Question: When is a plan not a plan? Answer: When it is Atomic Energy of Canada Limited’s “cleanup” proposal for the town of Port Hope, Ontario.
At a packed hearing last week, Canada’s nuclear regulator, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, listened to presentations on the proposal from its staff, AECL, private citizens, and volunteer organizations -- roughly 100 presentations in all, spanning 17 hours of hearing time.
AECL is asking for a licence for a low level radioactive waste site. The site will house approximately 1.5 million cubic metres of nuclear and industrial waste, collected from the community over the course of the next decade.
The proposal was approved in 2007, following a six-year environmental assessment. The ensuing licensing process should have been fairly straight forward -- hash out a few technical details and get shovels in the ground.
Instead, last week’s hearing revealed that the Port Hope Area Initiative is a project nowhere close to being shovel-ready and that the country’s nuclear regulator is over its head when it comes to the technical details of landfill design.
Worse yet, the residents of Port Hope are as divided as ever before. The problem, many presenters said, is not the low level radioactive waste scattered around the town; but the national media that fear-mongers and the neighbours who will not be quiet. Harsh criticisms are lobbed at any individual or organization who dares to raise concerns about human health or environmental impacts.
Local media reports about the hearing helped fan the flames of controversy, painting a black-and-white image of a town hopelessly divided. The Northumberland Today described a “tense atmosphere” in the gymnasium-cum-hearing room “as people on both sides … made their cases.”
In reality, the issue is far more nuanced than that. There are more than two sides to this story. And there is unanimous support for the concept behind the project: cleaning up the radioactive waste that plagues the Port Hope community.
There is not, however, full support for the specific project proposed by AECL. And for good reason. The project is full of holes, with key aspects of the landfill design that will not be released to the public until after the site is licenced and constructed. Members of the public and of regulatory agencies should be encouraged to identify the weaknesses in the plan, to bring them to light and to offer solutions. In a mature society, a citizen should be able to voice concerns about the details of a proposal - or the lack of details - without being accused of “opposing” the project entirely.
Without informed, rationale, and transparent discussion today, the stigma that Port Hope residents complain about will remain for the next generation. And everyone who lives there deserves better.
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