T168. Nuclear Waste and Indigenous Land

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Project Save the World Podcast / Talk Show Episode Number: 168
Panelists: Lorraine Rekmans
Host: Metta Spencer

Date Aired: 21 January 2021
Date Transcribed: 15 February 2021
Transcription: Otter.ai
Transcription Review and Edits: David Millar

Metta Spencer

Hi, I’m Metta Spencer, what do you think we ought to do with all that nuclear waste that’s being generated by nuclear power plants. If you live in Ontario and some other parts of Canada, you’re, you’re probably aware of the fact that Canadians have more than our share of nuclear power plants. And these things generate a huge amount of radioactive material, which is harmful, to put it mildly. So today, we’re going to talk about that with a lady from the indigenous community. Lorraine Rekmans, and she and I have just met, although I’ve heard of her before, and she’s going to bring me up to date, because I haven’t followed all the details of the negotiations and things that are going on about the disposal of nuclear waste. Good morning, Lorraine.

Lorraine Rekmans

Good morning, Metta. Thank you for inviting me,

Metta Spencer

it’s going to be an important conversation, because whether or not we know about nuclear waste, we’re all in danger of being exposed to some of it. And the question is what to do with it. So I know that you are part of at least one of the organizations that have been meeting to address the question, or maybe the right word is to fight the issue. Yeah.

Lorraine Rekmans

Well, let me talk a little bit about where I come from. I mean, I’m a band member of Serpent River First Nation. And I grew up in Elliott, Lake Ontario, which was home to the, you know, one of the world’s largest uranium mines. So they operated from the mid 1950s. Until the 1990s. And my background is working… as a journalist in the late 80s, early 90s. And I covered a lot of the environmental issues. So the mine, there were a number of mines that were licensed to operate in Elliott Lake, and they closed in the 90s. And when they closed, the federal government ordered environmental assessment, to decommission the mine, because there was 150 million tons of radioactive waste that had been dumped into nearby lakes. So they were called, they were called waste management areas. But the practice is to mine the uranium, extract the ore from the rock with sulfuric acid, and then dump the tailings into nearby lakes.

Metta Spencer

Is that still being done?

Lorraine Rekmans

That was that’s the practice. That’s how tailings are, Metta.

Metta Spencer

Right now still.

Lorraine Rekmans

Well the mines are closed now — not mines that are operating in Saskatchewan. I’m really not familiar with their operation, but mine. That’s how mine tailings are treated. So they’re contained. They call them natural containment areas. There’s all kinds of fancy names for them. But primarily in the beginning, they were lakes. So Elliott Lake,

Metta Spencer

totally immediate, I assume it would completely contaminate the water in the lakes. So you can never use the water.

Lorraine Rekmans

Well, it actually displaced it. I mean, those lakes were filled. So you can imagine, I’ll show you I have an image from the book…This is My Homeland. Uh huh. So I was a co-editor of… this book with Anabel Dwyer, who works for I think the International Association of Lawyers against Nuclear [Arms]… B

Metta Spencer

I’m interested. What I’m seeing, this… yellow, it’s the lake that’s been filled in?

Lorraine Rekmans

That’s right. That’s the lake that’s been filled in with nuclear waste. So those It looks like a fine powder, it almost looks like desert sand. So anyway, the solution at Elliott Lake to contain those tailings was basically to flood it and keep it under a water cover. And that was sanctioned by the federal government in the environmental assessment. So you can see the effluent, you see the picture here with the effluent running out.

Metta Spencer

Is that the orange stuff…?

Lorraine Rekmans

Yeah, so it’s oxidizing. That’s why it’s orange because of the sulfuric acid… Elliott Lake is home to the largest nuclear mine tailings dump in the country. And the stuff is contained by, I think there are 76 dams holding this stuff back and it’s just north of Lake Huron. So if you go to a map and you look for Elliott Lake, you’ll see where the you know where the area is, and it dumps into the Serpent River watershed and makes its way into Lake Huron. So in the 1980s, the International Joint Commission on Great Lakes water quality, noted that Elliott lake was a primary source of nuclear contamination in the Great Lakes area. And they were monitoring it in the 80s. They were monitoring for radioactive material in Lake Huron, but but this impacts all… So the issue, of course, is an environmental concern. But it also impacts on the treaty territory of the indigenous people at Serpent River… we are covered by the Robinson Huron Treaty of 1850. And that is our traditional territory. And in our traditional territory, ten lakes have been sacrificed to nuclear waste, so it’s affected the wildlife and the vegetation around the area. And we’ve been notified in the past not to consume… large quantities, of blueberries or, you know, wild game from the area because they were feeding near the tailings.

