How would the “Near Surface” Disposal Facility leak? Let us count some of the ways

 REVISED and UPDATED, February 23, 2021

by Dr. Ole Hendrickson, PhD

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) – run by a consortium of profit-making multinational  companies – is proposing to build a“Near Surface Disposal Facility” for a  million cubic meters of radioactive waste at its Chalk River facility along the Ottawa  River. CNL’s final environmental impact statement (EIS) describes several ways that contents  of the proposed “engineered containment mound” of radioactive waste could leak into the Ottawa River. 

During operation… 

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. Different  radioactive elements would leach at different rates depending on how strongly they were  bound to the wastes. Radioactively contaminated leachate would be collected in a system of  pipes and pumped uphill to a water treatment plant. Some but not all radioactive contaminants  would be removed prior to releasing the treated leachate into adjacent wetlands (for part of the year) or directly into Perch Lake, which drains into the Ottawa River via Perch Creek. Table 3.4.2-2 on page 3-58 of the final EIS shows levels of different radionuclides in leachate that would be discharged from the water treatment plant. 

2. Tritium as radioactive water would leach in very large amounts from the  mound.

Tritium – a radioactive form of hydrogen with a half-life of 12.3 years – is readily taken up by living organisms and incorporated in body tissues. When tritium decays it emits  “beta radiation” damaging to DNA and other cell constituents. Tritium is part of the water  molecule and cannot be removed by water treatment. The EIS estimates that the tritium in a liter of leachate would emit 140 thousand beta particles per second.  After passing through Perch Lake and Perch Creek, water containing roughly 7 thousand beta particles per liter per second (the current Ontario drinking water standard) would be released into the Ottawa  River, be incorporated in fish and other aquatic life, and enter downstream drinking water supplies. Large amounts of tritium would also be released from the mound and Perch Lake as water vapour. 

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

Table 3.4.2-3  on pages 3-59 and 3-6 of the EIS indicate that leachate from the mound would include a very wide range of  non-radioactive toxic compounds such as arsenic, mercury, lead, chloroform, ethylene dibromide, PCBs  and dioxin. Measurable amounts would be released to the environment. 

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

The EIS proposes an elaborate system of contact water ponds, non-contact water ponds, surface water management ponds, drainage ditches, and culverts.  Highly contaminated water washing off active dumping areas would flow into a contact pond and be pumped to the water treatment plant. Water washing off “inactive” areas (but contaminated by dust from active dumping areas) would flow into non-contact water ponds, be pumped to a perimeter ditch and three storm-water management ponds.  These ponds would discharge to adjacent wetlands that are already contaminated by existing nearby leaking radioactive waste areas.

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

The EIS (page 3-76) says that “when the probable maximum precipitation flow will exceed the surface water management ponds attenuation capacity,” adjacent emergency outlet structures “will be able to convey this flow.”

6. Clearing 34 hectares of mature forest and discharging waste water would  impact wetlands.

The existing forest recharges adjacent wetlands. Loss of the forest’s infiltration  and recharge capacity would tend to dry out these wetlands and expose their radioactive contents  (such as tritium, strontium-90 and carbon-14) to erosion. The EIS notes (page 5-278) that waste water discharge to adjacent wetlands and Perch Lake “may cause changes to water levels, flows, and channel and bank stability, and scouring of the wetland, affecting water quality at downstream locations.”

7. Other possible ways the facility might leak during operations

(not described  in detail in the EIS) include 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 EIS acknowledges that the top cover would inevitably fail with “normal evolution” through forces such as erosion, extreme storms,  burrowing animals, root penetration, etc.  It proposes the “conversion of a largely undisturbed, mature forested area to a permanently fenced, turf-grass habitat that is highly modified (i.e., mown, fertilized and maintained as tree-free to avoid the disruption of roots to the cover structure)” (p, 5-509).

2. Failure of the top cover while the more protected base liners remain intact  would initiate a “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.  A different scenario involves failure of the bottom liner, releasing leachate into groundwater.

3. Radioactive wastes would flow directly into Perch Creek and the Ottawa  River less than 1 kilometer away, essentially forever.

