Nishnawbe Aski Nation opposes possible site for storage of nuclear waste

Nishnawbe Aski Nation’s chiefs-in-assembly passed a resolution Wednesday “vehemently” opposing the possibility of an underground repository for nuclear waste in Northern Ontario.

The chiefs’ resolution calls on Nishnawbe Aski Nation, or NAN, which represents 49 First Nation communities within Northern Ontario, to take action to stop such a possibility, including through protest and possible legal action.

“We’re fighting for our young people. We’re talking hundreds of years from now – that’s who we’re speaking up for,” said Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Derek Fox in an interview. “NAN is going to do all it can – and I was mandated by the chiefs to do all we can – to stop this from happening.”

Chiefs, youth leaders and women’s advocates raised concerns during NAN’s annual Keewaywin Conference, which is being held in Timmins, Ont., this week. Some leaders also expressed anger at a lack of consultation of NAN’s communities over the possible site. The chiefs’ resolution speaks to a years-long search by the Nuclear Waste Management Organization, or NWMO, for a site to build a “deep geological repository,” or GDR, which would see Canada’s spent nuclear fuel stored in a facility located at least 500 metres below-ground.

That search has been narrowed to two possible sites: one located between Ignace and Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation in Northern Ontario, which is the site of concern to NAN, and another near South Bruce, Ont. A decision between the two sites is expected by the end of 2023, said Bob Watts, NWMO’s vice-president of Indigenous relations and strategic programs.

If the site near Ignace is selected, the township of Ignace, as well as Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation, would hold approval power over the project going forward, Mr. Watts confirmed.

Wabigoon Lake is not a member of NAN and the site would sit just south of NAN’s territory – within Treaty 3, but Mr. Fox pointed out that any issue with the site will not just affect Treaty 3, but the entire region.

“All rivers flow north from that area,” he said. “Nuclear waste doesn’t know treaty boundaries. A spill does not know treaty boundaries. A nuclear waste accident is not going to say, okay, well, we only agreed to pollute Treaty 3.”

Any kind of pollution in the rivers, lakes and waterways of the region would have “devastating” effects, he said.

During a presentation, Jennifer Guerrieri, public-health infrastructure policy analyst for NAN, also emphasized that the watersheds encompassing the possible site flow north into NAN territory, and ultimately, into Hudson Bay.

“This waste is extremely dangerous. If there was to be any breach of the facility or spill in-transport it definitely would have human health and environmental impacts,” she said.

Mr. Watts, the NWMO vice-president, said he is glad NAN is interested in this process. When asked about his organization’s consultations with NAN, he said the two parties “had a pretty good process going at one point,” but he estimated that conversations haven’t taken place in at least four or five years.

“We probably could have done a better job of keeping [NAN] informed of how things are going, regardless of whether or not their communities were part of the process,” he said. “I think it would be great to re-engage with NAN and talk about their concerns.”

He also said that while a site may be chosen by the end of 2023, NWMO is still at least 20 years away from being in a position to actually transport spent nuclear fuel to the chosen site.

Mr. Watts said that the idea of a deep geological repository came about through years of study, as the current system of managing used nuclear fuel is not a long-term solution.

In discussions ahead of Wednesday’s vote on the resolution, chiefs and other leaders expressed their concerns about the possible location of the site.

“Northern Ontario is not a garbage can,” said Constance Lake First Nation Chief Ramona Sutherland. “We work for seven generations of our people – I don’t want to pass this down to my son, my grandson, and then his sons.”

Neskantaga First Nation Chief Wayne Moonias called the proposal “disturbing,” and added, “the thought of having a nuclear waste site in our area – it’s just not something that we can live with.”

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