Why is there so much plutonium at Chalk River?

A consortium of private multinational corporations is proposing to create a giant mound of radioactive wastes at Chalk River, Ontario, less than a kilometer from the Ottawa River.  According to the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) the proposed mega-dump will house a rather large quantity of plutonium.

What is plutonium and why should we worry about it?

Plutonium is a human-made radioactive element that is created as a byproduct in nuclear reactors. The first reactors were built to produce plutonium for use as a nuclear explosive in atomic weapons. Plutonium can also be fabricated into fuel elements for nuclear reactors.

Plutonium remains radioactive for tens of thousands of years after it is created.  It comes in several different varieties or “isotopes”.  The most abundant varieties are plutonium-239, with a half-life of 24,000 years; and plutonium-240, with a half-life of 6,600 years.  The half-life is the time required for half of the atoms to undergo radioactive disintegration. When a plutonium atom disintegrates it is transformed into another radioactive material, sometimes one with a much longer half-life.

All isotopes of plutonium are highly toxic. Even very small doses can lead to radiation-induced illnesses such as cancer, often resulting in death.

Why is there plutonium at Chalk River?

The decision to build the Chalk River Laboratories (CRL) was taken in Washington, D.C. in 1944.  Canada, Great Britain and the United States agreed to build the facility as part of an effort to produce plutonium for bombs.  In fact, plutonium produced at CRL played a role in both the US and UK nuclear weapons programs.

During the late 1940s, British scientists carried out all necessary pilot plant work at Chalk River to design their own large plutonium production plant at Windscale, England.  Plutonium produced at CRL arrived in England just months before the first British nuclear explosion took place in Australia in 1952.

For three decades, plutonium produced in Canadian research reactors was sold to the U.S. military to help finance the Chalk River Laboratories.  A reprocessing plant at Chalk River was built to extract plutonium from irradiated nuclear fuel dissolved in nitric acid. It was shut down in 1954, but irradiated fuel containing Canadian plutonium was shipped to the U.S. until the mid-1970s.  In all, at least 250 kg of plutonium was sold to the U.S. for nuclear weapons and warheads.

Three buildings central to plutonium production are slated for demolition

Various facilities at CRL were used in the 1940s and 1950s to extract plutonium from fuels irradiated in the NRX reactor.  In 2004, environmental assessments were initiated governing the radioactive demolition of three such structures:

•       The Plutonium Tower, used in the late 1940s to extract plutonium from fuel   rods irradiated in the NRX reactor.

•       The Plutonium Recovery Laboratory, used between 1949 and 1957 to extract plutonium isotopes from enriched fuels irradiated in the NRX reactor.

•       The Waste Water Evaporator, used between 1952 and 1958 to process radioactive liquid wastes left behind from the plutonium extraction work. Decommissioning of this facility would include: removal, treatment and storage of plutonium-bearing liquid wastes and sludge in tanks, plutonium-contaminated process lines and equipment; decontamination and removal of process equipment and processing cells for handling plutonium; removal of building structures containing plutonium residues; segregation of solid wastes and transfer of these plutonium-contaminated materials to waste management facilities at CRL.

In December 2011 the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission gave the go-ahead for dismantling the first of these structures, the Plutonium Tower.  In 2012, changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act introduced by Stephen Harper’s government made it permissible to demolish radioactively contaminated buildings without any environmental assessment (EA).

To date, only the auxiliary buildings associated with the Plutonium Tower have been decommissioned, but the Tower itself is still standing.  And as far as the Plutonium Recovery Lab and Waste Water Evaporator go, neither has been decommissioned. All these decommissioning projects will be difficult, and will generate lots of long-lived, intermediate-level waste.

These buildings are just three examples of demolition projects that would produce plutonium-contaminated rubble likely destined for the proposed megadump. Chalk River scientists were keenly interested in testing plutonium as a reactor fuel.  Some three tonnes of plutonium-based fuel elements were fabricated at Chalk River using remote handling devices called gloveboxes. Such facilities would also result in plutonium-contaminated wastes when demolished.