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. Table 5.2.3-8 on page 5-155 of the draft EIS estimated that, under the bathtub scenario, plutonium (Pu)  isotopes (Pu-239 and Pu-240) would exit the dump at 21.4 million and 32.4 million Becquerels per year.  Eventual failure of the bottom liners would also allow radionuclides to move through groundwater,. These details were removed from the final EIS, but it is clear that the Ottawa River would be permanently contaminated by radioactive waste, and countless  generations of people drinking its water would be exposed to increased cancer risks.

How Do I Know if I Have a Leaky Gut? | The Wholesome Heart

What would go into the Chalk River Mound? (Ottawa River radioactive waste dump)

December 2020

Canadian taxpayers are paying a consortium (Canadian National Energy Alliance) contracted by the federal government in 2015, billions of dollars to reduce Canada’s $16 billion nuclear liabilities quickly and cheaply. The consortium is proposing to construct a giant mound for one million tons of radioactive waste beside the Ottawa River upstream of Ottawa-Gatineau. The proposed dumpsite is partially surrounded by wetlands that drain into the Ottawa River less than one kilometre away. 

There is considerable secrecy about what would go into the mound; the information that follows has been  derived from the proponent’s final environmental impact statement (EIS) (December 2020) which lists a partial inventory of radionuclides that would go into the gigantic five-to-seven story radioactive mound (aka the “NSDF”). The EIS and supporting documents also contain inventories of non-radioactive hazardous materials that would go into the dump.

Here is what the consortium says it is planning to put into the Chalk River mound (according to the final EIS and supporting documents)

1)  Long-lived radioactive materials

Twenty-five out of the 30 radionuclides listed in Table 3.3.1-2: NSDF Reference Inventory and Licensed Inventory are long-lived, with half-lives ranging from four centuries to more than four billion years.

To take just one example, the man-made radionuclide, Neptunium-237, has a half-life of 2 million years such that, after 2 million years have elapsed, half of this radioactive substance will be present, together with its radioactive decay products such as Uranium-233. At the time of closure of the mound, the neptunium-237 will be giving off 17 million radioactive disintegrations each second, second after second.

The mound would contain up to 80 tonnes of Uranium and 6.6 tonnes of thorium-232.

2) Four isotopes of plutonium, one of the most deadly radioactive materials known, if inhaled or ingested.

John Gofman MD, PhD, a Manhattan Project scientist and former director of biomedical research at the DOE’s Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, stated that even one-millionth of a gram of plutonium inhaled into the lung, will cause lung cancer within 20 years. Sir Brian Flowers, author of the UK Royal Commission Report on Nuclear Energy and the Environment, wrote that a few thousands of a gram, inhaled into the lungs, will cause death within a few years because of massive fibrosis of the lungs, and that a few millionths of a gram will cause lung cancer with almost 100% certainty.

The four isotopes of plutonium listed in the NSDF reference inventory are Plutonium-239, Plutonium-240, Plutonium-2441 and Plutonium-242. According to Table 3.3.1-2 NSDF Reference Inventory and Licensed Inventory from the EIS, The two isotopes 239 and 240 combined will have an activity of 87 billion Bq when they are emplaced in the dump. This means that they will be giving off 87 billion radioactive disintegrations each second, second after second. These plutonium isotopes could constitute a significant hazard to workers during emplacement of plutonium wastes and plutonium contaminated debris in the mound.

3) Fissionable materials 

Fissionable materials can be used to make nuclear weapons.

The mound would contain “special fissionable materials” listed in this table extracted from an EIS supporting document, Waste Acceptance Criteria, Version 4, (November 2020)

4) Large quantities of Cobalt-60 

The CNL inventory includes a very large quantity of cobalt-60 (91 quadrillion Becquerels), contained in waste cobalt-60 irradiating devices. Cobalt-60 when concentrated in irradiators gives off so much strong gamma radiation that lead shielding must be used by workers who handle them in order to avoid dangerous radiation exposures. The International Atomic Energy Agency considers high-activity cobalt-60 irradiators to be “intermediate-level waste” and specifies that they must be stored underground. Addition of high-activity cobalt-60 irradiators means that hundreds of tons of lead shielding would be disposed of in the mound.

