Bruce Power wants to ship sixteen radioactive decommissioned steam generators across the ocean to Sweden for repurposing. The parts of the generators that are "too radioactive to be recycled" will make their way back across the ocean to the Bruce nuclear plant for long-term storage. To get to Europe and back, the generators and their radioactive components will have to float down the St. Clair River, through Lakes Erie and Ontario, out through the St. Lawrence and then back again.
The proposal is the first in what could be a series of radioactive waste voyages over the Great Lakes, as nuclear power plants in Bruce, Pickering and Darlington undergo maintenance, refurbishment, decommissioning, and new construction. The way in which the project is scrutinized and licenced will have a big impact on whether tensions rise between nuclear uses and other uses in the coming years - and whether the public's faith in Canada's nuclear regulator is strengthened or further diminished.
The Great Lakes and connecting channels that are so attractive to industry searching for inexpensive cooling water and transportation routes also form a unique ecosystem and provide drinking water to tens of millions of Canadians and Americans. We can already see conflict emerging between competing visions for the Great Lakes.
When news of the plan filtered to local councils, environmental organizations, and the media in recent weeks, the backlash was enormous. The number one complaint? No consultation. Not with municipal councils, not with residents, not with non-governmental organizations. As Mike Bradley, Mayor of Sarnia, told the Toronto Star: “The impression that I have is that this is a rubber stamp process. I think it’s unfolding in a manner that is disrespectful to the public process."
Murray Elston, a Bruce Power spokesman and prominent nuclear industry lobbyist, suggests that the criticisms are unwarranted: "We have actually done more outreach and connected with more people than some people have thought we needed."
Consultation vs. spin
Mr. Elston's comment is not surprising. The nuclear industry often behaves as though commercials, public relations campaigns, and self-assessments are enough "public consultation" to entitle it to regulatory approvals. The industry is wrong.
Canadians are supposed to be protected by the principles of administrative law. These principles include the right to be informed about and to comment on decisions, the right to have decisions made in a transparent process, and the right to have decisions made by independent decision-makers.
Waterkeeper Mark Mattson was on CBC radio earlier this week talking about this kind of due process - and the importance of protecting the Great Lakes from unnecessary risks. Our organization recommends that the Bruce Power proposal be subject to thorough, public, formal review as it goes to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission for approval.
Bruce Power still requires a licence to transport a nuclear substance under s.24(2) of the Nuclear Safety and Control Act (The "NSCA"). Before it issues a licence, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission must be satisﬁed that Bruce Power has made adequate provision for the protection of the environment and for human health and safety.
The licence will most likely be issued by a "Designated Officer" - a staff member - rather than the Commission itself, unless the CNSC views it as a "higher risk" application or recognizes the widespread public concern. Currently, the CNSC has no plans to hold a hearing. It has the power to do so if a hearing would be in the public interest (see s.40(5)(b) of the NSCA).
CNSC should hold a hearing
There is a lot of uncertainty around Bruce Power's proposal. What will it mean for drinking water? For fish and fish habitat? The chances of an accident may be "low", but do we have the knowledge, skills, and resources to act if the worst case scenario comes true? The Great Lakes are the sole source of drinking water for so many people. More proposals like this are likely to appear in the coming years. Given the significance of this decision and the widespread concern amongst local officials, we believe that the need for such a hearing is obvious.
You are encouraged, by the Commission, to address comments or questions to the CNSC as well: firstname.lastname@example.org. Lake Ontario Waterkeeper will submit our recommendation to the CNSC directly and post it on our website in the days to come.