Canada: Two Approaches to 'Consent' for DGR Sites

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The two Ontario municipalities short-listed for hosting Canada's proposed deep geologic repository (DGR) for high-level nuclear waste settled late last year on different approaches to determining whether there is enough local buy-in for the project to proceed. Both communities are deeply divided over the issue, with residents debating questions that have long dogged Canada's consent-based approach to site selection. Another potential wrinkle: securing a green light from indigenous communities in both areas, without which DGR planners are committed not to proceed.

The mid-December municipal decisions follow months-long studies in both locales over the issue of how to define "willingness" to host a DGR: Ignace Township Council in northwestern Ontario agreed that this willingness will be determined in 2023 by the council itself, after further community outreach, while the South Bruce Council called for a referendum once a draft hosting agreement has been reached with Canada's industry-run organization responsible for managing its nuclear waste. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) called the council decisions a "major milestone" but it's unclear whether they can or will deliver the "consent" needed for the organization to make a final site selection in 2023, as called for in its Adaptive Phased Management plan.

Defining what consent looks like, and which communities are allowed to give it, has been a thorny issue for DGR planners the world over — particularly those committed to consent-based siting. Canada, like Finland and Sweden before it, has granted considerable power to local communities to approve or deny DGR plans, but critics claim the NWMO is still maneuvering the Ignace and South Bruce councils to structure the consent process in a way designed to lead to approval.

A local citizens group in South Bruce opposed to hosting a DGR is calling for a referendum concurrent with municipal elections Oct. 22, saying that any future council could overturn the December referendum decision. Meanwhile opponents of a DGR near Ignace argue that residents of a much wider geographical area, including townships closer than Ignace to the proposed site, must be included in the decision-making. They also say that residents of towns along the eventual spent nuclear fuel shipping route should have a say.

Pressure for a referendum in South Bruce grew last year as DGR opponents canvassed residents to sign a petition for a voter referendum that would coincide with this October's Council election. Separately, the council hired Toronto-based consultancy GHD to conduct "willingness" surveys. "GHD's report showed that most participants in the consultation favor a referendum as the method to determine willingness, however there were a variety of opinions on the timing," the South Bruce Council said in a release announcing its decision. But the town argues that a referendum after the elections allows more time for citizens to be informed. "This timeline will also allow for a variety of studies and peer reviews about the project to be completed."

South Bruce DGR opponents say the decision is not binding on future councils and ignores a petition signed by 1,272 voting-aged residents for a referendum in the upcoming Oct. 24 Council elections. The Dec. 14 decision to proceed with a referendum "just kicked the decision into the future for the next group of elected officials who'll be sitting in your chairs," Michelle Stein, chair of the locally based Protect Our Waterways group, told the council in a Jan. 11 meeting. Council spokesperson Steve Travale agreed that the referendum will not be legally binding, but called it "a strong endorsement" that "sets expectations for Council down the road."

At that January meeting the council declined to accept a Protect Our Waterways petition tying the date of the DGR referendum to the municipal elections. The group was not willing to make the names of the petition's signatories public, although Stein says that "two independent scrutineers" verified that they were all South Bruce residents. The council invited the group to resubmit the petition with names attached, but it is refusing to do so, citing the divisiveness of the issue in South Bruce, which counted just 5,639 residents as of 2016.

Releasing the names would "only increase the division within the community and we do not want to see anymore property damage to people in support of our cause by those who object to our position," Stein wrote to Energy Intelligence in an email, citing one instance when "an offensive package was received in a mailbox by one of the members. We agreed not to make the list public no matter what the outcome of our request becomes."

Little Opposition in Ignace

Further to the northwest in Ignace, population 1,202, a willingness study conducted for the council by Toronto-based consultancy Hardy Stevenson and Associates did not include a referendum as an option for determining local consent. A referendum "cannot determine whether someone is informed," the Council explained in a December survey update. Beyond that, "no one suggested it during our community outreach events whereas two of the 166 people who commented in our formal survey indicated that Ignace should hold a referendum."

Instead the township opted for "deliberative democracy" in which "argument, debate [and] exchange of ideas" among citizens help the Council come to an ultimate decision in 2023.

DGR opponents blame the lack of organized opposition in the community and governance issues for the decision to rule out a referendum. "There is local opposition but they have not organized as a group the way Protect Our Waterways has," said Brennain Lloyd, of Northwatch, an activist group in northeastern Ontario. "Local residents are concerned about a backlash if they speak out."

Lloyd noted a "high level of turnover" at senior staff and council level in Ignace, and that the Ignace mayor, Penny Lucas, has been actively involved with the Ignace Citizens Nuclear Liaison Committee (ICNLC). Lucas confirmed she has been a committee member since 2011 when the ICNLC was set up by the township to facilitate "learning" about the DGR plans. She resigned to apply for the ICNLC project coordinator position and served in that capacity from mid-2014 to July 2018. Since then she has returned as a volunteer member, and became mayor in May 2020. The ICNLC, whose members are voluntary, is funded by the NWMO.

Lloyd points out that several "unorganized townships" downstream from the proposed nuclear waste burial site have no formal say in the ultimate consent decision. "The NWMO has said over and over again they won’t proceed without informed consent. If they had any sort of accountability it would be a regional decision." NWMO spokesperson Vince Ponka told Energy Intelligence that both Ignace township and his organization are working with "other communities in the region to support learning about the project, to understand their perspectives and concerns, and to explore broader regional support."

Beyond the consent of Ignace and/or South Bruce, the NWMO will not proceed with either site without express consent from indigenous communities: the Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation in Ignace and the Saugeen Ojibway Nation in South Bruce. A spokesperson for the latter community said that while discussions are ongoing with the NWMO "we're still in early stages of information gathering" and that there "hasn't been a process [on how] to decide." The Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation have established a formal liaison office with the NWMO but attempts to reach that office's spokesperson were unsuccessful.

Another issue for the consent process is that of sequencing. Bigger issues are likely to arise during the licensing and environmental impact assessment phase, which will take place after site selection, pointed out Theresa McClenaghan, executive director of the Canadian Environmental Law Association.

"The big question is do people have the information that’s needed to make a decision," said McClenaghan. "It's extraordinarily difficult to get it because the NWMO won't produce or release their detailed technical reports on things like geological formation and a site's robustness to fracturing. Those things would have to be produced at licensing hearings."

Canada's Two DGR Candidate Sites


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