Six reasons to STOP the Ottawa River radioactive waste dump

March 22, 2021

The Ottawa River is a Canadian Heritage River that flows past Parliament Hill. It has untold value as a beautiful natural and historical treasure. The river is sacred for the Algonquin People whose traditional territory it defines.

The Ottawa River is threatened by a giant landfill for one million tonnes of radioactive and other hazardous waste. A multinational consortium (SNC-Lavalin, Fluor and Jacobs) plans to build the seven-story mound on the grounds of the Chalk River Laboratories, northwest of Ottawa, directly across the Ottawa River from the province of Quebec.

Independent scientists and the public have not had a formal opportunity to comment on this project since August 2017 when hundreds of critical comments were submitted to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. CNSC is the “responsible authority” under the old Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and would hold a licensing hearing at an undetermined date in the future. An Expert Panel  recommended in 2017 that the CNSC not be in charge of environmental assessment for nuclear projects. The panel also noted that the CNSC is widely perceived to be a captured regulator.

The Assembly of First Nations and more than 140 Quebec and Ontario municipalities have passed resolutions opposing the Ottawa River nuclear waste dump.

Here are six reasons to STOP this project:

1. The proposed site is unsuitable for a dump of any kind. The site is less than one kilometre from the Ottawa River which forms the border between Ontario and Quebec. The river is a drinking water source for millions of Canadians. After passing the Chalk River Laboratories, it flows downstream through Ottawa-Gatineau, past Parliament Hill, and on to Montreal. The site is tornado and earthquake prone; the Ottawa River itself is a major fault line. The site is partly surrounded by wetlands and the underlying bedrock is porous and fractured.

2. The mound would contain hundreds of radioactive materials, dozens of hazardous chemicals and tonnes of heavy metals. Radioactive materials destined for the dump include tritium, carbon-14, strontium-90, four types of plutonium (one of the most dangerous radioactive materials if inhaled or ingested), and up to 80 tonnes of uranium. Twenty-five out of the 30 radionuclides listed in the reference inventory for the mound are long-lived. This suggests the dump would remain dangerously radioactive for 100,000 years. 

A very large quantity of cobalt-60 in the dump would give off so much intense gamma radiation that workers must use lead shielding to avoid dangerous radiation exposures. The International Atomic Energy Agency says high-activity cobalt-60 is “intermediate-level waste” and must be stored underground.

Dioxin, PCBs, asbestos, mercury, up to 13 tonnes of arsenic and hundreds of tonnes of lead would go into the dump. It would also contain thousands of tonnes of copper and iron and 33 tonnes of aluminum, tempting scavengers to dig into the mound after closure.

3. The mound would leak radioactive and hazardous contaminants into the Ottawa River during operation and after closure. Many ways the mound would leak are described in the environmental impact statement. The mound is expected to eventually disintegrate in a process referred to as “normal evolution.”

4. There is no safe level of exposure to the radiation that would leak into the Ottawa River from the Chalk River mound. All of the escaping radioactive materials would increase risks of birth defects, genetic damage, cancer and other chronic diseases. The International Atomic Energy Agency says radioactive wastes must be carefully stored out of the biosphere, not in an above-ground mound.

5. International safety standards do not allow landfills to be used for nuclear waste disposal. The International Atomic Energy Agency says that only Very Low Level Radioactive Waste (VLLW) can be put in an above-ground landfill-type facility. Canada would be shirking its international obligations as a member state of the IAEA and a signatory to an international nuclear waste treaty if it allowed this dump to be licensed.

6. The giant Chalk River mound would not reduce Canada’s $8 billion federal radioactive waste liabilities and could in fact increase themThe giant pile of leaking radioactive waste would be difficult to remediate. Remediation costs could exceed those of managing the wastes had they not been put in the mound.

Greens talk radioactive waste, Chalk River and SNC-Lavalin

September 5, 2019, Ottawa Citizen, TAYLOR BLEWETT

Leveraging one of the year’s top political controversies, federal Green party candidates staged an event Thursday to highlight their concerns about potential contamination of the Ottawa River and a government they describe as too cosy with SNC-Lavalin to care.

Standing in the sand on Westboro Beach, Ottawa Centre Green party candidate Angela Keller-Herzog gave the assembled crowd a quick refresher on the nuclear situation at Chalk River, 200 kilometres northwest of Ottawa.

