By Brennain Lloyd
In 2020, the Canadian federal government committed to review its radioactive waste policy, nine months after an international investigation concluded the policy was inadequate. Hundreds of Canadians and civil society organizations participated in a series of roundtable discussions convened by Nuclear Waste Watch with Natural Resources Canada – the federal department leading the review. Thousands submitted comments in letters, briefs, online, or by email.
The messages focused on the need for an independent agency, at arms-length from the government and industry, to oversee radioactive waste management and decommissioning. The comments asserted policy should direct perpetual care and monitoring of radioactive wastes rather than abandonment, such as in a deep geological repository (DGR). The public called on government to be more transparent in managing and transporting radioactive waste, and to give Indigenous peoples and other Canadians a right to access information, to engage in decision making, and to know the risks associated with radioactive waste. Quite explicitly, thousands of Canadians called for a policy that would prohibit the extraction of plutonium from radioactive fuel waste by reprocessing, including by “pyro-processing,” citing environmental, security, and proliferation issues.
In February 2022, Natural Resources Canada released a draft of their radioactive waste policy, which was disappointing in its superficiality and its failure to protect people and the environment. The draft policy did not establish independent oversight for the nuclear industry and nuclear operations or direct a national standard for the characterization of radioactive waste and maintenance of a verified inventory. It placed the nuclear industry in charge of waste management and identified no role for the federal government, Indigenous peoples, or civil society in developing and implementing an “integrated strategy” for radioactive waste. The draft policy also failed to prohibit reprocessing radioactive wastes, saying only that “deployment of reprocessing technology … is subject to policy approval by the Government of Canada” refusing to illuminate what that “policy” might be.
The matter of reprocessing and the need for a formal policy banning the extraction of plutonium has become more urgent in the two and a half years since the federal policy review was launched. The federal government has endorsed and even funded the development of a new generation of reactors, at least one of which would employ reprocessing of radioactive fuel waste from a Canada Deuterium Uranium (CANDU) pressurized heavy-water reactor.
Canada has had an informal ban on reprocessing since the 1970s, following India’s testing of its first nuclear weapon – made using plutonium from a “peaceful” nuclear reactor, a gift from Canada. However, the informal ban was breached in 2021 when the federal government granted $50.5 million to a New Brunswick company, Moltex Energy, to develop its technology to reprocess fuel waste from existing CANDU reactors with the intent of exporting the technology.
The government also granted more than $1.2 billion to Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) to expand their nuclear research center at Chalk River to include a laboratory for research on plutonium reprocessing. This was despite a 2016 CNL report that found no business case for reprocessing CANDU waste, in part “due to its low fissile content,” and the associated costs and risks. The CNL report also stated that reprocessing would “increase proliferation risk.”
In mid-December, a national alliance of civil society organizations launched a sixteen-week campaign to formally demand that Canada include a ban on plutonium reprocessing in its radioactive waste policy. The groups cite proliferation risk and environmental contamination as major concerns, but communities fighting proposals for DGRs for the burial of high-level nuclear waste have also raised the concern that centralizing all of Canada’s high level waste may be a stepping stone for the nuclear industry to then add a reprocessing facility to the operation.
The campaign also links reprocessing risks to the current push by industry and support by government for so-called ‘small modular reactors.’ Every two weeks the campaign releases a new short video, theme message, and a call for action in the form of letter writing, visits and calls to members of parliament, and other public actions. To learn more about the current campaign visit reprocessing.ca or go to www.nuclearwastewatch.ca to read about the radioactive waste policy review.
— Brennain Lloyd is a public interest researcher, writer, and community organizer in northeastern Ontario, working with Northwatch, a regional coalition of environmental and social justice organizations, since the 1980s.