Governments and other nuclear proponents are failing both Indigenous and settler communities by promoting sales and publicity material about small modular nuclear reactors (SMNRs) instead of sharing facts by independent researchers not tied to the industry.
For decades, nuclear proponents, including both the federal and New Brunswick government, have focused on the ‘dream of plentiful power’ without highlighting the risks. The nuclear fuel chain – mining uranium, chemically processing the ore, fabricating the fuel, fissioning uranium in a reactor creating toxic radioactive waste remaining hazardous for tens of thousands of years – leaves a legacy of injustices disproportionately felt by Indigenous peoples and all our relations.
Now the same is happening with the push for SMNRs. We are promised safer reactors by nuclear startup companies in New Brunswick using modifications of reactor designs – molten salt, sodium cooled – that have never operated successfully and safely on a grid anywhere despite billions of dollars of public funds spent in other countries.
Only one example of the misguided SMNR sales pitches for Indigenous and settler communities in New Brunswick is that used CANDU reactor fuel can be “recycled” to make new fuel. The technical name for this process is ‘reprocessing.’ Calling it ‘recycling’ is a buzzword meant to reassure people because the truth is impossible to accept. If the reprocessing project goes ahead, less than one percent of the used fuel at Point Lepreau is plutonium and other elements that could possibly be extracted and re-used for new fuel. The more than 99 percent left over will be a toxic mess of new forms of nuclear waste that nobody knows how to safely contain.
The reprocessing process planned for New Brunswick is based on a technology developed by the Idaho National Laboratory, which has spent hundreds of millions of dollars so far, over two decades, attempting to reprocess a small amount of used fuel.
In different countries, commercial reprocessing has been an environmental and financial disaster. In just one example, a small commercial reprocessing plant in the U.S. operated for six years – heavily subsidized by the federal government and New York State – before shutting down for safety improvements. After the owner abandoned the project in the 1970s, the multi-billion dollar clean up continues today.
The research on reprocessing used fuel is clear: it’s an expensive nuclear experiment that could leave a multi-million-dollar radioactive mess affecting entire ecosystems and the health of people and other living beings. Why are governments sharing sales and promotional material about the project and fantasies about ‘recycling’ instead of facts about reprocessing and the experiences in other countries? Why are New Brunswickers and First Nation leaders not demanding the evidence?
The lack of transparency by governments on the risks of SMNRs indicates that either they are not concerned with the risks, or they choose not to share them – the opposite of what is required under the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Much of society’s standards for integrity have been lost. We ‘accept’ circular references, we ‘accept’ that no one is declaring a conflict of interest in conversations surrounding nuclear. When our integrity is lost, so is our quality of life. Words such as ‘protect’ and ‘conservation’ have no meaning anymore. Though we use the terms ‘transparency,’ and ‘accountability,’ more and more often, they have less and less meaning.
The Peskotomuhkati Nation in Canada and Wolastoq Grand Council cannot provide consent for any new nuclear developments in New Brunswick without considering the lessons they have learned in the past, the current relationships and communications they are experiencing, and the impacts of toxic wastes that remain dangerous forever. First Nations in New Brunswick cannot provide consent for toxic radioactive waste to be sent to Ontario, where Indigenous nations also do not want it on their territories.
The Wolastoq Grand Council, which issued a statement on nuclear energy and nuclear waste in 2021, opposes any destruction or harm to Wolastokuk which includes all ‘Flora and Fauna’ in, on and above their homeland. Nuclear is not a green source of energy or solution to a healthier future for our Children, Grandchildren and the ones who are not born yet. Wolastoqewi-Elders define Nuclear in their language as ‘Askomiw Sanaqak,’ which translates as ‘Forever Dangerous.’
The Peskotomuhkatik ecosystem includes Point Lepreau. The Peskotomuhkati leadership in Canada has repeatedly tried to bring facts about both New Brunswick SMNR projects and their potential environmental implications to the attention of New Brunswickers and all Canadians, writing twice to Environment and Climate Change Minister Guilbeault urging him to designate the SMNR projects in New Brunswick for a federal impact assessment, so that all the facts could be made public. Both attempts were denied, the most recent in August this year.
Peskotomuhkati leadership has participated, and continues to participate, in Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) and various provincial processes and has firsthand experience that these past and current engagement and assessment tools do not provide a sufficient framework to address adverse effects and impacts to Indigenous rights.
The SMNR projects planned for Point Lepreau within Peskotomuhkatik homeland will have profound and lasting impacts on Indigenous rights as well as those of Indigenous communities in Ontario where the nuclear industry is proposing to build a deep geological repository for the used nuclear fuel and other sites for intermediate radioactive waste. The SMNR projects will also have profound and lasting impacts on the Bay of Fundy, the marine life the Bay supports and coastal communities.
Until the government begins to ask for and share facts about SMNRs instead of sales materials, Indigenous nations must assume that representation no longer means peoples’ representation, but rather representation of the industry.
An earlier version of this commentary was published by The Hill Times.