regulatory authorities. If the municipality has concerns with the proposal, it must communicate them to the NWMO, and allow the NWMO to incorporate its concerns into its project documents. If the municipality fails to communicate its concerns to the NWMO in a timely manner (within 45 days of receiving the regulatory applications) then the municipality will be prohibited from sharing those concerns with governmental and regulatory authorities.

Ignace is thereby ceding an excessive degree of control to the NWMO for a rather paltry sum of money. The total payments to Ignace during the life of the project will amount to roughly $170 million.

The municipality of South Bruce signed a similar hosting agreement in May 2024. If ratified with a “willingness declaration,” the South Bruce agreement would likewise require the municipality to support the proposed DGR through modifications and changes in scope, and would also give the NWMO significant control over South Bruce’s communications with the public and participation in future regulatory processes. Yet the South Bruce agreement is worth $418 million, more than double the value of the Ignace agreement.

Towards a nuclear phase-out

The NWMO claims that it is solving Canada’s high-level nuclear waste problem by moving it into a DGR. Yet the most dangerous wastes—those that have been freshly removed from a reactor and are too hot to transport for at least a decade—will remain dispersed at reactor sites. What’s more, the nuclear industry hopes to expand rapidly by siting new small modular reactors across Canada, including in remote and rural regions, further dispersing nuclear waste.

The only way to truly solve Canada’s problem with radioactive waste, however, is to stop making more of it. In other words, we need to phase out nuclear power.

Supporters of the nuclear industry argue that a nuclear phase-out is unfeasible, because nuclear energy is necessary to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change. However, research suggests that the nuclear industry is incapable of expanding quickly enough to significantly mitigate climate change. Most plans for nuclear expansion hinge on the mass production of small modular reactors. However, a working prototype of a small modular reactor has yet to be produced in North America.

Even if a rapid nuclear expansion were feasible, it is not desirable. Nuclear energy is incredibly costly, and the generation of nuclear energy and the production of nuclear weapons are intimately linked. Each stage of the nuclear fuel chain—including uranium mining, enrichment, fission power generation, and waste disposal—emits pollution and produces wastes that are both toxic and radioactive, and difficult to store, as outlined in detail above. Once developed, small modular reactors will produce more waste and cost more per energy unit than current conventional reactors.

Indigenous communities have always been at the forefront of struggles against the nuclear industry on Turtle Island. The current battles against nuclear waste disposal in northwestern Ontario are no different. If Canada is to have a just transition away from fossil fuels, then it cannot be based on nuclear power.

Warren Bernauer is a non-Indigenous member of Niniibawtamin Anishinaabe Aki and research associate at the University of Manitoba where he conducts research into energy transitions and social justice in the North.

Laura Tanguay is a doctoral candidate at York University researching the politics of nuclear waste in Ontario

Brennain Lloyd is project coordinator for Northwatch and member of We The Nuclear Free North. 

Elysia Petrone is a lawyer and activist from Fort William First Nation and a member of Niniibawtamin Anishinaabe Aki.

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