Concerns about commercial wastes destined for disposal in the Chalk River Mound

Posted 29 April 2022, revised 9 May 2022

If the license to build it is approved, large quantities of Cobalt-60 and Tritium from commercial sources will be disposed of in the Chalk River Mound.

Significant quantities of cobalt-60 and tritium are imported as radioactive wastes from other countries. These two substances would give off nearly all the initial radioactivity in the NSDF.  The “Licensed Inventory” for the NSDF (Table 13 in the Waste Acceptance Criteria) includes 90.6 Terabecquerels of cobalt-60 and 0.891 Terabecqurels of tritium.

Chalk River Laboratories, a publicly owned research facility, is Canada’s only commercial radioactive waste STORAGE facility.  

There are many companies shipping wastes to Chalk River.  A partial list for the period 2014 to 2018 obtained through an Access to Information request to Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) includes ABB Inc., ALARA Consultants, Bunge Canada, BWXT Nuclear Energy Canada, DFF Recyclex, Energy Solutions Canada, Kinetrics, MDS Nordion, Noremtech Inc., Nuclear Services Canada, Overwatch, Permafix NW, Shield Source, Spencer Manufacturing, SRB Technologies, Stuart Hunt, Uni-Vert, and Voith.

Large quantities of cobalt-60 and cesium-137 ‘disused sources’ are in storage at Chalk River, mainly imported by Ottawa-based companies Nordion and Best Theratronics.  The transcript of the 2019 licensing hearing for Best Theratronics says “In 2014, we had a resident inventory of disused sources at Nordion. All of that has now been disposed of at CNL… So I can report that all those legacy sources, which is over 500 sources, cobalt and cesium, have been successfully removed from our license.”

Amounts of cesium-137 in storage are likely to be roughly 100,000 times the  “licensed inventory” limit for the NSDF. CNL may have initially planned to put its stored cesium-137 waste in the NSDF as well, but backed off because it is designated as intermediate level waste (ILW) by the International Atomic Energy Agency (higher activity cobalt-60 waste is also considered to be ILW).

SRB Technologies (based in Pembroke) imports large quantities of waste ‘light sources’ filled with tritium (the radioactive form of hydrogen) from the U.S.  It regularly receives truckloads of expired tritium exit signs, dismantles them, and puts the tritium-filled ‘glow in the dark’ glass tubes in packages, and ships them to Chalk River for storage.  Nuclear regulations in the U.S. do not allow expired tritium exit signs to be dumped in municipal landfills.  Canada has a special exemption in its nuclear regulations to allow this, but as far as we can tell, SRB only sends small quantities of its tritium wastes to the Ottawa Valley Waste Recovery Center.  All of SRB’s radioactive waste imports are sent to Chalk River.

When commercial wastes are sent to Chalk River the ownership changes.  We, the Canadian citizens and taxpayers, become the proud owner of radioactive waste shipped from around Canada and around the world.  Technically speaking, the federal crown corporation AECL becomes the owner of this waste, and is responsible for its long-term management.  

This has been going on for many years.  Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, which has been contracted by AECL to deal as quickly and cheaply as possible with AECL’s 70+ years of accumulated waste, appears to be planning to put into the NSDF as much as possible of the (former) commercial waste now in storage at Chalk River .


Information from Canada’s most recent report to the Joint Convention confirms that wastes are being imported from other countries

Table D.5 in Canada’s Seventh National Report to the Joint Convention lists facilities in Canada that manage non-spent fuel radioactive waste, including intermediate level waste (ILW) and low level waste (LLW).  These include Best Theratronics Manufacturing Facility, Kanata, Ontario that engages in “Storage of disused sealed sources and depleted uranium shielding (LLW and ILW)” and Nordion Manufacturing Facility in Kanata that also engages in “Storage of disused sealed sources (ILW).”

Table D.8 in the Report has an inventory of low and intermediate level radioactive waste in storage in Canada as of December 31, 2019.  It shows that Best Theratronics had 71 Terabecquerels of “Disused cobalt-60 sealed sources, disused cesium-137 sealed sources, depleted uranium shielding components;” and Nordion had 4,126 Terabecquerels of “Disused cobalt-60 sealed sources; disused cesium-137 sealed sources.”  A Terabecquerel is the radioactivity of the quantity of a radioactive substance that undergoes one thousand trillion radioactive disintegrations every second.

Section J of the Report says that “the CNSC has received more than 2,820 applications to export Category 1 and 2 radioactive sealed sources to 100 countries and has controlled the export of more than 20.4 million TBq [Terabecquerels],” adding that “Canada remains a global leader in the production and export of Category 1 cobalt-60 radioactive sealed sources, supplying approximately 95 percent of the global demand.”

Section J of the Report, Disused sealed sources, quotes the Joint Convention as saying that “A Contracting Party shall allow for re-entry into its territory of disused sealed sources if, in the framework of its national law, it has accepted that they be returned to a manufacturer qualified to receive and possess the disused sealed sources.”  Section J adds that “For long-term management, radioactive sealed sources may be returned to the manufacturer in Canada,” and that disused sources may be sent to a licensed waste management facility “such as the facility operated by CNL in Chalk River, Ontario.”


Here are specific points about Cobalt-60 excerpted from the Concerned Citizens’ intervention for the May 30 licensing hearings:

B. Cobalt-60 commercial wastes
… It nonetheless appears that CNL may plan to put large numbers of disused, highly radioactive cobalt-60 sources in the mound. Disposal of disused sources is described in sections 5.7 and A.5.7 of the NSDF Waste Acceptance Criteria, the key document providing limits on quantities and radioactivity concentrations of radioactive substances destined for the mound.

IAEA guidance does not allow near-surface disposal of high-activity cobalt-60 disused sources. The IAEA says that higher-activity disused Cobalt-60 sources represent intermediate-level waste. Higher-activity disused sources cannot be placed in near surface disposal until they decay below a certain concentration of radioactivity.

Lead shielding must be used to protect workers handling such waste. Roughly 200 tonnes of lead would be disposed of in the mound, leading to contamination of groundwater. 


The following presentation was given to the City of Ottawa Environment Committee on March 30, 2021

Commercial wastes are being brought to Chalk River from all over the world. 

SRB Technologies, a factory in Pembroke, manufactures and exports tritium exit signs. The tritium in one sign, if oxidized and taken into the body, would be lethal. SRB takes back used, but still highly radioactive, tritium exit signs from around the world and ships them to Chalk River for disposal. 

Kanata-based Nordion and Best Theratronics manufacture 95% of the world’s radioactive devices for food sterilization, cancer treatment and other uses.  These devices are still highly radioactive when no longer useful. The companies take back the devices(photo in the top right) from around the world and ship them to Chalk River for disposal.

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