Nuclear waste disposal in Canada is 'an accident waiting to happen,' says Indigenous leader

First Nations leaders say that plans for a permanent nuclear waste storage facility in Ontario are dangerous, but one nuclear expert argues that fears are overblown.

'People are gambling with people's lives,' says grand council chief of the Anishinabek Nation

Rows of chambers holding intermediate-level radioactive waste in shallow pits at the Bruce Power nuclear complex near Kincardine, Ont., on the shores of Lake Huron. (John Flesher/The Associated Press)
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Plans to build nuclear waste facilities near First Nations communities should be a concern for all Canadians, not just the people living there, according to one Indigenous leader.

The proposals for a permanent storage facility near Kincardine, Ont., are on hold while Indigenous groups consider the ramifications. Meanwhile, nuclear waste from the reactor at Chalk River Laboratories, a research facility north of Ontario that closed in March, is being trucked to South Carolina through populated areas.

Patrick Madahbee told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti that transporting the material like this is "an accident waiting to happen." 

Madahbee is the grand council chief of the Anishinabek Nation, which represents about 40 First Nations across Ontario. He is part of a group of Indigenous leaders meeting at the the United Nations in New York Monday to highlight their concerns.

"There's been many disasters on the highways, and people are gambling with people's lives and water supply, and land," he said.

"It's not an Indigenous issue specifically," he added, "it should be everybody's concern in Canada."

On its website, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission wrote that "radioactive material has been transported safely nationally and internationally over 45 years by road, rail, water and air without a single radiological incident. It is a highly regulated activity that must meet stringent requirements."

Indigenous groups say a plan to store nuclear waste near the Ottawa River in eastern Ontario is "insanity" and want the federal government to intervene. 0:41

David Shoesmith, a professor of chemistry at Western University, said that while the potential for a road accident is always there, there are measures in place to minimize the harm caused.

Shoesmith has spent 30 years researching nuclear waste disposal issues. Some of that research was paid for in part by the Nuclear Waste Management Organisation.

"[The waste is] in special containers, drop tested and guaranteed that they will survive those kind of incidents," he told Tremonti.

"It's not just going to be the equivalent to a tanker with a pile of waste," he said. "The precautions taken are extreme."

The reactor at Chalk River Laboratories closed in March, but there is still nuclear waste that needs to be disposed of. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Issues around nuclear waste disposal are controversial, he said, because people conflate the disposal of waste to reactors that experience accidents, such as what happened at Chernobyl or Fukushima.

"The operation of nuclear reactors is a completely different subject," he said. "Here we're talking about the static waste, which we have to dispose of, so it's not the same issue."

When fuel first comes out of the reactor it is extremely toxic, he said, and people are right to ask questions about long-term storage. But he argued that people forget "that over that long period of time it's degrading to an innocuous danger level."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.


This segment was produced by The Current's Geoff Turner and Calgary Network Producer Michael O'Halloran.