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

Citizens’ groups and multinational consortium still at odds over plans for two nuclear waste dumps beside the Ottawa River

SNC-Lavalin and two Texas-based corporations fail to convince the public that radioactive dumps will be safe

For immediate release
(December 17, 2019, Ottawa, Ontario). Civil society groups remain staunchly opposed to two radioactive waste dumps beside the Ottawa River, despite new studies released December 12 by the embattled multinational consortium behind the proposals. Citizens groups and NGOs say no amount of tweaking by Canadian Nuclear Laboratories can make the proposed projects meet international safety standards.


Announced in 2016, the consortium’s plans to build a giant mound for more than one million tonnes of radioactive waste and to entomb a defunct reactor in concrete along side the Ottawa River have raised the ire of citizens and retired nuclear scientists alike. First Nations, NGOs, federal government departments, the Quebec government, and over 140 municipalities have also weighed in with serious concerns about the proposed projects.


“These proposals violate the principle that radioactive waste must be kept out of contact with the biosphere for as long as it remains radioactive,” according to Ole Hendrickson, a scientist and researcher for the group Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area. “The mound and the tomb are the wrong strategies; they simply can’t do the job of keeping radioactive toxins out of our air and drinking water,” Hendrickson said. “In addition to radioactive materials, both facilities would release heavy metals and toxic organic compounds during and after construction.” 


Critics are calling on the federal government to cancel these quick-and-dirty radioactive dumps and step up with funding to support world class radioactive waste storage facilities for Canada’s $8 to $10 billion nuclear waste legacy. Ottawa has admitted it has not even formulated a detailed policy on the long-term management of radioactive wastes.


“Radioactive wastes should never be abandoned right beside major water bodies”, says Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, “They should be maintained in a monitored and retrievable fashion so that future generations can cope with them. These wastes will be hazardous and radioactive for more than one hundred thousand years, essentially for eternity. They must be carefully packaged and labelled and stored securely, well away from drinking water sources.”

Hendrickson adds that the lack of a careful siting process concerns many citizens groups and NGOs. “It is obvious that the consortium chose the proposed sites based on convenience and low cost, not public safety.” 

The proposed facilities do not comply with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) guidelines. The IAEA requires that long-lived radioactive waste be placed in a moderately deep or very deep underground facility.  The IAEA also says that flooding a defunct reactor with concrete can only be used in cases of extreme emergency such as a meltdown.


Canadian Nuclear Laboratories misrepresents the amount of long-lived radioactive material that would go in its gigantic five-to-seven story surface mound. The revised environmental impact statement includes a partial inventory of 30 radioactive materials destined for the dump, and 25 of them are very long-lived indeed, each with a half-life of more than four centuries. Of the 30 materials listed, 22 have half-lives over a thousand years, 17 have half-lives over 100,000 years, and 7 have half-lives over a million years.  None of these materials would meet the IAEA definition of short-lived waste. Nevertheless, the revised environmental impact statement, released last week by the consortium, asserts only low level waste that “primarily contains short-lived radionuclides” would go into the mound.


“This is a clear example of the ways that CNL misleads the public and decision-makers by playing fast and loose with terms such as “near surface” “low level” and “short-lived”, says Johanna Echlin, of the Old Fort William (Quebec) Cottagers’ Association.


According to Echlin, a federal commitment to create world class facilities for its radioactive waste is urgently needed and would have many benefits.
“We have the expertise in Canada to be a world leader in looking after these radioactive wastes,” Echlin said. “Many well-paying jobs and careers will be created when the government of Canada takes this issue seriously and does the right thing. We can do this. We can keep radioactive waste out of our rivers. We’ll all sleep easier knowing that our health, our property values, the beautiful Ottawa River, and future generations are all protected.”

The proponent of the two nuclear waste dumps, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories is owned by the “Canadian National Energy Alliance”, a consortium of SNC-Lavalin and two Texas-based engineering firms. Canadian Nuclear Laboratories is under contract by the federal government to reduce Canada’s $8 billion federal nuclear waste “legacy” liabilities quickly and cheaply.


Environmental assessments of the giant mound and the reactor tomb are in progress. Licensing hearings for the projects are expected in late 2020. 
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More information:
Quick Facts about Low Level Waste
How would the Chalk River Mound leak? Let us count some of the ways
International agency’s findings confirm serious concerns  about Canada’s radioactive waste handling and radiation protection practices
Petition to the Auditor General: Nuclear governance problems in Canada
Scientists decry plan for Ontario nuclear-waste site
Revised Environmental Impact Statement and supporting documents

How would the Chalk River Mound leak? Let us count some of the ways

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) – run by a consortium of profit-making multinational companies – is proposing to build a giant mound that it misleadingly calls a “Near Surface Disposal Facility” for a million cubic meters of radioactive waste at its Chalk River facility along the Ottawa River.