Metta Spencer

How radioactive are the tailings… when they’re when they’ve taken all the ore out that they can, the residue is just dirt with a lot of…?

Lorraine Rekmans

No, it’s radioactive. And so, when you… think about the decay chain of radioactive material, and I’m not an expert like Dr. Gordon Edwards, you might know Gordon…

Metta Spencer

Yeah, I turn to Gordon every time I have a question.

Lorraine Rekmans

Gord explains how through the decay chain, the material actually becomes more radioactive.

Metta Spencer

Oh, really? Yeah. So it starts out as low level radioactive waste, but as it decays and breaks down, it changes. So you end up with stuff like polonium… the issue when they when they dealt with the environmental assessment, I always thought the environmental assessment at Elliott lake was deficient in so many ways, you know, one they never accounted… for climate change. So to say we’re going to maintain a water cover on top of these ten lakes in perpetuity is impossible, because you have to draw water from other sources to maintain that water. And the only thing they were monitoring for in terms of runoff was looking at how acidic the runoff from the tailings was, you know, they would add lime to neutralize the acid. But the the water cover was really only to stop… oxidization… of the tailings to keep them away from the air. Because otherwise you end up with that orange gunky stuff, Now what, what does happen, you end up with what… if it’s exposed to air?

Lorraine Rekmans

Well, if it’s exposed… the weird thing is it had been exposed to air for decades before the 1990s and it was blowing, that’s how fine it was, it was you know, migrating all over the place. So they’re keeping the water cover on it to stop it from oxidizing, which is, I guess the process where the sulfuric acid interacts and turns everything orange.

Metta Spencer

You know, this is all new thinking to me, would it be possible to cover this stuff with something else besides water? Could you put concrete or something over it? Would that be better?

Lorraine Rekmans

Well, I don’t know. Like the nuclear waste management organization right now is talking about a facility to dispose of nuclear fuel rods from the reactors and they talked about cement casing, you know, building huge cement boxes in the earth. However, one of the problems with cement is that it erodes because water, you know, water will break down cement. That’s just a fact of life. So, it will never, you know, it’ll never be safe inside of cement casing. But the issue with Elliott Lake is (I think the way my dad used to say) the horse is already out of the barn. So here we are stuck with these ten lakes. And they’re contained, you know, they’re contained with these dams holding them back from you know, migrating… further into the surface, of the watershed. So, one of the one of the concerns I had was especially after the Mount Polley mine disaster in British Columbia. You may be familiar with that accident. Mount Polley was a mine that was mining gold, silver and copper. And they had huge tailings ponds that were held back by dams. And those dams collapsed. And released, you know, tons of hazardous chemicals into the local environment. And the British Columbia government at the time, ordered a review, they said, We must have a review of all existing tailings dams in the province to make sure this doesn’t happen again. And I’ve been… asking that the province of Ontario, take the same action. Especially given that these dams at Elliott Lake are decades old. And we have… crumbling infrastructure, we know that if we don’t maintain it and keep it up. I mean, we’re just at risk. So in the environmental assessment at the time, the federal government, scientists said it’s not it’s not a matter of if these dams will collapse, it’s only a question of when…

Metta Spencer

Yes… it was federal government inspectors who said that?

