What would go into the Chalk River Mound? (Ottawa River radioactive waste dump)

December 2020

Canadian taxpayers are paying a consortium (Canadian National Energy Alliance) contracted by the federal government in 2015, billions of dollars to reduce Canada’s $16 billion nuclear liabilities quickly and cheaply. The consortium is proposing to construct a giant mound for one million tons of radioactive waste beside the Ottawa River upstream of Ottawa-Gatineau. The proposed dumpsite is partially surrounded by wetlands that drain into the Ottawa River less than one kilometre away. 

There is considerable secrecy about what would go into the mound; the information that follows has been  derived from the proponent’s final environmental impact statement (EIS) (December 2020) which lists a partial inventory of radionuclides that would go into the gigantic five-to-seven story radioactive mound (aka the “NSDF”). The EIS and supporting documents also contain inventories of non-radioactive hazardous materials that would go into the dump.

Here is what the consortium says it is planning to put into the Chalk River mound (according to the final EIS and supporting documents)

1)  Long-lived radioactive materials

Twenty-five out of the 30 radionuclides listed in Table 3.3.1-2: NSDF Reference Inventory and Licensed Inventory are long-lived, with half-lives ranging from four centuries to more than four billion years.

To take just one example, the man-made radionuclide, Neptunium-237, has a half-life of 2 million years such that, after 2 million years have elapsed, half of this radioactive substance will be present, together with its radioactive decay products such as Uranium-233. At the time of closure of the mound, the neptunium-237 will be giving off 17 million radioactive disintegrations each second, second after second.

The mound would contain up to 80 tonnes of Uranium and 6.6 tonnes of thorium-232.

2) Four isotopes of plutonium, one of the most deadly radioactive materials known, if inhaled or ingested.

John Gofman MD, PhD, a Manhattan Project scientist and former director of biomedical research at the DOE’s Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, stated that even one-millionth of a gram of plutonium inhaled into the lung, will cause lung cancer within 20 years. Sir Brian Flowers, author of the UK Royal Commission Report on Nuclear Energy and the Environment, wrote that a few thousands of a gram, inhaled into the lungs, will cause death within a few years because of massive fibrosis of the lungs, and that a few millionths of a gram will cause lung cancer with almost 100% certainty.

The four isotopes of plutonium listed in the NSDF reference inventory are Plutonium-239, Plutonium-240, Plutonium-241 and Plutonium-242. According to Table 3.3.1-2 NSDF Reference Inventory and Licensed Inventory from the EIS, The two isotopes 239 and 240 combined will have an activity of 51 billion Bq when they are emplaced in the dump. This means that they will be giving off 51 billion radioactive disintegrations each second, second after second. These plutonium isotopes could constitute a significant hazard to workers during emplacement of plutonium wastes and plutonium contaminated debris in the mound.

3) Fissionable materials 

Fissionable materials can be used to make nuclear weapons.

The mound would contain “special fissionable materials” listed in this table extracted from an EIS supporting document, Waste Acceptance Criteria, Version 4, (November 2020)

4) Large quantities of Cobalt-60 

The CNL inventory includes a very large quantity of cobalt-60 (91 quadrillion Becquerels), contained in waste cobalt-60 irradiating devices. Cobalt-60 when concentrated in irradiators gives off so much strong gamma radiation that lead shielding must be used by workers who handle them in order to avoid dangerous radiation exposures. The International Atomic Energy Agency considers high-activity cobalt-60 irradiators to be “intermediate-level waste” and specifies that they must be stored underground. Addition of high-activity cobalt-60 irradiators means that hundreds of tons of lead shielding would be disposed of in the mound.

5) Very Large quantities of tritium

The mound would contain 890 trillion becquerels of tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen. Tritium readily combines with oxygen to form radioactive water. It moves readily through the environment and easily enters all cells of the human body where it can cause damage to cell structures including genetic material such as DNA and RNA. For more on the hazards of tritium see the Tritium Primer on the TAP website: http://tapcanada.org/wordpress/?page_id=403

Because it is part of the water molecule, removal of tritium from water is very difficult and expensive. There are no plans to remove tritium from the mound leachate. Instead the consortium plans to pipe the contaminated water directly into Perch Lake which drains into the Ottawa River.

6) Carbon-14

The mound would contain close to two trillion becquerels of Carbon-14, an internal emitter that is hazardous in similar ways to tritium. Carbon is a key element in all organic molecules. When it is inhaled or ingested it can become incorporated into organic molecules and cellular components including genetic material.

7) Many other man-made radionuclides 

Radionuclides such as caesium-137, strontium-90, radium, technetium, nickel-59, americium-243 are listed in the partial inventory of materials that would go into the dump. See the partial inventory here: https://concernedcitizens.net/2020/12/17/cnls-partial-inventory-of-radionuclides-that-would-go-into-the-chalk-river-mound/

8) Non-radioactive hazardous materials

Hazardous materials destined for the dump include asbestos, PCBs, dioxins, mercury, up to 13 tonnes of arsenic and hundreds of tonnes of lead. (Reference)

9) Large quantities of valuable metals that could attract scavengers

According the the final EIS, the mound would contain 33 tonnes of aluminum, 3,520 tonnes of copper, and 10,000 tonnes of iron. It is well known that scavenging of materials  occurs after closure of facilities such as the Chalk River mound. Scavengers would be exposed to high radiation doses as they sought to extract these valuable materials from the dump.

10) Organic Materials

80,339 tonnes of wood and other organic material are destined for the mound. These materials would decompose and cause slumping in the mound, therefore potentially compromising the integrity of the cap.

~~~~~~

Most of the radioactive and hazardous material would get into the air and water, some sooner, some later.

Some would get into ground and surface water during creation of the mound, such as tritium which is very mobile and cannot be removed by the proposed water treatment plant. Others would get into the air, during construction and could be breathed by workers. Some materials would leach slowly into groundwater. Still others would be released when the mounds deteriorates over time and eventually disintegrates several hundreds of years into the future. For details on the expected disintegration of the mound in a process described as “normal evolution” see this post: https://concernedcitizens.net/2020/11/04/the-proponents-own-study-shows-that-the-chalk-river-mound-will-disintegrate/

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The mound would actually get more radioactive over time

See the submission entitled “A Heap of Trouble” by Dr. Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility for a chilling description of this process. http://www.ccnr.org/Heap_of_Trouble.pdf. Here is a quote from the submission:

The Near Surface Disposal Facility (NSDF) project is presented not as a temporary, interim
storage facility but as a permanent repository that will ultimately be abandoned. We are
dealing with a potentially infinite time horizon. The proponent seeks approval not just for a
few decades, but forever. Such permission has never before been granted for post-fission
radioactive wastes in Canada, nor should it be granted. Long-lived radioactive waste
should not be abandoned, especially not on the surface beside a major body of water.

The facility will remain a significant hazard for in excess of 100,000 years.

This point was raised by Dr. J.R. Walker, a retired AECL radioactive waste expert in his submission on the draft environmental impact statement. You can read his full submission here: https://www.ceaa.gc.ca/050/documents/p80122/119034E.pdf

“There is no safe level of exposure to any man-made radioactive material.

“There is no safe level of exposure to any man-made radioactive material. All discharges, no matter how small,  into our air and water can cause cancer and many other diseases as well as genetic damage and birth defects.”

~ Dr. Eric Notebaert, Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

This dump would not not meet international safety standards for radioactive waste management. Details

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