Dumping of toxin-laced water into the Ottawa River by Canadian Nuclear Laboratories should be stopped immediately, says expert report

(Ottawa, Ontario, March 21, 2018) Sixteen thousand litres of water contaminated with radioactive tritium, PCBs and other toxins – at levels hundreds and thousands of times greater than Ontario and Canadian surface water quality standards – were dumped directly into the Ottawa River in 2015 from a non-operating nuclear reactor 200 km northwest of Ottawa, says a report by an expert hydrogeologist. From 1997 to 2015, an annual average of 26,000 litres of radioactive water were discharged into the Ottawa River from the Nuclear Power Demonstration (NPD) reactor in Rolphton, Ontario.

The report by Wilf Ruland notes that releases of contaminated water into the Ottawa River “appear to have been ongoing for decades and continuing to the present day.” Ruland analysed test results published by Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, which operates the site, and concluded that “regulatory guidelines for surface water quality were vastly exceeded in the contaminated water being dumped untreated into the Ottawa River from the NPD facility in 2015.”

Ruland is a specialist in groundwater and surface water contamination and has served as an expert witness before the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) and various environmental tribunals. His report was prepared for the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council and submitted to the CNSC as an independent review of hydrogeological issues related to the Nuclear Power Demonstration (NPD) Closure Project. His report acknowledges that the contaminated water will have been “steadily diluted” as it flows down the Ottawa River, but nonetheless expresses disappointment “to learn that this practice is occurring at a Canadian nuclear facility in the modern day.” He urges that dumping be discontinued immediately.

“Radioactive substances, PCBs and toxic metals are accumulating in the Ottawa River,” said Norm Odjick, Director General of the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council.  “Millions of Canadians drink this water, including the residents of Ottawa and Montreal.  It’s shocking that these releases are being allowed to continue.” 

Levels of radioactive tritium in the contaminated water, at 4,100,000 Becquerels per litre, were 586 times higher than Ontario’s Provincial Water Quality Objective for surface water quality (PWQO) in the 2015 releases. The Becquerel is a measure of how radioactive a substance is, that is, how many radioactive particles per second it emits.

The contaminated water also contained 5,450 nanograms per litre of PCBs — while the Ontario PWQO is only 1 nanogram per litre. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) are pollutants that accumulate in the environment and that cause cancer in animals and probably humans.

The water also contained mercury, cadmium, copper and lead at levels up to 1,720 times higher than the regulatory guidelines contained in the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) Environmental Quality Guidelines for surface waters.

The Rolphton Nuclear Power Demonstration (NPD) Reactor is owned by the federal government. Located about 100 metres from the Ottawa River, it was shut down in 1987 and has since been maintained in “long-term storage.” All federal nuclear sites are run by Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), which in September 2015 was transferred to a private-sector consortium of U.S., U.K. and Canadian companies, including SNC Lavalin.

The data on contaminated water are contained in the draft environmental impact statement  (EIS) on the NPD Closure Project.  In September 2017, CNL submitted a proposal to “entomb” the NPD reactor in concrete to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (the federal agency that regulates the nuclear industry). The EIS shows the number and volume of releases of contaminated water into the Ottawa River back to 1997.

“Reactor entombment wouldn’t stop groundwater from penetrating cracks in the concrete walls of the reactor vault, then re-emerging and transporting contaminants down to the river,” says Dr. Ole Hendrickson, a researcher for the Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area.  He adds, “The entombment proposal is problematic for many reasons and is definitely not a solution to the leaking of contaminated water.”

CNL is also proposing to build a landfill-type nuclear waste disposal facility at Chalk River to contain at least 1 million cubic metres of radioactive and toxic waste. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is expected to make decisions this year about both proposals.

Both proposals have been criticized by former professional staff members of the two sites (then managed by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited), including a former director of safety engineering and senior scientists. Environmental groups say that the proposals will increase Canada’s liability for radioactive waste cleanup in the future and could contaminate the drinking water of millions of people along the Ottawa River and the St. Lawrence River into which it flows.

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