Métis communities in two regions in Ontario where the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) is considering locating a deep geological repository for high-level nuclear waste are still learning about the project.
And right now, says Jesse Fieldwebster, manager of the Lands, Resources, and Consultations Branch, with the Métis Nation of Ontario (MNO), they aren’t ready to make a decision.
In fact, says Fieldwebster, who also serves as liaison with NWMO, neither Métis region gave their approval before Ignace (Métis region one in northwestern Ontario) and South Bruce (Métis region seven in southern Ontario) were shortlisted by NWMO as possible nuclear waste storage sites.
“They haven’t indicated they are for the project, against the project. They’re simply still learning about how the project’s designed, how certain things might affect other things, et cetera, et cetera,” said Fieldwebster.
A deep geological repository (DGR) is developed in a “suitable rock formation to safely contain and isolate used nuclear fuel,” according to the NWMO.
Learning has been more than consultation committee meetings with NWMO personnel and hosting community information meetings.
This past summer, MNO citizens were given the opportunity to be trained in a province-wide program to monitor water quality. In regions one and seven, NWMO is partnering with MNO and providing additional funding for that training. Training includes monitoring for gross alpha and gross beta particle activities in drinking water, which is a screening technique for detecting radioactivity. They are also learning how to monitor for water chemistry and nutrient parameters.
“(This provides) good baseline indicators for if there were radioactive issues in the water…. You can keep an eye on the site if the NWMO starts to do stuff, so that way citizens can be actively involved in knowing whether or not the site is contaminating in that particular way,” said Fieldwebster.
He adds that training in monitoring for other environmental issues will probably go forward in the future.
Environmental DNA (eDNA) monitoring is another way to make those distinctions. eDNA is a non-invasive emerging technology used to detect what species are present in the area by looking at DNA that is naturally shed by animals.
The NWMO and University of Guelph have partnered to launch an eDNA research program in the two potential DGR sites. The data collected will inform the NWMO’s ongoing environmental baseline monitoring program and establish the baseline conditions of the ecosystems.
“It was introduced to the communities I work with as part of the NWMO’s baseline design to develop a collaborative process with Indigenous communities on environmental biodiversity,” said James Wagar, senior advisor of Indigenous engagement with NWMO.
“They’ve been informed of the design and they’re looking forward to participating in its implementation in 2022,” said Wagar, who works specifically with the Métis communities in the two regions. He is a previous manager of natural resources and consultation for the MNO.
Wagar says there are various ways in which Métis citizens can participate in the eDNA program, including being trained to help with the collection of samples, monitoring the process, or inviting NWMO scientists onto private land to collect samples. They can also review and provide feedback on the results.
“We hope that they will participate to the levels that they want to through their governing structures,” said Wagar.
Having communities involved in these sorts of studies builds trust, says Joanne Jacyk, section manager for NWMO’s environmental assessment.
“What we believe is that a participatory approach is the best way, not just to bring people along and trust the information, but actually bring in the right knowledge and the right questions to make sure we’re setting up studies that are meaningful,” said Jacyk.
She adds that eDNA was chosen as a research method following input from some Indigenous communities who wanted to see non-lethal sampling.
Fieldwebster says it’s “entirely possible” Métis citizens will be on the ground working with NWMO scientists on eDNA sampling, but at this point the Métis have had no involvement with the emerging technology.
However, the Métis have been directly involved in other ways of providing non-invasive information on the environment.
“NWMO has funded (traditional knowledge) studies in both regions, one and seven. It is our understanding that they will be using that information to help design their project in a way that takes that into account,” said Fieldwebster.
This traditional knowledge is valuable, says Jacyk.
“I think there’s still some traditional knowledge that we’re waiting for the communities to understand how they would like to share it and make sure that it’s respected and protected, and that’s something we have to be a little more patient on. That’s something that’s evolving,” she said.
Fieldwebster is quick to add that the privacy of individual harvesters is protected in any traditional knowledge that is shared. Legal documents have also been drawn up for information sharing that keeps the traditional knowledge confidential between NWMO and MNO.
Other environmental concerns voiced by Métis citizens have centred on transportation of spent nuclear fuel to the site.
“If there’s an accident there would be a release of radiation to the environment,” said Fieldwebster.
Experts from NWMO, as well as independent experts, have presented on the subject. Fieldwebster says it is important to have experts who are not connected to NWMO and are well-credentialed with strong academic reputations.
Jacyk says there are times that sharing data, particularly when it’s technical and rapidly evolving, can be difficult. NWMO is considering a data base management system that would link to webmapping tools that would allow the public to access information “as close to real time as possible.”
All this work that’s being undertaken now with the Métis regions is at the cost of NWMO. It’s also preliminary work as more intense work will be needed when a site is selected and the formal environmental impact assessment gets underway.
But this preliminary phase is important, says Jacyk.
“We don’t want to go through this really great process of getting input and then getting to a stage it’s not going to be usable. We’re kind of planning for the future as well,” she said.
Jacyk also points out that whether or not a community decides to host the DGR, capacity has been built and they have valuable data they can use in the future.
All engagement will be “taken into consideration” when NWMO makes its decision on where to locate the DGR, says Wagar. NWMO is still on target to make that site selection in late 2023.
The NWMO began its site selection process with 22 sites.
The final decision on whether to host the DGR site lies with the individual Métis region and not the MNO provisional council, says Fieldmaster.
“The ultimate decision power rests with the regions to say whether or not they’re going to be a willing host community and, even if they say that, it will probably come with a huge list of caveats to make sure that the rights and interests of the Métis citizens are being protected because that’s their ultimate goal,” said Fieldwebster.
In an earlier interview with Windspeaker.com, NWMO strategic project director Karine Glenn said the DGR would not proceed without having Indigenous support and noted that NWMO had a reconciliation policy.
There are also First Nation communities in the two site areas and the NWMO is working with them as well.
By Shari Narine, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Windspeaker.com, Windspeaker.com