Wolf cubs near the Chalk River site.
Wolf cubs near the Chalk River site. Credit: Kebaowek First Nation Credit: Kebaowek First Nation

Canada’s first-ever facility for permanent disposal of radioactive waste from nuclear reactors, to be built at the Chalk River Laboratories on the Ottawa River, about 180 kilometers from the nation’s capital, received regulatory approval on January 8.

After an environmental assessment process lasting nearly eight years, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) decided that the proposed “Near Surface Disposal Facility” (NSDF) is “Not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects.”

This decision was immediately condemned by a local First Nation.

A 2022 CNSC staff environmental assessment report had documented the presence of three endangered bat species, endangered Blanding’s Turtles, and several at-risk migratory birds, including Golden-Winged Warblers, Canada Warblers, and Whip-poor-wills, on the NSDF site.

In its own 2022 submission, Kebaowek First Nation, whose unceded traditional territory is adjacent to the proposed site, told the CNSC that it had “not engaged in consultation via a good faith process intended to obtain the free, prior and informed consent of our community.”  The NSDF location and technology had simply been announced in 2015 by a private consortium, with no prior consultation.

The CNSC agreed to delay its final decision.

Kebaowek First Nation then led a team of Indigenous researchers, including members of other Algonquin communities such as Barriere Lake and Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, onto the Chalk River property (which is normally off-limits to the public).  It prepared a supplementary submission for a final NSDF hearing in August 2023 describing the numerous obstacles it encountered in conducting this field work.

Nevertheless, the team’s research revealed a healthy population of Eastern Wolves (Ma’hingan) that appear to be benefiting from availability of prey such as moose, deer, and beavers in the forest and the adjacent Perch Lake wetlands.  They found three active dens of Black Bears (Makwa), a “powerful spirit” in Algonquin culture.  Bear dens are protected under Ontario’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act. 

Basically, when the Canadian Shield is left undisturbed for 80 years, wildlife moves in.

The CNSC’s Record of Decision says that “before the NSDF Project can proceed… a permit from Environment and Climate Change Canada will be required under section 73 of the Species at Risk Act.”  But AECL’s 2023-24 Annual Program of Work and Budget, obtained through Access to Information, says “By 2024 March, NSDF will have completed tree felling and delimbing in preparation for Construction.”

On January 19th, Kebaowek First Nation Chief Lance Haymond wrote a letter to federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault, requesting a “hold” on the section 73 species at risk permit.  His letter details additional concerns about the NSDF, including the finding of a previously unrecorded stand of provincially endangered Black Ash, the loss of a nursery site for bear cubs, impacts of noise pollution on endangered bats, and the abandonment in 2023 of a wolf den with ten pups, likely owing to noise and light pollution from a nearby Chalk River construction site.

The presence of a healthy Eastern Wolf population is noteworthy.  A 2015 report from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) says that “based on genetic analyses in the last 10 years, there is now widespread agreement that the Eastern Wolf is not a subspecies of the Gray Wolf,” but a separate and distinct species.  COSEWIC therefore recommended “uplisting” the Eastern Wolf to “threatened” status.  This would trigger protection of its dens, wintering and feeding areas under section 33 of the Species at Risk Act.

But the government has not acted.

The wolf population on the NSDF site is of concern to Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), the former AECL subsidiary (now owned by a private consortium) that holds the CNSC license allowing construction of the NSDF. CNL commented to Environment and Climate Change Canada on the Regulatory Impact Analysis Statement for the draft uplisting order. They said that if “Eastern Wolf critical habitat is identified on the NSDF project’s footprint, and the project’s construction start is delayed… to after publication of a critical habitat protection order,” they would incur “costs at up to $160 million, which corresponds to the cancellation of the NSDF project and the restart of the whole planning and approval process from the beginning to build a substitute project at an alternative location.”

This would be the best possible outcome.

The CNSC finding of no significant environmental impact also ignored a submission from a former senior official AECL responsible for safety and licensing. He said the NSDF proposal is “non-compliant with International Safety Standards,” that “the safety of humans and nonhuman biota would be dependent upon institutional controls in perpetuity,” and that the “on-going cost of those institutional controls (security, maintenance, repairs, remediation, societal and regulatory controls) for millions of years would continue to be a burden on the public purse and would represent a mind-numbingly large financial liability for the Government of Canada.”

AECL’s waste and decommissioning liability at Chalk River and other reactor sites already exceeds $20 billion, according to the Public Accounts of Canada 2023. In 2015 the Harper government directed AECL to hire foreign corporations and SNC-Lavalin to reduce its liability quickly and cheaply. But the federal nuclear liability continues to grow, even as Parliamentary appropriations have soared to over a billion dollars each year.  The 2023–24 Main Estimates allocate $1,140,509,721 to AECL for “nuclear decommissioning and radioactive waste management.”  AECL passes most of this on to the private corporations under a 10-year contract that expires in September 2025.

The multinational consortium is desperately clinging to its NSDF project, despite abundant evidence that it chose the wrong site and wrong technology.

Perhaps our bear and wolf relatives can help persuade the government that contracting the private sector to deal with its nuclear waste was a huge mistake.

Ole Hendrickson

Ole Hendrickson

Ole Hendrickson is an ecologist, a former federal research scientist, and chair of the Sierra Club Canada Foundation's national conservation committee.