CNL’s high cost ad campaign (paid for with Canadian tax dollars) says the dump is safe and uses “proven technology”. Ads say the dump will protect the public and the environment.

However, CNL’s draft environmental impact statement (EIS) describes several ways that contents of the proposed “engineered containment mound” of radioactive waste could leak into the Ottawa River. Here are some of the ways:

During operation (while the dump is being filled)…

1. Wastes being added to the mound would be exposed to the elements. 

Rain and melting snow would leach radioactive contents down through the mound. The liquid would be collected and pumped uphill to a water treatment plant. Some but not all radioactive contaminants would be removed prior to releasing the treated leachate into wetlands that drain into the Ottawa River. (Table 3.5.3-1 on page 3-23 of the draft EIS) 

2. Radioactive water (tritium) would leach in very large amounts from the mound. 

Tritium is part of the water molecule and cannot be removed by water treatment. The draft EIS suggests the very high tritium content will be reduced but does not say how. Untreated tritium would be discharged to wetlands that drain into the Ottawa River where it would get incorporated into fish and enter drinking water supplies Large quantities of tritium would also be released from the dump as water vapour. 

3. Other toxic substances such as PCBs leaching from the mound would be only partially removed by water treatment.. 

Table 3.5.3-2 on page 3-25 shows that treatment would only partly remove non-radioactive toxic compounds in the wastes such as lead, PCBs and dioxin. Measurable amounts would be released to the environment. 

4. Heavy storm events would erode the mound’s surface and wash toxic substances into low areas. 

Highly contaminated water washing off active dumping areas would be pumped to the water treatment plant. Less contaminated water would be pumped to three storm-water management ponds around the perimeter of the facility and be discharged to adjacent wetlands. Ponds would provide only “basic” containment of sediments before their contents were released (draft EIS explains this on page 3-57) 

5. The capacity of storm-water ponds would be exceeded during extreme rainfall events or snowmelts. 

The draft EIS (page 9-2) says that pond overflow “would be conveyed by inlet and emergency outlet structures adjacent to the surface water management ponds,” presumably to be released directly into adjacent wetlands. 

6. Other possible ways the facility might leak during operations (not described in detail the EIS) include tornado damage, pump failures during extreme storm events with loss of electrical power, improper installation of the base liners, puncture of the base liners by heavy or sharp materials, melting of liners by radioactively hot materials, and blockage of the leachate collection system. 

After closure…

1. Wastes in the mound would be re-exposed to the elements when the top cover fails. 

After waste dumping ended the leachate collection system and water treatment plant would be shut down, and a top cover placed over the wastes. The draft EIS acknowledges that the top cover would fail with “normal evolution” through forces such as erosion, extreme storms, burrowing animals, root penetration, etc. 

2. Failure of the top cover while the base liners remain intact would initiate the “bathtub scenario”. 

Rain and melting snow would again leach the radioactive wastes, 

but the leachate collection and pumping system would no longer be operational. Contaminated leachate would be trapped by the bottom liner and accumulate in the space between the mound and the surrounding berm. Leachate levels would rise and spill over along the low point of the 

berm. 

Long-lived radioactive elements such as plutonium and uranium, exposed to wind and water erosion, would flow into the river for thousands to millions of years. Eventual failure of the bottom liners would also allow radionuclides to move into groundwater. The Ottawa River would be permanently contaminated by radioactive wastes. Countless generations of people drinking its water would be exposed to increased cancer risks.

Photos from the protest flotilla on July 27th

IN THIS PHOTO GREEN PARTY CANDIDATE IN PONTIAC (CLAUDE BERTRAND) IS RELEASING MOCK RADIOACTIVE ISOTOPES INTO THE RIVER – A SYMBOLIC GESTURE (THESE BALLS WERE REMOVED FROM THE WATER A LITTLE LATER)


Morning meeting: (room was full – approximately 80 people coming from Pontiac, Gatineau, Ottawa and Montreal)  From left to right: Jason Phelps, MC (OFWCA), Elssa Martinez (OFWCA), Ole Hendrickson (Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area), Patrick Nadeau (Executive Director, Ottawa Riverkeeper)Photo taken by: Eva Schacherl, Coalition Against Nuclear Dumps on the Ottawa River (CANDOR)

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.

