How on Earth did humans ever think nature would absorb the nasty poisons we generate?
By now, we should realize that to bury or flush these toxins will not make them simply disappear. Many are insidious and will be back to bite us in the future.
Putting a stop to these practices is paramount considering efforts to ameliorate past mistakes is such an onerous proposition, one that is even more demanding when the original polluter and their profits have disappeared.
We persist in flushing sewage into Lake Winnipeg and resist efforts to reduce phosphorus loads all in the name of financial savings. Ironically, there are no savings to be had, just a deferred payment plan. People will pay, it’s just a matter of when.
The nuclear facility near Pinawa was built in the 1960s upon this very strategy of flushing wastes into the Winnipeg River and ultimately Lake Winnipeg, and continues to this day.
The justification at that time was that they could dilute the radioactivity to levels that met their vague "as low as reasonably achievable" policy. Efforts continue to clean up the mess left behind in trenches, standpipes and bunkers, many of which are in disrepair and lead to the river.
The subcontracting consortium that is attempting to deal with defunct sites across the country is Canadian Nuclear Labs (CNL). It is funded by the federal government and is led by SNC-Lavalin, whose lobbying efforts of the federal government are renowned and include bribery and fraud charges, as well as illegal election financing.
The off-loading of the site and its problems have significantly altered the original decommissioning plans of 2001 and expedient shortcuts are being slipped by Canada’s nuclear regulator, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, which we are obliged to trust to provide scrutiny of the cleanup and the ever-changing plans.
CNL has applied for a 10-year licence and is being paid a king’s ransom ($1 billion annually) to restore the lands messed up by Atomic Energy of Canada at sites across the country.
Placing our trust in CNL or the regulatory watchdog, commission, has never been more difficult. Not only are they administered by the same natural resources minister who advocates the expansion of nuclear power in Canada, but they have received a chastising by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for what can only be described as a substandard approach to radioactive-waste disposal.
The IAEA conducted a review mission in September and concluded the commission should enhance its policies and "should consider better aligning its radiation-protection requirements with IAEA safety standards." In other words, shape up. At the very least, the federal watchdog should be placed under the environment portfolio so there is no perception of conflict of interest.
The challenges for Pinawa are substantial as radioactive waste has been disposed of in decaying installations, some of which have required significant patching for cracks and, in a recent report made available to the public, they have discovered evidence of plutonium in the sewage lagoon not intended to receive radioactive materials. There are also the remains of Whiteshell Reactor No. 1 this consortium plans to seal up with concrete in hopes that the inevitable leaks will be absorbed by the river.
Indigenous elders, including Dave Courchene, have taken a collaborative approach to dealing with this toxic predicament, which is upstream from them and entirely related to the concept of "flushing" wastes into a sacred river.
Representatives of the Sagkeeng, Hollow Water and Peguis communities held a ceremony at Pinawa in September in hopes of changing the paradigm and promoting a much better solution.
Since there is no solution to the problem of nuclear waste, they advocate isolating, containing, repackaging and consistent monitoring of these poisons over hundreds of years, a proposal that CNL is not likely to embrace as it will cut into their profits.
Sagkeeng Chief Derrick Henderson stated: "We must be very careful with what we do to our land; we will be here forever and we all have that responsibility and duty."
Until the federal government assumes this duty of stewardship toward the Winnipeg River, "flushing" of radioactive waste will continue. The elders are sending SNC-Lavalin and friends a clear message. If they aren’t willing to adhere to traditional wisdom, keep them on a short leash with a year-to-year licence.
Dave Taylor teaches at the University of Winnipeg.