Safer to eat radioactive waste than local rocks?

February 21, 2022

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) has made a massive error in a document it prepared for a February 22 hearing to license a giant mound of radioactive waste near the Ottawa River, 180 km upstream from Canada’s capital.

The CNSC’s presentation deck for the hearing (slide 23) shows the radioactivity of the mound falling below the radioactivity of local rocks between 10 and 100 years after closure of the federal waste facility.

But the gray band showing the radioactivity of nearby rocks is wrong – roughly 1,000 times too high.  

“This is very worrying because the Commission is the only body in Canada overseeing the nuclear industry and monitoring its activities for safety,” said Ole Hendrickson, PhD, a scientist and researcher for Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area.  “Packages in the waste mound will be more radioactive than the vast majority of ore samples, even 10,000 years from now.”

The CNSC uses the erroneous “range of radioactivity in rocks” to conclude that the proposed radioactive waste dump would not pose a significant long-term health hazard to the public, and recommends licensing its construction.

Canada’s nuclear regulator spent four years assessing the “Near Surface Disposal Facility (NSDF)” proposal from Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), but failed to pick up the error of several orders of magnitude. 

The mound will include long-lived packaged wastes with up to 10,000,000 Becquerels per kilogram of radioactivity. That means 10 million atoms decaying – giving off a burst of radiation – every second per kilo. The facility would hold over a million tonnes of waste.

In its proposal, the CNL also calculated an “ingestion dose” and concluded it would be safer to eat waste in the mound than to eat local uranium ore, approximately ten years after closure of the radioactive waste facility.

The CNSC’s slide refers to a 1981 Ontario Geological Survey Report. Even the most radioactive sample in the report would be far less radioactive than the gray band claiming to show a “range of radioactivity in rocks” in the Pembroke-Renfrew area.  That one outlier sample (with 1100 ppm uranium) was found near Merchands Lake, 100 km away from Chalk River. 

The report analyzed 74 samples and found 67 with low levels, from 1 to 100 parts per million, of uranium. 

The error first appears in the Safety Case prepared by the mound’s proponent. Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) is a privately-owned company contracted by the federal government in 2015 to operate nuclear facilities owned by the federal crown corporation Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL). The Safety Case is the key document used by CNSC in making a licensing decision.

Hendrickson added, “Repetition of CNL’s massive error raises major doubts about the credibility of CNSC’s assessment of the risks of the project.”

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