The draft EIS estimates that total quantities of plutonium to be placed in the planned landfill-type facility would be measured in the trillions of Becquerels. A Becquerel is a unit of radioactivity, indicating that one radioactive disintegration is taking place every second. (Every radioactive atom eventually disintegrates, or explodes, giving off one or two subatomic projectiles called “atomic radiation”. All forms of atomic radiation — alpha particles, beta particles, gamma rays, and neutrons–are damaging to living cells.)

Plutonium will inevitably leak into the Ottawa River (EIS)

The draft EIS indicates that after failure of the landfill cover, which is bound to occur at some point after abandonment, millions of Becquerels of each plutonium isotope would enter Perch Creek every year.  Perch Creek flows into the Ottawa River about 1 km away.

Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility and Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area

May 2017

Transport of radioactive waste on Canadian roads ~ a growing public risk

On  November 1, 2017 Canadians were horrified by news of a fiery crash involving tanker trucks and several cars on a highway north of Toronto, Ontario, that shocked first responders by its absolute devastation. 

Now consider this…

The Government of Canada has hired a multinational consortium of SNC Lavalin and two US based corporations to deal with several million tons of radioactive waste ultimately owned by the taxpayers of Canada. These wastes were created during seven decades of Canadian involvement in the production of nuclear weapons materials for the US, production of medical isotopes, and nuclear power research and development. The radioactive wastes are currently located in three provinces: Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba. 

The consortium plans to “consolidate” these wastes at Chalk River, Ontario, next to the Ottawa river which supplies drinking water to millions of people. 

This will require thousands of shipments of radioactive waste along Canadian roads from Pinawa, Manitoba, Douglas Point, Ontario and Gentilly, Quebec to Chalk River.  (See possible transport routes below)  

Radioactive waste is among the most toxic waste on earth…

Much of the federally owned radioactive waste is a result of “fissioning” of uranium in nuclear reactors. Hundreds of radioactive substances are produced by fissioning, almost none of which existed in nature prior to the creation of nuclear reactors. Individual radioactive substances vary greatly in the types of damaging radiation they give off and the length of time they remain hazardous, with some of them remaining lethal and carcinogenic for millions of years.  

All man-made radioactive substances can cause damage to human genetic material. They can cause birth defects, cancers, genetic damage and many diseases and disorders in humans, including their unborn children and their descendants, and in all other living things.  It is important to keep radioactive waste away from living things.

These radioactive waste shipments are already being transported through many Canadian cities and towns including Kenora, Thunder Bay, North Bay, Ottawa, Montreal and Trois Rivières, in simple ship-standard containers.

Municipalities and first responders have not been consulted or briefed about these shipments, putting them at risk should an accident occur in their territory.

A serious accident on any of these routes could result in widespread radioactive contamination of land, air, water bodies and communities.  A person in a car, sitting in trafficnext to a truck carrying a container full of radioactive waste could be receiving a dose of gamma radiation, which penetrates the walls of these containers.

Chalk River, Ontario, the final destination of these shipments, is a poor location for permanent storage of radioactive waste. It is located on a major earthquake fault line; the underlying bedrock is porous and fractured, and groundwater moves rapidly though the rock into the Ottawa River which is a source of drinking water for millions of Canadians downstream in Ottawa, Gatineau, Montreal and many other communities. 

Current facilities for waste storage at Chalk River are inadequate in the long-term, and a highly controversial planned new “radioactive waste mound” has been criticized extensively by independent scientists and does not comply with international safety standards. This raises the question of why these shipments of wastes are being allowed. The Crown Agency responsible for the nuclear waste, Atomic Energy Canada Limited (AECL), has given much freedom to the SNC-Lavalin consortium contractors to decide how they want to handle the waste.Risky in and of themselves, these shipments are contributing to making an already-existing problem of radioactive waste at Chalk River even worse.

Despite all of these concerns, shipments are already underway.

