As Chief Lance Haymond waits to see if the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) will license construction of a radioactive waste site a kilometre away from the Ottawa River, the Algonquin leader worries the nuclear regulator has become a rubber stamp for industry.
"What we see, quite frankly, with CNSC, is a captured regulator," said Haymond, chief of Kebaowek First Nation in Quebec, about 380 kilometres north of Ottawa.
"There is no independence."
The CNSC is presently weighing whether to let Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) bury a million cubic metres of low-level radioactive waste — enough to fill some 400 Olympic-sized swimming pools — at the Chalk River research facility near Deep River, Ont., about 160 kilometres west of Ottawa.
CNL is run by a private-sector consortium contracted to manage federal nuclear sites. Chalk River sits on the unceded traditional territory of the Algonquin Anishinabe Nation.
A view of part of the Chalk River Laboratories research facility from the water. Privately run consortium Canadian Nuclear Laboratories proposes to store waste from the site in a near surface disposal facility. (Reno Patry/CBC)
Haymond feels the regulator is too cozy with industry. When asked for examples, he pointed to the commissioners' public biographies.
There are six people currently listed as permanent commission members, including two identified as Indigenous. Of the six, one used to work at the Chalk River laboratory, and another used to work for SNC-Lavalin, a member of the consortium that runs CNL, he said.
"We have huge, huge concerns," said Haymond, adding that it "doesn't give us very much comfort" to see people with ties to the nuclear industry appointed to the safety commission.
Perception of bias not new
While the Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn, roughly 150 kilometres northwest of Ottawa, consented to the project, the other 10 federally recognized Algonquin First Nations in Ontario and Quebec have not. The Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn were not available for comment for this story.
Dylan Whiteduck, chief of Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, 150 kilometres north of Ottawa in Quebec, raised the issue at an August CNSC hearing into CNL's requested licence amendment.
"Both your organizations … hold biased opinions and are in conflict," he said.
"I want to, for the record, ask you all this question: Do you consider you are both organizations in conflict?"
Chief Dylan Whiteduck of Kitigan Zibi Anishinābeg speaks at a news conference in Ottawa on Aug. 10. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
In a statement emailed to CBC News, CNL said it has followed the process set out by the regulator, and aims to operate all its sites "with an unwavering commitment to safety and environmental protection."
The consortium has argued, In regulatory filings last year, that the project "is unlikely to result in any appreciable impacts on Aboriginal or treaty rights or interests."
CNSC declined to address the criticism directly in a statement supplied to CBC News in lieu of an interview.
The commission is an independent, quasi-judicial tribunal responsible for ensuring the safety of Canadians and the environment by regulating the nuclear industry, the statement said.
"The commission will consider all the information submitted on the record," said the unattributed emailed statement.
"It may be several more weeks before a decision is issued."
Kerrie Blaise, a member of the legal team representing Kebaowek, said perceptions of bias are not new for the nuclear regulator.
"It dates back to their founding days," when the commission was called the Atomic Energy Control Board and was mandated to promote, as well as regulate, development, she said.
While the promotional mandate is gone, she said there is still not enough separation between the CNSC and the ministry overseeing it, Natural Resources Canada, whose minister is responsible for promoting nuclear development.
"There is both a perception of a lack of independence and a perception of bias," said Blaise.
"This creates this lived experience of the regulator being not a watchdog, but a promotional entity for the industry."
The commission has stressed its independence from politicians, saying the CNSC reports not to the minister, but to Parliament through the minister.
"The minister exerts no control over the CNSC's day-to-day activities or on its decisions," then-president Rumina Velshi told members of Parliament in March 2022, adding "there is no political interference in our decision-making."
For their part, scientists at Chalk River have long sought solutions to the Second World War-era facility's radioactive heritage.
CNL has termed the project a "near surface disposal facility," or NSDF: an engineered containment mound consisting of disposal cells with a base liner and cover, as well as systems to collect leachate, detect leaks and monitor the environment.
The Algonquins are concerned with the potential for water pollution and harm to wildlife at the site.
The mound would slope away from the Ottawa River, toward Perch Lake, where CNL proposes to dump effluent laced with radioactive tritium, but only in certain circumstances and only with treated wastewater that meets safe discharge targets, its environmental impact statement says.
The near surface disposal facility (NSDF) proposed by Canadian Nuclear Laboratories would be on a ridge one kilometre from the Ottawa River, not far from Chalk River Laboratories in the foreground. (City of Ottawa)
Perch Lake, an Ottawa River tributary via Perch Creek, has been subject to nuclear contamination for decades from 1950s-era waste disposal at the lab.
CNSC is also in charge of the environmental assessment, which troubles Rosanne Van Schie, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto with expertise in forest conservation who was retained by the Algonquin communities to assist with the assessment.
"This whole arrangement is just convenient to industry," she said.
"It's just easy for them to mow down this mountain — like, it's a mountain — and start putting the waste there."
Haymond said the Algonquins are working on a strategy to keep fighting the project, whichever way the decision goes.
He wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this summer but said he got no reply, so, last month, he met with the Bloc Québécois to seek support. The Bloc then urged Ottawa to scrap the project and, at minimum, write Haymond back.
The Liberals defended the CNSC during question period in the House of Commons last month as a "world-class regulatory agency" in response to the Bloc's criticism, though Jaime Battiste, parliamentary secretary for the minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations did "acknowledge that we have work to do on this file."