Quick facts about low level waste

The Chalk River Mound is a proposed above-ground landfill facility for more than one million tons of federally-owned “legacy” radioactive wastes. It would stand 5-7 stories high and be located on the side of a hill surrounded by wetlands, less that one kilometre from the Ottawa River.

It is often said that the Chalk River mound would “only contain low level waste”. It is incorrect to assume that this means the wastes and the mound would be innocuous and low risk. Here are some quick facts:

Low level does not mean low hazard. All categories of radioactive waste contain materials that emit ionizing radiation that can cause DNA damage, birth defects, leukaemia, cancer and chronic diseases. Low level waste is no exception to this.

Low level refers to how much protection a worker needs to handle the waste. Canada’s nuclear industry uses the terms “low”, “intermediate”, and “high” to designate short-term risks of waste handling by workers — not long-term risks of public exposure. “High-level waste” – irradiated nuclear fuel – gives off very intense heat and gamma radiation that can kill an exposed human in seconds. Such wastes must be handled remotely and workers must be shielded from the radiation. Workers must also be shielded from “intermediate-level waste” such as reactor parts, filters, resins, and solidified medical isotope waste. “Low-level waste” is a term for materials that pose risks with longer exposures, or that emit less penetrating forms of alpha and beta radiation. Alpha and beta emitters can be handled by workers without shielding but are highly dangerous if inhaled or ingested.

Many long-lived hazardous radioactive materials are destined for disposal in the mound. Radionuclides with half-lives* of up to billions of years would be disposed of in the mound. Up to 1000 metric tons of uranium-238, with a 4.5-billion-year half-life, are destined for disposal in the mound according to the environmental impact statement. Five plutonium isotopes, including plutonium-239 with a 24,000-year half-life, are proposed for disposal. The waste inventory includes huge amounts of strontium-90 and cesium-137, with half-lives of around 30 years. It also includes large amounts of carbon-14, with a 5,700-year half-life, and of tritium (the radioactive form of hydrogen) with a 12.3-year half-life. Carbon-14 and tritium are “weak” beta emitters, but if inhaled or ingested they incorporate into human DNA and other biological molecules, where they persist for a longer period, and can cause greater biological damage.

Low level waste only refers to the radioactive portion of the materials destined for the mound. According to the environmental impact statement, many other toxic, hazardous and long-lived substances would go into the mound, including materials contaminated with PCBs, asbestos, arsenic, and mercury.

In many cases it may be impossible to separate low level from intermediate level waste. Canada’s legacy nuclear wastes are a complex mixture of hundreds of manmade radioactive substances created by nuclear fission. Nuclear weapons research at Chalk River generated a very wide range of wastes – far more complex than those from power reactors.  Wastes were not consistently analyzed over the years, and records prior to 1954 were lost.  Wastes were dumped in the sand, creating radioactive plumes of tritium, carbon-14 and strontium-90 that have contaminated large quantities of soil. A former AECL waste expert has warned that separating long-lived, higher-activity waste from short-lived, low-activity waste may be impossible. Shipping containers with building demolition debris from the Chalk River and Whiteshell Laboratories are being stacked near the mound site.  If the mound proposal is approved, these would be driven into the mound area and covered with contaminated soil. 

The mound would not contain and isolate waste. The Chalk River mound would fail to meet international safety standards that require that radioactive waste be kept out of the biosphere for the duration of its radiological hazard. Putting long-lived radioactive wastes on the surface increases risks of accidents and leaks during disposal operations and extreme weather events such as downbursts, tornadoes and extreme rainfall. Long-lived wastes would permanently contaminate the Ottawa River and expose large numbers of people to low levels of radiation over millennia. International safety standards require that these wastes be stored underground. Properly managing these wastes by packaging them, labelling and storing them underground in stable rock away from drinking water sources would create many long term well-paying jobs and establish Canadian leadership to deal with the global radioactive waste problem.

* The “half life” of a radionuclide is the period of time required for half of its atoms to disintegrate (explode) giving off harmful “atomic radiation”.  If you multiply the half-life by 10, that’s how long it takes for the amount of the radionuclide to be reduced by a factor of a thousand. 

Updated list of First Nations and Municipal Resolutions against the CNL’s current plans for nuclear waste dumps

Assembly of First Nations resolution is here: http://www.ccnr.org/AFN_Resolution_2017.pdf

Example resolution in English:

Montreal Municipal Council’s unanimous resolution (press release and full resolution): https://cmm.qc.ca/communiques/depotoir-nucleaire-a-chalk-river-la-cmm-soppose-au-projet/

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.