Lorraine Rekmans

That’s right… it’s in the federal Environmental Assessment Report. So I… followed that process all along, from my early days as a journalist to… this time… I’ve always been concerned with how… that waste is treated, who pays for it? How do we keep future generations safe? That’s the question. We created this huge radioactive mess. And we have to maintain it, and manage it, and protect future generations from any further… disaster, further threat to their water quality. And I think one of the big things that struck me through this whole process is that there is no rationale for nuclear energy at the end of the day, because it is too water-consumptive. And, you know, the big talk that’s, you know, going on right now about climate change is that nuclear energy is not carbon intensive, and there’s no emissions, you know, and all this other brand stuff about nuclear energy. However, we’re not factoring in the true cost. We’re not doing a full cost accounting of nuclear energy, if we don’t take into account the lakes that we have sacrificed, the water that we have wasted, and sacrificed. And at the other end of… the nuclear chain, is the question of disposal of the long term, long term waste, which is the nuclear fuel rods. So they, you know, they call them, I don’t know, the spent fuel rods, and they have all kinds of names like low-level radioactive waste, and it’s radioactive. At the end of the day — Sister, Rosalie Bertell always said, “No dose is a safe dose”. There’s no such thing as a safe dose, whether it’s low or high or intermediary — it’s still radioactive at the end of the day. So, you know, I think indigenous — and I’ve said this before — indigenous people have always been disproportionately impacted by resource development.

Metta Spencer

I love that. That much I do hear about… if anything, the indigenous communities are doing the most to publicize the risks. Seems to me, I see references to that a lot. For example, the Navajo in the US, they’re really apparently greatly affected by the accumulation of of radioactivity risk in their in their territory.

Lorraine Rekmans

…I mean, the cost of the thing is — I mean, no one talks about this, it’s probably an aside … but it’s a violation of the treaty.

Metta Spencer

Okay. All right. Well, tell me about your..

Lorraine Rekmans

treaty. I mean, we have rights to hunt, fish and trap in that territory.

Metta Spencer

Tell me about your group and and your role within it.

Lorraine Rekmans

Well, I don’t… have a group… I’m a band member of Serpent River First Nation…. I’ve worked with friends… to put that book together — This is My Homeland is just a collection of the stories of indigenous people, and how they were impacted specifically by those mines at Elliott lake. So it’s a case in environmental study.

Metta Spencer

This is my land: it’s really talking about indigenous land…

Lorraine Rekmans

My homeland, yeah… there’s a number of groups, I think, in Thunder Bay, indigenous people that are organized around, I think the, I guess the quest. So the nuclear waste management organization has a quest to find a site to dispose of the spent fuel rods, Indigenous people are resisting that effort because they don’t want. They don’t want to be holding the bag on this nuclear waste… with no benefit to their community whatsoever from the production of uranium and from the nuclear fuel or nuclear energy industry.

Metta Spencer

Now, where have they been proposing or considering putting these sites of waste disposal? In the ground, right? And there have been I knew five years ago, some of the names of…

Lorraine Rekmans

Saugeen. I think Saugeen First Nation was one of the sites that had been identified, which is right next to Lake Huron. There were I know, they were looking, I think they traveled through like, they looked at Elliott lake at one time, they were near Hearst. So Northern Ontario primarily. And it I think they were looking for granite rock formations. So they were talking about deep geological disposal. The idea, I think, what the idea initially was to dispose of it in containment facilities, looking at future retrieval, you know, as science progresses, like… could they go back there and dig this stuff up and do something else with it? Right. So I think the issue, you know, our history with — indigenous people, I’m saying our history with nuclear industry has been a tragedy. I’m certainly don’t want — it’s not fair. It just isn’t fair to ask someone else to bear the cost.

Metta Spencer

These places where they’re, they’re proposing or considering burying the stuff, how much of that is on indigenous territory?

Well, Saugeen First Nation is, it’s all treaty territory too also right. So this is one of the –and I’m going to get into sort of the politics of it a little bit, because that’s, you know, my background is really political. So if you look at the Robinson Huron Treaty of 1850, what it did was set up reserves, it set up Indian reserves, and then identified the territory of those people. So Robinson Huron treaty was signed by 17 different First Nations. And that would stretch from… Sault Sainte Marie to Penetanguishene. So it covers the north shore of Lake Huron on… down to the south. If there was an arrangement with anyone in that treaty territory, it would have to be agreed to by all 17 signatories to that treaty. You can’t just deal with one band. And under Canadian law, currently, if the federal government wants to impact — if they want to impact on indigenous land, there is a duty of consultation. So the Supreme Court has directed the Government of Canada to consult with indigenous people when it might take on an activity that’s going to impact their territory. So the nuclear waste management organization is not the Government of Canada. It’s an organization of industrial interests. So… it was enacted… by an Order in Council, by the Canadian government. But it’s really important to figure out who it is — like it’s not Minister of Environment that’s talking to indigenous people. It’s the waste management organization, so there’s a lot of weird things going on.

