More criticism, cold water poured on Labrador nuclear waste storage idea

From a geological expert to the Innu Nation to the region's member of Parliament, opposition to a secretive plan to bury foreign countries' nuclear waste is growing.

Scientist says 'no reason' to choose Labrador above other Canadian sites

Innu Nation Grand Chief Etienne Rich and Deputy Grand Chief Mary Ann Nui issued a statement condemning the nuclear waste plans and calling on both federal and provincial governments to also denounce it. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

Criticism about secretive plans to build a nuclear waste facility in Labrador continues to flood in from a range of voices, including an expert who says there's nothing distinctive about the area that makes it well suited for such a project. 

John Hancher, a professor of earth sciences at Memorial University who studies nuclear waste storage, says there's "no geologic reason" why the facility should be built in Labrador over other places.

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien, who said in a 2019 letter that the area's granite rock was "ideal" for an underground storage facility, was involved in a potential project to bury foreign nuclear waste in Labrador. Meetings on the project, involving American and Japanese players, were scuttled by the pandemic last spring, an April 1 investigation by Radio Canada's Enquête revealed.

Why Labrador was floated at all puzzles Hanchar. Its geological composition doesn't stand out from other sites in Quebec, Ontario, Saskatchewan or Manitoba that "would be equally suitable" to store radioactive material underground, he said. 

While the idea of storing nuclear waste below ground has been well studied in Canada, he said, as far as he knows there have never been talks about waste from other countries. A federal initiative to figure out what to do with Canada's nuclear waste has only ever considered Saskatchewan or Ontario sites, with two in Ontario still being explored. (Another separate repository site in the latter's Bruce County was kiboshed in 2020 after 15 years of study.)

On top of that politically fraught process, Hanchar said sites in Labrador present an extra logistical challenge, as they lack infrastructure such as rail or highway access.

"As far as I can tell, and with talking with colleagues of mine in the nuclear waste industry, Labrador was never on anybody's radar list and was never discussed by anyone," he told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show on Tuesday.

Sites in Ontario have been considered to store Canadian nuclear waste, but Hanchar says Labrador has never been floated in those plans, let alone as a site for international waste. (John Flesher/The Associated Press)

Denounce plans: Innu Nation

Indigenous groups in Labrador say they were not involved in any nuclear waste plans.

In a press release, the Innu Nation said it was "astounded" to hear of the project, and minced no words in its disapproval.

"A storage facility for nuclear waste will not be built on our land now — or ever — and the federal and provincial governments need to denounce plans for this project," said Grand Chief Etienne Rich in the release.

Rich said the Innu Nation hadn't been engaged in any talks, and called upon Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey to disclose all information they have about the project. Furey said Thursday there was "zero possibility" of such a facility being built in Labrador.

The Innu Nation's rejection comes on top of a statement from the Nunatsiavut government, saying it had not been consulted thus far and would be seeking more information from both levels of government before commenting further.

The NunatuKavut commmunity council also released a statement, with President Todd Russell saying he was "frankly appalled" to find out about the project via the media.

On Tuesday, Labrador MP Yvonne Jones said opposition across Labrador to the idea is unanimous, making the whole conversation "a non-starter."

"While I'm here, this development will not proceed in Labrador without the full consent and permission of Labradorians, including Indigenous groups. And if they're not prepared to sign on, then this is not about to happen," Jones said.

Unless there were federal-level talks that excluded her, she said, the federal government has not been involved with the international waste plans.

Labrador MP Yvonne Jones says she's heard unanimous opposition in Labrador to the facility so far, and she herself does not support it. (Katie Breen/CBC)

'A multi-decade process'

The idea of nuclear waste storage has come up in "passing conversation" over the span of years, Jones said, as "it's no secret" that Labrador's geology suits the idea.

"It's been known to be superior to most countries in the world in terms of the geological rock formations that we have. That doesn't mean that we're interested in nuclear storage, just because our geology supports it — to me that has absolutely no bearing on it," she told CBC Radio's Labrador Morning.

Additionally, as Labrador is neither a uranium producer nor home to a nuclear reactor, Jones said that clears the region of any obligation to store waste. Chrétien has said Canada, as a supplier of nuclear fuel, has a responsibility to store waste.

All of Canada's own nuclear waste is still stored on site at nuclear reactors, said Hanchar. While the idea of burying it in repositories about 500 metres below ground has been looked at, no country in the world has so far successfully done it, he said, including the world leader, Finland, which has been looking at the idea for about 40 years.

Any proposal in Labrador or elsewhere would not happen overnight, he said.

"This is something that would take decades to plan and then several decades to build," Hanchar said.

"So it's not something that they're gonna start moving nuclear waste up here tomorrow, and that's one point that I want to stress, that this is a multi-decade process."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show and Labrador Morning