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.

Ontario town slams proposal for nuclear-waste facility, citing safety issues

A sign marks the entrance to the Chalk River Laboratories in Chalk River, Ont., in 2012. The nearby town of Deep River has opposed a proposal to build a nuclear-waste facility at the location.SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

SHAWN MCCARTHYGLOBAL ENERGY REPORTERPUBLISHED AUGUST 23, 2017UPDATED AUGUST 23, 2017FOR SUBSCRIBERS 5 COMMENTS

The Town of Deep River, Ont. – home to Canada’s nuclear pioneers for 60 years – has slammed a proposal to build a near-surface nuclear-waste facility at the nearby Chalk River laboratories, saying the company appears to put its scheduling issues ahead of safety.

Government-owned, private-sector-managed Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) proposes to build a $325-million facility to dispose of a large quantity of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste generated at the historic research centre, and to bring some waste material from other sites that it manages.

CNL is responding to widespread criticism of the project among local, pro-nuclear residents by revisiting its plan to include a small amount of intermediate-level waste at the site, Kurt Kehler, vice-president for decommissioning and waste management, said in an interview on Wednesday.

In a submission to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the Town of Deep River argued the company’s plan is flawed and that the draft environmental-impact statement that was submitted to the regulator is missing key information.

However, in an accompanying letter, Mayor Joan Lougheed said the town supports CNL’s effort to provide for the safe storage and disposal of nuclear waste. Deep River is home for many of the lab’s current and retired employees; it has a population of roughly 4,000 people, situated on the Ottawa River some 200 kilometres northwest of the national capital.

“We’re doing our due diligence and responsibility as representatives of the Town of Deep River,” Ms. Lougheed said in an interview on Wednesday. “We all have a responsibility to deal with waste and waste management.”

She said town supports the storage of low-level radioactive waste at such a near-surface site, but has concerns about the intermediate-level radioactive material that requires isolation and containment for more than several hundred years.

In 2015, the Canadian National Energy Alliance consortium won a contract from the former Conservative government to manage the former Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. research facilities, now known as Canadian Nuclear Laboratories. The group – which includes SNC-Lavalin Group Inc., and American engineering giant CH2M Hill Inc. and Fluor Corp. – was tasked with bringing private-sector efficiency to AECL operations.

In its submission, Deep River says CNL failed to engage the municipality and its residents, offering a presentation rather than meaningful consultation. It suggests the consortium appears to be more focused on timely and profitable execution of the project than on safety and long-term management of the waste.

Particularly in the consideration of alternative options, “at times it appears the project schedule and costs were the driving forces influencing the assessment rather than public health, safety and the environment,” it said.STORY CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

The town and CNL are in negotiations over what compensation will be paid to the municipality as the host community, and Mr. Kehler described Deep River’s demands as “pretty lofty.”

As well, several First Nations groups either oppose the proposal outright, or say that they have not been properly consulted even though the research facilities are located on unceded traditional territory that is subject to land-claim negotiations.

CNL’s proposal – which aims to have the waste facility operational in 2021 – is running into fierce opposition from some AECL retirees. Several scientists who worked at facility say the CNL plan fails to meet international standards for safely dealing with intermediate-level waste (ILW).

“We’ve heard those comments and we’re taking that under serious advisement,” Mr. Kehler said. “And so we’ll be coming out with a recommendations shortly to the commission. … We are taking ILW issue seriously and I think we’ll come up with an appropriate resolution that will make just about everybody happy.”

The plan currently calls for 1 per cent of the total volume to be intermediate-level waste, and the company says that material would be on the lower end of the intermediate range. CNL is separately developing plans for the more dangerous intermediate-level waste that exists on the site.

Mr. Kehler also rejected the suggestion that CNL is compromising safety for financial reasons, saying the company is proceeding according to a schedule laid out by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the nuclear-safety commission.