Metta Spencer

When… they had put people with different status, with different conflicting interests into the same body, what you’re suggesting, if I’m hearing you, is that all the people who who are doing this planning are all people who have got a vested interest in finding a place to dump it. And it might be very well on the place where you live.

Lorraine Rekmans

Right. It’s important to understand who the players are — like, I worked on this another side. So my… background really is in resource development. I’m a journalist, you know, by trade, I’ve worked for native organizations like tribal councils, and worked for an aboriginal newspaper for a while, worked for the National Aboriginal Forestry Association. And most recently, I was the critic for Indigenous Affairs for the Green Party.

Metta Spencer

And good credentials, I hereby approve of you.

Thank you… so I’ve worked a lot in politics and resource development and indigenous rights issues. And you get a little dabble of, you know, Canadian law in there, by, you know, just by tracking all the legal decisions that come out. And that’s why it’s important to look at how this — you know, it’s not only what’s going on, but it’s how it’s going on. I have said I take issue with that if the federal government is interested in, you know, taking on responsibility to manage nuclear waste, then the indigenous — the indigenous community has to be consulted. And under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, they call for free prior and informed consent. So free prior and informed consent would mean, as an indigenous community, you would have the resources that you need to assess what’s being proposed, fairly.

Metta Spencer

it certainly sounds right to me. If I’m trying to think of any argument for the other… point of view might be, well, this stuff exists, where are we going to put it? If you don’t want it in your land? What do you want to have done with it? Because it’s not going to go away? No, it definitely, what is — what is your notion

Lorraine Rekmans

about what do I think? First of all, I would say stop producing the stuff?

Metta Spencer

Well, yes. But we know that’s not going to happen immediately… the most optimistic thing you could say is we’ll wait till the power plant sort of run down and just don’t refurbish them, because you’re not going to have them shut it down tomorrow and have my apartment here go into a blackout because there ain’t no power.

Lorraine Rekmans

Well, the discussion right now is evolving. And the industry is making proposals for these small modular reactors, which are basically nuclear reactors that you buy in pieces and put together — so they’re already forecasting into the future. And they’re going to be producing small modular nuclear reactors. I know that we… Let’s stop this. We’re not going to build any more, let’s say… But what are we going to do with what’s already here? That’s what I’m worried about… where do you put it? I worked on the National Forest strategy. And within the National Forest Strategy for Canada, we had multi multiple stakeholders. So a variety of, you know, civil society, indigenous people. We had people that worked in the forest, people that ran meals to anybody, basically, could be part of that strategy. And we need that strategy. That’s the thing, the Canadian government of Canada does not have a nuclear waste strategy. That’s the first thing we need is to force our government to come up with a strategy, collect those stakeholders, get all of those voices at the table. You know, I really think that many, you know, many hands, you know, will make good work, because they will bring all these perspectives to the issue.

Metta Spencer

I don’t want to argue with you… I absolutely, I’m on your side, but I don’t know. I’m still stuck with it. Even if you get the best people in the world together. You got this damn stuff. And where are you going to put it? Right? I mean, I don’t know. I don’t, you know, you ask if somebody were to ask me what I would do with it I haven’t a clue. Do you bury it?

Lorraine Rekmans

It definitely has to be managed. I agree it has to be managed, it has to be contained. But the thing is that industry has come up with this idea. Right? It is the scientists that are industry based who have come up with this idea. And they’re telling us it’s the best proposal, and it’s the best option. We don’t even have the resources to assess that proposal properly. So how — it becomes a question of trust again — how do we trust given what’s happened in the past? So I do think that we need a strategy that the federal government needs to step up and and take this on. And because it is it’s in the national interest, how do we protect our environment, and responsibly store nuclear waste? This process is going on, you know, they’re already looking, you know, they’ve dug holes, and they’ve done site assessments in different territories across Northern Ontario. There’s been, you know, thousands of meetings. And, you know, I’m saying, Let’s pull this back a little bit. Let’s get the framework, let’s set a legal framework for how this thing is going to be done.

