A group of Canadian citizens launched a legal challenge against the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) on Thursday over the commission’s recent approval of the construction of a Near Surface Disposal Facility (NSDF) near the Ottawa River. Led by the Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area, Ralliement contre la pollution radioactive, and the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, the challenge encompasses a broad array of environmental and public health concerns surrounding the NSDF’s potential impacts.
At the core of this legal action is an application for judicial review pursuant to section 18 of the Federal Courts Act. The challenge targets the CNSC’s decision, dated January 8, approving Canadian Nuclear Laboratories’ (CNL) application to amend the Nuclear Research and Test Establishment Operating License for the Chalk River Laboratories sites. This amendment would authorize the construction of the NSDF, classified as a Class IB Nuclear Facility—a project not previously sanctioned under the existing license.
Represented by Nicholas Pope, the applicants seek an order to quash the decision to amend the license for NSDF construction.
The NSDF is envisaged as a nuclear waste disposal facility designed to contain up to one million cubic meters of radioactive waste. Its anticipated lifespan comprises several phrases, including a construction phase, operation phase, closure phase, institutional control period, and post-institutional control period. Of potential concern to the applicants is the potential for rainwater infiltration during the operation phase, which could lead to the leaching of radioactive materials into the environment. Moreover, plans to mitigate this risk by discharging treated wastewater into Perch Lake, a tributary of the Ottawa River, have raised further alarm.
To secure the license amendment, CNL underwent a rigorous approval process, which required an environmental assessment under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, compliance with the Nuclear Safety and Control Act (NSCA), and consultation with Indigenous communities. However, the applicants raised concerns about the CNL’s fulfillment of these requirements.
Of particular contention is the inclusion of an override section within the Waste Acceptance Criteria documented submitted by CNL. This provision, if implemented, would ostensibly permit the disposal of waste that does not meet the established acceptance criteria, thereby eroding any assurances of stringent waste management standards and rendering the safety case effectively null and void. Moreover, concerns persist regarding the efficacy of waste verification processes to ensure compliance with the acceptance criteria.
Assertions have been made that the CNL failed to adequately consider the environmental impacts of alternative wastewater discharge methods, including the proposed pipeline to Perch Lake.
In a comment to JURIST, Pope asserted:
According to Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, the proponents of the project, even if all goes according to plan and there are no disruptive events, the public will still be subjected to radiation doses that are one and a half times the regulated standard for radioactive material that have been released from regulatory controls. And, if a disruptive event does occur, the public could receive up to fourteen times the legal limit of a radiation dose. So this surface level facility has been designed to only last for 550 years before it erodes and only be under institutional control for 300 years yet the materials they are planning on placing in this mound have half-lives of thousands of years and will remain radioactive for thousands of years—well beyond when it is no longer under governmental control and when the cover has eroded away so the materials will be free to be released into the environment.
The applicants also raised concerns about CNL’s compliance with consultation requirements with Indigenous nations, particularly Kebaowek First Nation, whose traditional territory encompasses the proposed NSDF site.