Hendrickson: Council can do more to protect the Ottawa River from radioactive leaks (Ottawa Citizen)

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories’ plan for a radioactive waste landfill and a nuclear reactor disposal facility upstream from Ottawa must be rethought. Our local politicians should insist on it.Author of the article:Ole HendricksonPublishing date:Apr 13, 2021  •  

An aerial view of Chalk River laboratories on the shores of the Ottawa River.
An aerial view of Chalk River laboratories on the shores of the Ottawa River. SunMedia

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) is planning a radioactive waste landfill and a nuclear reactor disposal facility near the Ottawa River, upstream from Ottawa and many other communities.

CNL claims these plans would be an improvement over the status quo. How credible is that claim? While a landfill might help in the short term, exposing wastes to extreme weather events is risky. In the longer term, CNL’s own reports suggest that our descendants could be living downstream from a leaking and disintegrating pile.

CNL says 10 per cent of the landfill’s radioactive waste would be imported. That would mean 100,000 tonnes of a total of one million tonnes: 50,000 tonnes from other contaminated federal nuclear sites in Manitoba, southern Ontario and Quebec; and another 50,000 tonnes of commercial wastes from across Canada.

Ottawa’s environmental protection committee recently heard from dozens of groups and individuals opposed to CNL’s plans. The committee passed a motion urging CNL to stop transferring radioactive waste from other provinces to the Chalk River federal site.

The remaining waste would be buildings and soil contaminated by nuclear operations at Chalk River since 1945, and waste containers already stored there. Once in the giant landfill, the containers would rust and disintegrate. The concentrated radioactive wastes in them would mingle with the soil and other materials. The result: a radioactive mess where it’s impossible to tell what’s what or to ever separate or extract the more toxic elements if things go wrong.

Meanwhile, the landfill would release large amounts of tritium which, when swallowed or breathed in, increases the risk of cancer and other diseases.

One way it could go wrong, described in CNL’s own report, is called the bathtub scenario. The top cover of the landfill is breached, the base fills up with water from rain and snow, and the now-contaminated precipitation overflows downhill to the Ottawa River a kilometre away.

CNL claims the landfill’s liner is good for 550 years. Many are skeptical of this claim. But eventually it is certain to fail.

Even after hundreds of years, the landfill would contain radioactive forms of plutonium, radium, polonium, uranium, thorium, chlorine, iodine and more. These radioactive substances take thousands to billions of years to decay. The landfill would also hold dioxins, PCBs, asbestos, mercury, arsenic and lead.

Nearby, CNL plans to “entomb” the Nuclear Power Demonstration (NPD) reactor that was shut down in 1987. Instead of removing the reactor, it would fill it with cement and grout. Like the landfill idea, this would leave no option for removing wastes once they start to leak into groundwater and the Ottawa River.

Both the proposed landfill and the NPD reactor site are on fractured bedrock with high rates of groundwater movement into the river.

In my presentation to Ottawa‘s environment committee I outlined a better approach:

• Stop transferring wastes from other federal nuclear sites to Chalk River;

• Dismantle (do not entomb) the NPD reactor;

• Upgrade the existing Chalk River groundwater treatment facilities to fully capture plumes of pollution coming from areas where wastes (even reactor cores) were dumped in the past;

• Remove the wastes that are the sources of these plumes, analyze them, repackage them, record the results, and put the packages in above-ground storage units as an interim measure; and

• Find a site well away from the river with stable, solid rock for an underground repository that can isolate long-lived radioactive wastes from the biosphere.

Ottawa’s environment committee has recognized this potential threat to our drinking water by requesting a regional impact assessment of radioactive disposal projects in the Ottawa Valley. This would fall under the federal minister of environment and the 2019 Impact Assessment Act.

Let’s hope city council agrees and claims a place at the table as decisions are made that will affect countless future generations of Ottawa residents.

Ole Hendrickson, PhD., is an environmental scientist living in Ottawa.