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CNL licencing hearing starts

By Stephen Uhler, The Daily Observer

Spectators watch as the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission hearings commence in the Best Western Pembroke Inn and Conference Centre on Tuesday. On the monitor to the right is CNSC president Michael Binder. The hearings are scheduled to last until Thursday.

Spectators watch as the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission hearings commence in the Best Western Pembroke Inn and Conference Centre on Tuesday. On the monitor to the right is CNSC president Michael Binder. The hearings are scheduled to last until Thursday.

Let the hearings begin.

The Best Western Inn and Conference Centre was alive with activity Tuesday as the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission opened the first of three days of public hearings. It is considering whether or not to approve a 10-year operating licence renewal to Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, the consortium running Chalk River Labs.

If approved, it would mean the site would remain operating from April 1, 2018 to March 31, 2028, a period of time which will see many changes to the operation there, starting with the shut down and decommissioning of the NRU reactor, which shuts down April 1.

During the hearings, the commission will wade through 51 verbal presentations and nearly an equal number of written submissions – for and against the licence application – before rendering a decision before the current licence runs out at the end of March.

Michael Binder, CNSC president, said it is a quasi-judicial tribunal which operates independently of politics and even its own staff when it renders its decisions, based on the submissions received.

He said this hearing is considering the 10-year licence renewal only, and not items like the Near Surface Disposal Facility or the decommissioning of the NPD reactor, both ongoing matters up for consideration. These items will be subjects of separate hearings.

Mark Lesinski, director and chief executive officer of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, headed the company team making the licence application. He said the CNL and operations at Chalk River reflect a solid safety and environmental performance, and the 10-year licence will provide long-term viability for the site.

“This is part of the process of renewal,” Lesinski said, which includes decommissioning many facilities, including the NRU. It is all part of making room for the $1.2 billion being invested in new facilities and infrastructure as the company gets ready for a post-NRU world and to continue to be world class nuclear laboratory.

Lesinski said a lot of criticism has been directed at the go-co or “government-owned, contractor-operated” model Chalk River Labs is operating under, noting a number of interveners make that point in their upcoming presentations. He said there is a misconception CNL would cut corners and put profits before safety.

“CNL has an absolute commitment to safety,” Lesinski said, “and protecting the health and safety of our workers and the environment is paramount.” He said under the contract CNL has with the government, if it fails to measure up to what Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. and the expected safety standards, then the company doesn't get paid.

“If we come in under budget on a project, that money goes to Canadian taxpayers, not to us,” he said. “We don't profit from it.”

Lesinski wrapped up by stressing CNL and its employees care about the health and safety of the Ottawa River as much as the interveners.

“This is our home, too,” he said.

The first intervener to speak was also the most powerful of the day. The Algonquins of Ontario, which represents 10 Algonquin communities within a massive land claim area and which recently signed an Agreement-in-Principle with the federal and provincial governments, want a say in how CNL operates on its territory.

Lynn Clouthier, Algonquin negotiation representative, spoke on behalf of the application to the CNSC. She said Chalk River Laboratories (CRL) is located right in the middle of unceded Algonquin territory, which was taken in 1944 without consultation.

She said the extensive construction and reclamation projects proposed at CRL over the 10-year licence period, including the decommissioning of the NRU reactor and cleanup of legacy wastes, has the potential to impact the environment and health of Algonquin people – possibly for generations.

Because of this, a Duty to Consult and Accommodate – which must be done if an Aboriginal or treaty right is threatened – is triggered by the Crown needing to make a decision on this licence application and the continued operation and modification of CRL. As an agent of the Crown, the CNSC is therefore responsible for ensuring the duty to consult is properly enacted.

Clouthier said the CNSC should impose as a condition to the licence renewal that CNL must work to establish a formal consultation and accommodation arrangement with the Algonquins of Ontario in the form of a long-term relationship agreement.

“This agreement is necessary to formally acknowledge the use of unceded Algonquin lands by Chalk River Labs and AECL,” she said. This would lay out how the AOO can share in the benefits of CRL, and establish a wide-range of accommodation measures including communications, oversight, environmental monitoring, employment, site rehabilitation and remediation and collaborative decision-making.

“We want assurances, we want this formalized,” Clouthier said. “We want this to happen because it has to happen.”

The hearings continue Wednesday morning at 8:30 a.m. 

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