MEDIA RELEASE: Citizens’ groups say licensing hearings for the giant Chalk River nuclear waste dump beside the Ottawa River should be stopped

OTTAWA, November 10, 2021 – The recent announcement of licensing hearings in February and May 2022 for a controversial nuclear waste dump beside the Ottawa River got a strong reaction from citizens’ groups who have been fighting the plan for five years. The groups say the environmental assessment has not been properly conducted and licensing hearings should be stopped because there are so many serious flaws in the plan.

The license would authorize a giant above-ground mound (called NSDF by the proponent) for more than a million tonnes of radioactive waste beside the Ottawa River, upstream of Ottawa-Gatineau.The Chalk River site is right beside a drinking water source for millions of Canadians and underlain with porous and fractured bedrock. 

Many citizens’ groups, along with NGOs, First Nations, and more than 140 downstream municipalities are opposed to the plan. Many say it fails to meet international guidelines for keeping radioactive waste out of the biosphere. As a disposal facility, it will eventually be abandoned.

“The facility would not keep radioactive waste out of the environment,” according to Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area researcher Ole Hendrickson. “The proponent’s own studies identify many ways the mound would leak, and suggest the mound would disintegrate within 400 years and its contents would flow into surrounding wetlands that drain into the Ottawa River less than a kilometre away,” he said. Hendrickson also noted that the groundwater table would be right at the base of the mound, disregarding an Ontario standard for waste disposal sites that protects aquifers. 

fact sheet produced by Concerned Citizens, based on the information prepared by the dump proponent, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, identifies materials that would be disposed of. They include:

  • Radioactive materials such as tritium, carbon-14, strontium-90, four types of plutonium (one of the most dangerous radioactive materials if inhaled or ingested), and several tonnes of uranium and thorium. Twenty-five of 30 radionuclides listed in the reference inventory for the mound are long-lived. This suggests the dump would remain radioactive for 100,000 years. 
  • A very large quantity of cobalt-60 in disused radiation devices used in food irradiation and medical procedures. These materials would give off so much intense gamma radiation that workers would need lead shielding to avoid dangerous radiation exposures while handling them. The International Atomic Energy Agency says high-activity cobalt-60 is “intermediate-level waste” and must be stored underground.
  • Dioxins, PCBs, asbestos, mercury, and up to 13 tonnes of arsenic and 300 tonnes of lead would go into the dump. It would also contain up to 7000 tonnes of copper, 3500 tonnes of iron and 66 tonnes of aluminum, tempting scavengers to dig into the mound after closure.

“The so-called environmental assessment of this project has been a sham from day one,” says Johanna Echlin of the Old Fort William Cottagers’ Association (OFWCA) based in Sheenboro, Quebec. 

Echlin says the serious flaws in the assessment process include failure to properly consult Indigenous Peoples, failure to properly consult the public, failure to consider substantive input at the project description and scoping stage, and changing the rules in midstream to benefit the proponent. 

In an August 2020 letter to the Minister of Natural Resources, the Kebaowek First Nation and the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council called for suspension of the environmental assessment, stating that “the CNSC’s approach does not even meet the Government of Canada’s modernized standards of consultation, engagement and reconciliation with First Nations.”

“The fact that dates have now been set for licensing the radioactive waste mound is a sign of failure by the Government of Canada to listen to First Nations and hundreds of intervenors in the environmental assessment. It is past time for the government to step up and stop this licensing process and prevent permanent contamination of the Ottawa River,” Echlin says.

Echlin and others characterize the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), the agency responsible for the assessment and licensing of the dump project, as “a captured regulator” that acts more like a “nuclear industry cheerleader” than a protector of the public and the environment. 

Echlin added that “It’s not just us saying that the CNSC is widely seen to be a captured regulator — the Expert Panel on Environmental Assessment noted the same in its final report to the Trudeau government in 2017.” A document obtained by the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility notes that the CNSC has never refused to grant a license in its 20-year history. 

The import of radioactive waste into the Ottawa Valley from other federal sites to be placed in the facility is a big red flag for citizens’ groups and First Nations.They say the Chalk River site is not suitable for long term storage of nuclear waste. According to a Joint Declaration from the Anishinabek Nation and Iroquois Caucus, “Rivers and lakes are the blood and the lungs of Mother Earth.  When we contaminate our waterways, we are poisoning life itself.  That is why radioactive waste must not be stored beside major water bodies for the long-term.” 

Importation of radioactive waste to the Ottawa Valley was also opposed by a City of Ottawa resolution in April 2021.

The economics of the project are also fraught with problems according to Hendrickson, whose study concluded the facility would not reduce Canada’s $8 billion nuclear waste cleanup liability and could even increase it. 

Citizens’ groups have also called into question the Government-owned Contractor-operated model for Canada’s nuclear facilities brought in by the Harper government in 2015 and renewed by the Trudeau government in 2020. Under the model, costs to the Canadian taxpayer have skyrocketed, and decisions about Canadian nuclear waste are being made by foreign nationals and corporations. The groups have called for cancellation of the contract and creation of a radioactive waste management organization in Canada, independent of the nuclear industry, similar to what exists in a number of European countries. 

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Additional resources:

The environmental assessment registry for the giant mound (NSDF) can be found at this link: https://iaac-aeic.gc.ca/050/evaluations/proj/80122

Open Letter: To Prime Minister Trudeau and members of the federal cabinet ~ Stop the Ottawa River radioactive waste dump

Kitchissippi (Ottawa River) Summer 2021, photo by Frank Style

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