On the eve of the 2015 federal election, former prime minister Stephen Harper’s government selected a consortium of companies, including engineering firm SNC-Lavalin, as its preferred proponent to manage and operate Canadian Nuclear Laboratories — the organization proposing a “near surface disposal facility” for radioactive waste at Chalk River.

It’s a plan, now under review, that’s been in the works for several years, and CNL is adamant about its safety. “It will actually take waste out of areas with very little containment, and put it into an area that is engineered and contained away from the environment,” said Sandra Faught, manager of regulatory approvals for the facility at CNL.

Despite such assurances, the proposed facility has generated fierce criticism from community, Indigenous and environmental advocates for as long as it’s been in the public eye.

At Thursday’s press conference, the Greens breathed fresh life into these concerns by emphasizing the involvement of one of the most controversial names in politics right now: SNC-Lavalin.

“Poor nuclear waste decisions have fallout for millennia — this is too important a job to be handed to SNC and corner-cutting, profit-seeking foreign corporations with dubious ethical background,” said Keller-Herzog.

As an MP, she said, she would champion the creation of a federal policy guiding the management of non-fuel radioactive waste (the kind the Chalk River disposal facility would deal with.)

She also raised a new concern — that the Liberal government, including Environment Minister and Ottawa Centre MP Catherine McKenna, have created an exemption that would allow small modular nuclear reactors to skip the new environmental review process they introduced in Bill C-69.

Both CNL and the federal government are focused on the opportunities presented by these portable, less powerful reactors.

“Canada is well positioned to become a global leader in the development and deployment of SMR technology,” reads a Natural Resources Canada webpage, while CNL envisions itself as a “global hub” for small modular reactor innovation.

In the spring of 2018, CNL invited SMR proposals to develop a “demonstration project” at one of its sites. This would be the first small modular reactor in Canada.

“I ask you: If experimental, unproven nuclear reactors don’t have to undergo impact assessment, then what’s the point?” said Keller-Herzog. “In other words, the Liberal government, Minister McKenna and senior public servants are lining up their ducks to pave the way for the plans of SNC-Lavalin and its American partners. Does that sound familiar?”

This newspaper contacted McKenna’s ministerial office about the decision to exempt small nuclear reactors — under 200 thermal megawatts —  from the list of projects that would require environmental assessment under Bill C-69.

“Previously all nuclear reactors would have been designated projects, regardless of size and location,” according to the Canada Gazette entry regarding the exemption.

In response, spokesperson Caroline Thériault sent a statement: 

“A robust project list ensures good projects can move forward in a timely and transparent way that protects the environment, rebuilds public trust and strengthens our economy. This list covers all major projects within federal jurisdiction those pose significant environmental risk.”

Even without a spot on the Bill C-69 project list, small modular reactor would still be subject to scrutiny.

According to a statement from the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, “New nuclear projects below the 200 MW thermal‎ threshold are subject to licensing and assessment processes by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.”

Alexandre Deslongchamps, spokesperson for the minster of natural resources, noted that the CNSC “is peer-reviewed and world-renowned” and “will only approve projects if it concludes that they are safe for people and the environment, both now and in the future.”

With files from the Financial Post

Comment from Mark Mackenzie: I am flabbergasted as to how a facility can get away with calling a 7 storey high dump a ‘Near Surface Disposal Facility’. At 7 stories high, I invite any Chalk River executive to jump off and tell us how close they were to the surface…. There is no reason to jeopardize the incredible value of the Ottawa River for a nuclear dump within 1 kilometre. The CNSC is hardly an effective regulatory body as they merely rubber stamp whatever the profit oriented nuclear industry wants. SNC Lavelin ‘anything for a buck’ is the Canadian partner. Great group today bringing awareness to the importance of this issue. Three Green Party candidates – Angela Keller-Herzog, Lorraine Rekmans and Claude Bertrand were highly articulate about how the Ottawa River needs to be protected.

Comment from Lynn Jones: Someone should tell the NRCan spokesperson that CNSC was outed long ago as a “captured regulator” that is world renowned for nothing other than promoting the industry and the projects it is supposed to regulate. Even the international nuclear industry refers to Canada’s “benign regulatory environment” when touting Canada as the place to come and tap into the public purse to develop small nuclear reactors.