In early 2021, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission began reviewing the application from a company called Global First Power to build a nuclear reactor at the Chalk River Laboratories site about 200 kilometres northwest of Ottawa. This project, known as a micro modular reactor project, is an example of the nuclear industry’s latest offering – a small modular reactor (SMR).
SMRs are based on the same fundamental physical processes as regular (large) nuclear reactors; they just produce less electricity per plant. They also produce the same dangerous byproducts: plutonium and radioactive fission products (materials that are created by the splitting of uranium nuclei). These are all dangerous to human health and have to be kept away from contact with people and communities for hundreds of thousands of years. No country has so far demonstrated a safe way to deal with these.
Despite these unsolved challenges, the nuclear industry promotes SMRs and nuclear energy as a carbon-free alternative to diesel for powering remote northern communities. The Canadian government has exempted small modular reactors from full federal environmental assessment under the Impact Assessment Act. Many civil society groups have condemned this decision because it allows SMRs to escape the public scrutiny of environmental, health and social impacts.
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The proposed new SMR in Chalk River, like the existing facilities, would be located on Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation territory and the lands of Kebaowek First Nation – a First Nation that has never been consulted about the use of its unceded territory and that has been severely affected by past nuclear accidents at the site.
At this critical juncture of climate action and Indigenous reconciliation, Kebaowek First Nation is calling for the SMR project at Chalk River to be cancelled and the focus shifted to solutions that do not undermine the ability of First Nations communities to be properly consulted and that do not leave behind a toxic legacy.
While these reactors are dubbed “small,” it would be a mistake to assume their environmental impact is also “small.” The very first serious nuclear accident in the world involved a small reactor: In 1952, uranium fuel rods in the NRX reactor at Chalk River melted down and the accident led to the release of radioactive materials into the atmosphere and the soil. In 1958, another reactor at the same site suffered another accident when a uranium rod caught fire; some workers exposed to radiation continue to battle for compensation.
What makes these accidents worse – and calls into question the justification for new nuclear development at Chalk River – is that this colonized land is the territory of the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation territory (which consists of 11 First Nations whose territory stretches along the entire Ottawa River watershed straddling Quebec and Ontario). Kebaowek First Nation, part of the Algonquin Nation, was among those First Nations never consulted about the original nuclear facilities on their unceded territory, and is still struggling to be heard by the federal government and nuclear regulator. Its land has never been relinquished through treaty; its leaders and people were never consulted when Chalk River was chosen as the site for Canada’s first nuclear reactors; and no thought was given to how the nuclear complex might affect the Kitchi Sibi (the Ottawa River).
History is being repeated at Chalk River today as the government pushes ahead with the micro modular reactor project without consent from Kebaowek. Assessments of the project have been scoped so narrowly that they neglect the historical development and continued existence of nuclear facilities on Kebaowek’s traditional territory. The justification for an SMR at this location without full and thorough consideration of historically hosted nuclear plants – for which there was no consultation nor accommodation – is a tenuous starting point and one that threatens the protection of Indigenous rights.
The narrative of nuclear energy in Canada is one of selective storytelling and one that hides the reality of the Indigenous communities that remain deeply affected, first by land being taken away for nuclear reactor construction, and later by the radioactive pollution at the site. All too fitting is the term radioactive colonialism coined by scholars Ward Churchill and Winona LaDuke, to describe the disproportionate impact on Indigenous people and their land as a result of uranium mining and other nuclear developments. In country after country, the uranium that fuels nuclear plants has predominantly been mined from the traditional lands of Indigenous Peoples at the expense of the health of Indigenous Peoples and their self-determination.
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Kebaowek First Nation has been vocal in its objection to the continuation of the nuclear industry on its lands without its free prior and informed consent, as is its right under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Despite requests for the suspension of the SMR project, pending adequate provisions for Indigenous co-operation and the Crown’s legal duty to initiate meaningful consultation, Kebaowek has yet to see its efforts reflected in government decisions and Crown-led processes.
Nuclear is a colonial energy form, but it is also bio-ignorant capitalism – a term coined by scholars Renata Avila and Andrés Arauz to describe the ways in which the current economic order ignores the planetary climate emergency, human and ecological tragedies, and the large-scale impact on nature. The narrative of nuclear as a “clean energy source” is a prime example of this bio-ignorance. Decision-makers have become fixated on carbon emissions as a metric for “clean and green,” ignoring the radioactive impacts and the risks of accidents with the technology.
It is more than 70 years since Chalk River became the site for the splitting of the nucleus. The continuation of nuclear energy production on unceded Indigenous territory without meaningful dialogue is a telling example of continued colonial practices, wherein companies extract value from Indigenous land while polluting it; offer little to no compensation to impacted communities; and abide by timelines driven by the project’s proponents, not the community affected. We need to move away from this colonial model of decision-making and decolonize our energy systems.
The challenge of climate change is urgent, but responses to the crisis must not perpetuate extractivist solutions, typical of colonial thinking, wherein the long-term impacts – from the production of toxic waste to radioactive releases – lead to highly unequal impacts.
The authors thank Justin Roy, councilor and economic development officer at Kebaowek First Nation, and M.V. Ramana, professor at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia, for contributing to this article.