Hill Times letter ~ No, not all nuclear materials and by-products are safely stored in a highly regulated environment

The Hill Times, Monday, Jan. 11, 2021
Letters / opinions
No, not all nuclear materials and by-products are safely stored in a highly regulated environment, says letter writer (https://www.hilltimes.com/2021/01/11/276503/276503)

Re: “We cannot afford to be naive about climate change—renewables and nuclear must work together,” by John Gorman, The Hill Times, Dec. 14, 2020.

Mr. Gorman states “the nuclear industry is the only energy industry that can account for all its by-products. While fossil-fuel emissions go into the atmosphere and other industrial waste goes to landfill, all nuclear materials and by-products are safely stored, managed, and monitored in a highly regulated environment.”

Mr. Gorman appears to be unaware that all CANDU nuclear reactors routinely emit large volumes of radioactive water vapour and other radioactive gases into the atmosphere. CANDU reactors also routinely emit radioactive materials into water bodies (including drinking water sources) such as tritium, carbon-14 and radioactive cesium, strontium and cobalt.

There are numerous leaking radioactive waste areas on the Chalk River Laboratories site north-west of Ottawa-Gatineau on the Ottawa River. These leaking waste sites were described in detail in an Ottawa Citizen article in 2011 by Ian McLeod, entitled “Chalk River’s Toxic Legacy.”

The multinational consortium running Chalk River Laboratories is planning to build a gigantic above-ground landfill for one million tonnes of radioactive waste including plutonium and other materials that would remain radioactive for more than 100,000 years. This way of dealing with radioactive waste contravenes international safety standards and best practices.

The consortium’s own studies show that the mound would leak during operation and after closure. The mound is expected to eventually disintegrate in a process referred to as “normal evolution” described in a study called the “Performance Assessment,” produced by the proponent as part of a protracted and controversial environmental assessment that is ongoing.

So much for Mr. Gorman’s assertion that “all nuclear materials and by-products are safely stored, managed, and monitored in a highly regulated environment.”

Lynn Jones

Ottawa, Ont.

Frequently Asked Questions

Canada re-engages in the Nuclear Weapons Business with SMRs

December 3, 2020


Canada Re-enters the Nuclear Weapons Business with SMRs

Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan is expected to announce within weeks his government’s action plan for development of “small modular” nuclear reactors (SMRs).

O'Regan putting nuclear 'front and centre' raises eyebrows, industry hopes  - The Hill Times
 Minister of Natural Resources delivering a keynote speech to the Canadian Nuclear Association. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

SMR developers already control the federally-subsidized Chalk River Laboratories and other facilities owned by the crown corporation, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL).  Canada is now poised to play a supporting role in the global nuclear weapons business, much as it did during World War II.

Canada was part of the Manhattan project with the U.S. and U.K. to produce atomic bombs.  In 1943 the three countries agreed to build a facility in Canada to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons.  Researchers who trained at the Chalk River Laboratories went on to launch weapons programs in the U.K. and France.  Chalk River provided plutonium for U.S. weapons until the 1960s.

Canada’s Nuclear Schizophrenia describes a long tradition of nuclear cooperation with the United States:  “For example, in the early 1950s, the U.S. Navy used Canadian technology to design a small reactor for powering its nuclear submarines.”  C.D. Howe, after creating AECL in 1952 to develop nuclear reactors and sell weapons plutonium, remarked that “we in Canada are not engaged in military development, but the work that we are doing at Chalk River is of importance to military developments.”

The uranium used in the 1945 Hiroshima bomb may have been mined and refined in Canada. According to Jim Harding’s book Canada’s Deadly Secret: Saskatchewan Uranium and the Global Nuclear System, from 1953 to 1969, all the uranium mined in Saskatchewan went to make U.S. nuclear weapons. Canada remains the world’s second-largest producer of uranium.  North America’s only currently operating uranium processing facility is owned by Cameco in Port Hope, Ontario.

Canada built India’s CIRUS reactor, which started up in 1960 and produced the plutonium for India’s first nuclear explosion in 1974. Canada also built Pakistan’s first nuclear reactor, which started up in 1972.  Although this reactor was not used to make weapons plutonium, it helped train the engineers who eventually exploded Pakistan’s first nuclear weapons in 1998.

In 2015 the Harper Government contracted a multi-national consortium called Canadian National Energy Alliance – now comprised of two U.S. companies, Fluor and Jacobs, along with Canada’s SNC-Lavalin – to operate AECL’s nuclear sites, the main one being at Chalk River.  Fluor operates the Savannah River Site, a South Carolina nuclear weapons facility, under contract to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).  Jacobs also has contracts at DOE weapons facilities and is part of a consortium that operates the U.K. Atomic Weapons Establishment.

Joe McBrearty, the president of the consortium’s subsidiary that operates Chalk River and other federal nuclear sites, was a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine commander and then chief operating officer for the DOE’s nuclear laboratories between 2010 and 2019.

All three consortium partners have investments in SMRs and are ramping up research and development at AECL’s Chalk River facility. Some SMR designs would use uranium enriched to levels well beyond those in current reactors; others would use plutonium fuel; others would use fuel dissolved in molten salt.   All of these pose new and problematic weapons proliferation risks.

Rolls Royce, an original consortium partner that makes reactors for the U.K.’s nuclear submarines, is lead partner in a U.K. consortium (including SNC-Lavalin) that was recently funded by the U.K. government to advance that country’s SMR program. 

A military bromance: SMRs to support and cross-subsidize the UK nuclear weapons program, says “Industry and government in the UK openly promote SMRs on the grounds that an SMR industry would support the nuclear weapons program (in particular the submarine program) by providing a pool of trained nuclear experts, and that in so doing an SMR industry will cross-subsidize the weapons program.” 

The article quotes a 2017 Rolls Royce study as follows: “expansion of a nuclear-capable skilled workforce through a civil nuclear UK SMR programme would relieve the Ministry of Defence of the burden of developing and retaining skills and capability.”

The SMR connection to weapons and submarines could hardly be clearer – without SMRs, the U.S. and U.K. will experience a shortage of trained engineers to maintain their nuclear weapons programs.

With the takeover of AECL’s Chalk River Laboratories by SMR developers, and growing federal government support for SMRs, Canada has become part of a global regime linking nuclear power and nuclear weapons.

Opinion: A new global treaty bans nuclear weapons. But why didn't Canada  sign? - The Globe and Mail

Why is there so much plutonium at Chalk River?

October 25, 2020

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

2000 nuclear waste shipments planned, from Pinawa Manitoba to Chalk River, Ontario

This is page 41 of the application for renewal of the Whiteshell Labs license. The CNSC hearing for this license renewal is scheduled for October 2-3, 2019. This page outlines CNL’s plans for transport of low, intermediate and high level radioactive waste from Pinawa, Manitoba to Chalk River, Ontario. The full license application can be viewed at http://www.cnl.ca/en/home/about/WLSiteRelicensing2018.aspx

A total of 2,000 shipments are described in this excerpt, including shipments of liquid waste and irradiated nuclear fuel rods. Shipments are already underway as of March, 2019.