The photo below shows containers full of radioactive waste being piled up at “Waste Management Area H” at the Chalk River Labs site in Chalk River, Ontario. The lifespan of these containers is unknown. They are exposed to weather and therefore are likely to eventually corrode and deteriorate. Tornadoes also are known to affect the region and are occurring with increasing frequency and strength. The consortium says it can pile the containers five high and store close to 7,000 containers in this location. Each container contains roughly 10 tons of radioactive waste.  The photo below was part of a presentation to the Chalk River Labs Environmental Stewardship Council in March 2019.

Two nuclear waste dumps threaten the Ottawa River

A multinational consortium wants to build two nuclear waste dumps alongside the Ottawa River upstream of Ottawa-Gatineau, one at Chalk River, Ontario and the other at Rolphton, Ontario. Both dumps disregard international safety guidelines and would leak radioactive materials into the Ottawa River, endangering drinking water for millions of Canadians living downstream.

Background:

In 1944 Chalk River Laboratories (CRL) were established to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. Starting in 1952 the Labs were operated by “Atomic Energy of Canada Limited” (AECL).  Besides producing plutonium, the labs established a prototype nuclear power reactor (NPD) upstream of Chalk River at Rolphton, and extracted “medical isotopes” from irradiated fuel. These activities and two serious accidents created large quantities of dangerous radioactive wastes. Cleanup costs are estimated at $8 billion.

The Harper government radically restructured AECL in 2015, creating a subsidiary called Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) and contracting a multinational consortium including SNC Lavalin, to operate the subsidiary and reduce the federal government’s nuclear cleanup liabilities quickly and cheaply. All four consortium members face or have faced criminal charges for fraud and corruption*. Annual costs to taxpayers tripled shortly after restructuring.

In 2016, CNL proposed to construct a giant, above-ground mound of radioactive waste (NSDF) at Chalk River and to entomb in concrete the NPD reactor at Rolphton. Both proposals disregard International Atomic Energy Agency safety standards and would permanently contaminate the Ottawa River with radioactive materials such as plutonium, caesium, strontium and tritium, some of which will be remain hazardous for over 100,000 years.  CNL is also moving to bring thousands of shipments of radioactive waste (including highly toxic used fuel rods) to Chalk River from other federal sites in Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec.


Independent experts, retired AECL scientists, Citizens’ groups, NGOs, 140 Quebec municipalities and several First Nations have been sounding alarm bells about the projects via written comments, resolutions, press conferences, and protests including a boat flotilla on the Ottawa River in August 2017 and a Red Canoe March for Nuclear Safety through the streets of downtown Ottawa in January of 2018.


In April 2018, CNL was granted a 10-year license despite widespread concern over license changes that would make it easier for the consortium to get its nuclear waste projects approved. Canada’s nuclear regulator, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), granted the new license.  The CNSC is also in charge of environmental assessment (EA) and licensing for nuclear waste projects. The CNSC is perceived to be a “captured” regulator that promotes projects it is charged with regulating, according to Canada’s Expert Panel on EA reform. The CNSC’s mishandling of EAs for the consortium’s nuclear waste projects is described in Environmental Petition 413 to the Auditor General of Canada.

* The consortium, known as Canadian National Energy Alliance, includes: SNC-Lavalin,debarred by the World Bank for 10 years and facing charges in Canada of fraud, bribery and corruption; CH2M agreed to pay $18.5 million to settle federal criminal charges at a nuclear cleanup site in the U.S.; Fluor paid $4 million to resolve allegations of  financial fraud related to nuclear waste cleanup work at a U.S. site; Rolls-Royce PLC,  parent company of consortium member Rolls-Royce Civil Nuclear Canada Ltd., recently agreed to pay more than CAN$1 billion in fines for bribery and corruptionin the U.K., U.S. and Brazil. **NB** since this post was first published, membership in the consortium has changed. Rolls Royce is no longer listed as a consortium member on the CNEA website and Texas based Jacobs Engineering has recently acquired CH2M.