Metta Spencer

Okay, well, sure. I can’t see why any body would oppose what you’re saying. But we’re getting to the end of our conversation, and I still am. stumped, you know, because it’s, you know, the procedure, the process certainly needs attention. But there must be some alternative proposals out there floating around. Some people must have some — some ideas.

Lorraine Rekmans

Yeah, there are I mean, the there’s a Southwest I think the Southwest Research Station in Arizona, has done some work with Navajo people, and they’re, and they’re looking at multiple types of containment facilities. So there’s, there’s work going on around the world.

Metta Spencer

You know, it’s happening. I’ve heard people say, Well leave it above ground at where it is. Now. They keep it in containers, someplace near the power plants, if not really on, on site of power plants, and just leave it there. Don’t bury it? Well, you know, I’m not sure I’m happy with that. Because, you know, you take an airplane and crash it into one of those facilities and what you’re going to have — not fun. So I really don’t — I mean, there must be other people who have good ideas that are circulating, because if they — If nobody has a better idea, then you can have all of the get-togethers you want. Unless somebody’s got a better idea, what are you gonna do?

Lorraine Rekmans

Well.. they say… it’s not… the destination, but it’s the journey… how we get to the to the solution is just as important as the solution. Because nothing is going to be effective if there’s no relationship, if there’s no trust, you can’t just walk into an indigenous territory and dump off a bunch of nuclear garbage and expect it to be okay. Because the scientists said, “Hey, you know what, it’s safe. And we did all the, you know, the calculations…” I don’t like having it underground, either. Because it puts groundwater at risk. Okay. It puts groundwater at risk. And my experience over time has been that infrastructure is left to crumble, decades and decades down the road because there is not somebody there. One thing about indigenous people is they are there on the land for centuries, in the same place, watching, watching what’s happening and seeing what’s happening. And that is the traditional ecological knowledge. Like myself as an indigenous woman, tracking the nuclear waste at Elliot Lake for decades, and saying, you know what, those dams are really old, somebody needs to look after them. My experience has has led me to believe that people put something in the ground, forget about it and walk away. Yeah. And in 100 years, we’re talking… the half life… of radioactive particulate… is 500 years or

Metta Spencer

1000 years? 1000s of years? in many cases?

Lorraine Rekmans

… and that’s why the process is important, Metta. That’s why

Metta Spencer

Well, I know — you’re right — they made this sarcophagus at Chernobyl and so on. And the same in, in the Marshall Islands, there’s a dome there where they put all of the waste from the nuclear tests (not all of the waste, but what they could collect) and they put it in this hole and covered it with cement. And that is crumbling and apparently it is vulnerable underneath too because now this stuff is seeping out into the ocean and, and, and a tsunami or something can come along and knock the whole thing over. It would be stupendously dangerous. It is. And people you know, think, “Well, we’ve handled that, goodbye, we’ll go away, leave it.” So it is certainly — number one message is don’t generate the stuff. Leave it there in the ground where it’s all safer, dispersed.

Lorraine Rekmans

That’s for sure.

Metta Spencer

And then the question is now we’ve already got so much of it up. Yeah, well, bless your heart. Thank you so much, Lorraine. It’s a pleasure to get to know you. And

Lorraine Rekmans

Metta. Thank you.

Metta Spencer

If I ask some hard questions, it’s because it troubles me and I bet it troubles you too, that you know, got to find answers and doesn’t sound like anybody’s got any good ones. But it’s good to get hard questions.

Lorraine Rekmans

Thank you.

Metta Spencer

Okay, bless your heart and let’s be in touch occasionally I want to follow what you’re doing. And I really appreciate your your input and your… , you know, the fact that I count on — I just have the impression that the most responsible environment environmentalists today in the world, are indigenous groups and you can save us all. Okay, thank you.