Schacherl: Canada has a dirty, big nuclear secret at Chalk River

Ottawa Citizen

A boat flotilla protest against the nuclear waste site is held in August, 2017, across from Chalk River. (Photo courtesy of Old Fort William Cottagers’ Association) OTTWP

What makes Canada stand out in the world is unlimited natural beauty: miles of unspoiled forests, lakes, rivers, prairies and tundra. We are a green, clean country. Or so we like to think.

So it may come as a surprise that we plan to put 40 per cent of Canada’s radioactive waste in a gigantic dump at Chalk River, next to the Ottawa River. The dump will hold “low-level” waste that contains radioactive uranium, plutonium, cesium, strontium, iodine and tritium (among others).

Rain and melting snow will leach radioactive elements from the dump. Every year, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories estimates an average of 6.5 million litres of this water will be treated and discharged into a nearby wetland and thence the Ottawa River. 

An unforeseen event – earthquake, deluge or explosion – could contaminate the Ottawa River and its riverbed from Chalk River to Montreal.

Across Canada, there are 2,400,000 cubic metres of radioactive waste, a volume that could hold 32 million Canadians, or 1,000 Olympic swimming pools.

The wastes at Chalk River are the size of the Titanic – but will grow to one million cubic metres by decommissioning more than 100 buildings and bringing in radioactive waste from Manitoba and elsewhere over the next 50 years.

The proposed Near Surface Disposal Facility will be a super-sized landfill: seven stories high and the size of 70 NHL hockey rinks. Nothing like it exists in Canada, and it will be the largest of its kind in the world. The mound would hold five times as much radioactive waste as a controversial deep geologic repository on Lake Huron.

The proposal has been roundly criticized by environmental groups and even retired Atomic Energy of Canada Limited scientists. Critics say it’s the wrong plan at the wrong site – surrounded by water, sitting on fractured bedrock, exposed to rain and snow for 50 years until it’s capped. They say any permanent home for radioactive waste should be in vaults deep underground in impermeable rock.

The wastes at Chalk River are the size of the Titanic.

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) is the private sector proponent, under contract to the federal government, of the mega-dump at Chalk River. CNL is also planning to “entomb” two defunct nuclear reactors, 100 metres from the Ottawa River and next to the Winnipeg River.

But their plans are not going unnoticed. On April 23, representatives of the Anishinabek Nation and the Mohawk Nation will hold a workshop at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York about radioactive waste and Canadian First Nations.

Millions of people draw their drinking water from the Ottawa River and the St. Lawrence into which it flows. Gatineau city council voted unanimously to oppose the mega-dump. Ottawa Council has not discussed the issue.

In September, 37 groups, including the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and the National Council of Women of Canada, wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urging him to suspend CNL’s waste disposal projects and hold hearings with First Nations and other Canadians on radioactive non-fuel wastes.  There has been no substantive response.

In 1952, the world’s first nuclear reactor meltdown took place at Chalk River. It was then a top-secret government research facility on the Ottawa River, 200 km upstream from the capital. Chalk River was chosen during the Second World War to research production of nuclear material for atomic weapons. Until 1965, Chalk River produced plutonium for the Cold War nuclear weapons buildup by our U.S. allies.

The highly radioactive debris from that 1952 accident was hastily buried onsite in sandy trenches. A second reactor accident took place in 1958, when an irradiated fuel rod caught fire, releasing 10,000 curies of radioactivity.”

Those wastes are still at Chalk River. Radioactive particles have half-lives of up to millions of years: in human terms, forever.

Since then, Canada has steadily created more radioactive waste. Used fuel bundles are the most lethal wastes of nuclear reactors. Canada has more than 2.5 million of them. A federal agency is still trying to find a place to put them long-term.

The biggest volume of Canada’s reactor waste, though, is everything else: the reactor cores, the water used for cooling, whole buildings, materials used by the workers. The industry calls these wastes “low-level” or “intermediate-level.”  But they are still highly toxic, especially if swallowed or inhaled.

Given this legacy, it’s deplorable that 66 years after the first Chalk River accident, Canada still has no policies on radioactive wastes (other than fuel) that reactors produce.  (Our Radioactive Waste Policy Framework, at 143 words, would fit into four tweets.)

CNL received $866 million in federal funding in 2016-17 to manage those wastes and federal sites such as Chalk River and Port Hope. In November, CNL is holding a “global forum” in Ottawa on the future of nuclear energy. It will promote development of “small modular reactors” for “deployment in remote or off-grid locations” in Canada’s North. Its plans include siting a small modular reactor at Chalk River by 2026.

The future looks bright. But not for the people who live downstream from the nuclear waste dumps, and for fish, birds and other creatures that live in the Ottawa River, the Great Lakes and the North.

For the sake of their futures, the Trudeau government should put an immediate halt to CNL’s mega-dump and reactor entombment proposals. They don’t meet the standards of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and they don’t make sense. We need a national debate on how to safely deal with the waste, and whether to pour billions more into reactor technology, when we haven’t begun to clean up the existing mess.

These are not just energy decisions. They are decisions about the fate of our green, clean, home and native land, and of the people and wildlife that we hope will live here in a thousand years and, who knows, a thousand thousand years.

Eva Schacherl is the former executive director of the Canadian Environmental Network.

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