As borders closed and lockdowns hit last spring, a group of entrepreneurs and lawyers had something else on their minds: setting up a facility in Labrador for international nuclear waste.
Plans they had for a meeting in April 2020 with partners in Japan were foiled by pandemic-related health restrictions.
The meeting was to bring together former U.S. government nuclear adviser Tim Frazier, Montreal business executive Albert Barbusci, as well as influential figures in Japan's nuclear and public relations industries.
Emails drafted in 2019 and 2020, obtained by Radio-Canada's investigative program, reveal they were going to discuss a secretive project to bury nuclear waste from foreign countries in Labrador.
Former prime minister Jean Chrétien was a player in the initiative. Another backer of the plan highlighted Chrétien's ties to the current Liberal government and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Chrétien has acted as counsel for the project's promoters, who are clients of his law firm, Dentons.
In a letter Chrétien wrote in summer 2019 to an executive at a major Japanese public relations agency, Hisafumi Koga, he argues in favour of storing other countries' nuclear waste in Canada and said he will help move the project forward.
"Canada has been the top supplier of nuclear fuel for many years, and I have always thought that it is only proper that Canada should ultimately become the steward and guarantor of the safe storage of spent nuclear fuel after its first duty cycle," Chrétien wrote.
"I will arrange and participate in discussions in Canada, its provinces, and potential partner countries to move the concept of a deep repository in Northeastern Canada forward."
Experts puzzled by secrecy
But some nuclear energy experts, who spoke to after reviewing the emails, question the safety of such a project and raise concerns around the lack of government involvement, and secrecy surrounding it.
"I must say I was really stunned that there is a small group of very high-profile representatives … that are coming together to form this conspiracy," said Mycle Schneider, an international consultant on nuclear energy based in Paris.
Schneider, whose expertise is sought after around the world, said this type of project should be led by governments, not industrialists.
"We are not talking about building a garage somewhere," he said.
"We're talking about a highly complex project that no country in the world has so far successfully implemented and, you know, storing radioactive material."
Schneider also takes issue with the group's explicit wishes to keep their plans covert, considering "the dangers of the substances involved."
The group wants to bury the imported nuclear waste in what is known as a "deep geological repository" or DGR.
The site is similar to a mine hundreds of meters deep to permanently isolate highly radioactive waste, according to Ian Clark, a professor in the University of Ottawa's Department of Earth Sciences.
"A deep geological repository is really like a mine with a shaft or a hole down to a depth of maybe 500 meters, maybe 1,000 meters with galleries or drifts which give space to actually store nuclear waste," Clark explained.
Similar sites exist in Finland and Sweden, and scientists generally agree it is a safe way to dispose of used nuclear fuel.
Plans put on hold
The plan for the waste facility in Labrador was put on hold by the pandemic and it's unclear what will happen next. Barbusci, a promoter of the project, said there is nothing to talk about.
Canada's Nuclear Waste Management Organization has for years tried to build a DGR to bury waste from Canadian nuclear power plants, including in Ontario.
But the emails show this project is focused on working with other nations to store their waste, starting with Japan — something that hasn't been done before, according to Schneider.
"And there are good reasons," he said. "This is extremely radioactive material. From a meter away, if spent fuel is not protected, it would kill a human being within a minute."
Chrétien said in his 2019 letter that "the dry granite rock of Labrador would be ideal for this purpose."
Clark, the University of Ottawa professor, agrees the region's geology makes it possible to find "good candidate sites if somebody wanted to embark on an economic venture to store nuclear waste from Japan."
The island of Japan, on the other hand, is more prone to earthquakes and fracturing, making it "not an ideal place to find a nuclear waste site."
Clark said what Ontario has learned in its search for DGR sites, though, is that if you don't include local governments and populations early on in the process, "you're doomed for failure."
Months after Chrétien's letter to the Japanese PR executive, Hisafumi Koga's response in September 2019 illustrates the secretive nature of the discussions.
"As the success of the project hinges on the cooperation of all stakeholders, utmost care needs to be taken to keep the information from leaking," Hisafumi Koga wrote, accepting Chrétien's invitation for a meeting in Canada.
"I understand that I'm attending as a private person," Koga said.
Takuya Hattori, who held senior positions at Tepco, the company involved in the Fukushima nuclear accident, was also to be part of the trip, according to the emails.
Koga and Hattori did not respond to Radio-Canada's emails requesting comment.
Emails reveal project may be years in the making
When Radio-Canada reached out to Albert Barbusci, the Montreal entrepreneur promoting the project, and to Chrétien, both appeared to minimize its importance, as well as their involvement.
Barbusci cut short Radio-Canada's questioning, saying Chrétien's involvement had been limited to a 20-minute conversation and that the DGR discussions didn't yet constitute a project. The correspondences obtained by paint a different picture.
A June 2020 email from Barbusci refers to a "smooth transition" after former Newfoundland and Labrador premier Dwight Ball's resignation, which took effect in August.
"As you may already know, Premier Ball has announced that he will be stepping down and a new leader will be named on August 3rd. That said, we plan to stay connected with Premier Ball so the transition is expected to be smooth," Barbusci wrote.
Four years ago, Ball's chief of staff, Greg Mercer, was found to have failed to report his previous lobbying activities on time. Some of his lobbying involved the company at the heart of the group's nuclear storage project, Terravault.
Frazier, the former U.S. nuclear adviser and another key player in the project, is one of Terravault's major shareholders. He refused to speak with Radio-Canada.
Mercer was found at the time to have been more than a year late declaring his lobbying activities with Terravault before working for Ball.
Barbusci said he wasn't aware of the lobbying incident and that it precedes his involvement in the DGR project. He also said the location for the site wasn't yet decided.
Chrétien minimizes his role
As for the former prime minister, Chrétien said in February, when Radio-Canada first reached out about the group's plans, that it all seemed vague and distant.
"I was consulted but I don't know where they're at. I didn't even know there were Japanese people involved in that," Chrétien said.
This was before Radio-Canada called back last week, informing him it had the letter he wrote to Koga in 2019. He then agreed to do a sit-down interview with Marie-Maude Denis at his home in Ottawa.
In the interview, Chrétien defended the project, repeating his belief that Canada has a responsibility to store used nuclear material. Chrétien maintains that he is simply acting out his duty as a lawyer and agreed to sign the 2019 letter when asked by colleagues at his firm.
"We made money selling uranium so we should help to solve the problem that the countries who bought our uranium are facing with that," he said, adding that he believes atomic energy is one of the solutions to combating climate change.
Chrétien maintains that he has no influence on Trudeau's decisions, despite an email to the group of stakeholders from a Dentons lawyer, Terry Didus, calling him a "trusted adviser."
"Good news: Liberals back!" said the email, sent soon after Trudeau's 2019 re-election.
"Better news: Jean [Chrétien] has now been 'appointed' by Justin Trudeau as his 'trusted advisor.' … In essence, Jean will be privy to all major policy decisions going forward."
In the Radio-Canada interview, Chrétien appeared frustrated by Didus's email and insisted he did not lobby for the project.
"I'm not his trusted advisor," he said, adding he'd only met Trudeau a few times. "I don't want to be a lobbyist. I told you that."
When Denis asked whether his influence could open doors for the project, Chrétien said, "No. I can open the door for you. It can get you out."
Translated by CBC Montreal's Verity Stevenson
Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca