Ecojustice is working to ensure that no nuclear reactors are built in Ontario until a thorough environmental assessment of the risks to Lake Ontario and the surrounding communities is complete and shows no significant threat to people or the local ecosystems.

We’ve partnered with the Canadian Environmental Law Association and are representing Greenpeace Canada, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper and Northwatch in this legal action. On Nov. 12 and 13 of 2013, we’ll appear in Federal Court to argue our case on behalf of our clients.

To find out why, I spoke with one of the lawyers on the case in November 2013.

Justin: This is Justin Duncan, staff lawyer with Ecojustice.

Pierre: What’s wrong with building new nuclear reactors in Ontario?

Justin: Unfortunately, we found the environmental assessment that was done for the project federally was full of holes. We feel that not only was it full of holes, but those holes rendered the assessment illegal.

Pierre: Can you explain what you mean by holes or a flawed assessment?

Justin: The major gaps in the assessment included not knowing what the actual reactor technology is that going to be used at the site. And then also some major gaps and information such as what’s going to be done in the long term with the waste that’s generated from the reactors operating. [Another] thing that was never assessed was alternatives to using nuclear reactors and what that means for energy in the long term in Ontario.

Pierre: What’s at stake if the project goes ahead?

Justin: There’s a few things at stake. One is allowing a precedent of what we believe doesn’t follow the law properly to stand. Potentially having new nuclear projects across Canada potentially being approved without adequate assessment. There’s a few projects currently proposed in Ontario that could be potentially impacted by a good court decision here, so that’s important. And there’s some other issues, such as having potentially harmful effects from waste and potential major accidents like we saw in places like Chernobyl and Fukushima not being considered as part of the [environmental] assessment. And then also one of the major things here is that we feel is important is the fact that the Ontario government never did an assessment. So this will be the only assessment that’s done for this project. The federal government, since it’s doing the assessment, needs to get it right.

Pierre: What’s the purpose of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act?

Justin: We characterize it as the “look before you leap” legislation for major industrial projects like nuclear reactors, mines and other similar types of projects. When I say, “look before you leap,” [I mean] you need to know what the potential impacts on people’s health and the environment are going to be and that’s what the law requires before anything’s done to allow a project to go forward.

Pierre: What’s going to happen at the hearing?

Justin: We’re in court for two days on this case and what we’re doing is arguing before the court why the assessment and licensing done for the project was deficient, legally. We’ll be making submissions to a federal court judge. There [are] several respondents in the case, the Attorney General of Canada, Ontario Power Generation, who’s the proponent of the project, and the nuclear regulator, [the] Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, [who] will be responding to our case and arguing why it should be dismissed. The judge will decide the case in three, four months, I’d imagine.

Pierre: What’s the best-case scenario?

Justin: The best-case scenario is that the judge would find the assessment [and] licensing done for the project ran afoul of what the law requires. [The judge would] agree with our submissions and not only send it back for more assessment but also set out some parameters that are required for assessing projects like this in the future. So these nuclear projects and other major industrial projects proposed across Canada — and in particular, in Ontario — get the assessments they need.

The issue for us is that these are the most complex of human technologies that exist. The engineering and the technology that goes into these things is so complex that to do a proper assessment we feel takes a lot more work then has gone into these projects to date.

We really need to ensure that any potential, no matter how small it is, for impacts to human health and the environment need to be fully considered and assessed and the public needs to be a part of that assessment process when any of these projects are proposed. So it’s really about properly assessing so we can consider alternatives and then weighing all the pros and cons of going down the nuclear road in the future. And then having a real honest discussion and assessment of the options.