NSDF permits

Lance Haymond, chief of Kebaowek First Nation, at the final licensing hearing for the near-surface disposal facility on Aug. 10, 2023. (Natasha Bulowski)

Matteo Cimellaro
Canada’s National Observer
Local Journalism Initiative

CHALK RIVER – An Algonquin nation is asking the federal government to refuse to issue permits for a nuclear waste facility on the banks of the Ottawa River.

Kebaowek First Nation said the request for permits should be turned down, under the Species at Risk Act and the nuclear research company should have to do more to mitigate environmental risks associated with its nuclear waste facility. The request was made January 23 to Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault.

Kebaowek First Nation said the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission gave “insufficient consideration” to the impact on at-risk species and the rights and responsibilities of the First Nation to protect endangered species on their ancestral territory. Now, the nation wants to be consulted on the environmental risks the project poses to endangered species like eastern wolves, black bears and black ash.

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), a subsidiary of Atkins Réalis (formerly SNC-Lavalin), is asking Ottawa for an exemption to the Species at Risk Act to build the waste storage facility, stated Lance Haymond, chief of Kebaowek First Nation, in an interview. Kebaowek also points to the 37 hectares of old-growth forest that will be cut down to build the facility.

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories will have to spend an additional $160 million to abide by the endangered species legislation if it does not receive the permits, Haymond added.

Environment and Climate Change Canada has 90 days to issue the permits from CNL’s application date. Haymond said it’s unclear what the timeline is.

Earlier this month, the commission announced Canadian Nuclear Laboratories’ operating licence will be changed to allow construction of a “near-surface disposal facility” to hold up to a million tonnes of radioactive and hazardous waste.

The contents at the waste facility will be primarily low-level legacy waste from Chalk River Lab’s 65 years of operations, including debris from decommissioned buildings, contaminated equipment such as protective shoe covers, clothing, rags and equipment, and more.

Stored in a large mound, the waste would sit about a kilometre from the Ottawa River, a culturally important waterway for Algonquins. This proximity to drinking water for millions is one of many factors that raised alarm bells for opponents.

Kebaowek cited Algonquin-led studies, including an environmental assessment released last summer, which found gaps in the environmental studies conducted at the time. The Algonquin studies found bear dens and eastern wolf pups that were at risk, Haymond said.

Now, Minister Guilbeault has a role to play in issuing the permit, and Kebaowek wants to be consulted, Haymond said.

When approval for the project was granted two weeks ago, it contained few changes, says Haymond. Kebaowek, alongside Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation, insists Ottawa and the safety commission neglected to provide adequate consultation.

In a press release, the First Nation pointed to the rejection of Kebaowek’s ancestral knowledge on its territory as a reason to prove the establishment of a more fair and inclusive consultation process.

“This is not reconciliation,” Dylan Whiteduck, chief of Kitigan Zibi, said in an interview about the approval.

Canada’s National Observer has contacted Canadian Nuclear Laboratories and Environment and Climate Change Canada for comment.

— With files from Natasha Bulowski, Canada’s National Observer