5) Very Large quantities of tritium

The mound would contain 890 billion becquerels of tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen. Tritium readily combines with oxygen to form radioactive water. It moves readily through the environment and easily enters all cells of the human body where it can cause damage to cell structures including genetic material such as DNA and RNA. For more on the hazards of tritium see the Tritium Primer on the TAP website:

Because it is part of the water molecule, removal of tritium from water is very difficult and expensive. There are no plans to remove tritium from the mound leachate. Instead the consortium plans to pipe the contaminated water directly into Perch Lake which drains into the Ottawa River.

6) Carbon-14

The mound would contain close to two billion becquerels of Carbon-14, an internal emitter that is hazardous in similar ways to tritium. Carbon is a key element in all organic molecules. When it is inhaled or ingested it can become incorporated into organic molecules and cellular components including genetic material.

7) Many other man-made radionuclides 

Radionuclides such as caesium-137, strontium-90, radium, technetium, nickel-59, americium-243 are listed in the partial inventory of materials that would go into the dump. See the partial inventory here:

8) Non-radioactive hazardous materials

Hazardous materials destined for the dump include asbestos, PCBs, dioxins, mercury, up to 13 tonnes of arsenic and hundreds of tonnes of lead. (Reference)

9) Large quantities of valuable metals that could attract scavengers

According the the final EIS, the mound would contain 33 tonnes of aluminum, 3,520 tonnes of copper, and 10,000 tonnes of iron. It is well known that scavenging of materials  occurs after closure of facilities such as the Chalk River mound. Scavengers would be exposed to high radiation doses as they sought to extract these valuable materials from the dump.

10) Organic Materials

80,339 tonnes of wood and other organic material are destined for the mound. These materials would decompose and cause slumping in the mound, therefore potentially compromising the integrity of the cap.


Most of the radioactive and hazardous material would get into the air and water, some sooner, some later.

Some would get into ground and surface water during creation of the mound, such as tritium which is very mobile and cannot be removed by the proposed water treatment plant. Others would get into the air, during construction and could be breathed by workers. Some materials would leach slowly into groundwater. Still others would be released when the mounds deteriorates over time and eventually disintegrates several hundreds of years into the future. For details on the expected disintegration of the mound in a process described as “normal evolution” see this post:


The mound would actually get more radioactive over time

See the submission entitled “A Heap of Trouble” by Dr. Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility for a chilling description of this process. Here is a quote from the submission:

The Near Surface Disposal Facility (NSDF) project is presented not as a temporary, interim
storage facility but as a permanent repository that will ultimately be abandoned. We are
dealing with a potentially infinite time horizon. The proponent seeks approval not just for a
few decades, but forever. Such permission has never before been granted for post-fission
radioactive wastes in Canada, nor should it be granted. Long-lived radioactive waste
should not be abandoned, especially not on the surface beside a major body of water.

The facility will remain a significant hazard for in excess of 100,000 years.

This point was raised by Dr. J.R. Walker, a retired AECL radioactive waste expert in his submission on the draft environmental impact statement. You can read his full submission here:

“There is no safe level of exposure to any man-made radioactive material.

“There is no safe level of exposure to any man-made radioactive material. All discharges, no matter how small,  into our air and water can cause cancer and many other diseases as well as genetic damage and birth defects.”

~ Dr. Eric Notebaert, Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

This dump would not not meet international safety standards for radioactive waste management. Details

LETTRE OUVERTE au premier ministre Justin Trudeau et au Conseil des ministres fédéral ~ ARRÊTEZ le dépotoir radioactif de Chalk River

Le 25 janvier 2021

Monsieur le Premier Ministre et mesdames et messieurs les Membres du Conseil des Ministres,

La rivière des Outaouais est une rivière du patrimoine canadien qui coule au pied de la Colline du Parlement. Sa valeur comme site naturel et comme trésor historique est inestimable. La rivière est sacrée pour le peuple algonquin, dont elle définit le territoire traditionnel.

La rivière des Outaouais est menacée par un dépotoir géant, d’une hauteur de sept étages, conçu pour abriter un million de tonnes de déchets radioactifs. Un consortium multinational (SNC-Lavalin, Fluor et Jacobs) prévoit construire ce monticule sur les terrains des Laboratoires nucléaires canadiens (LNC) près de Chalk River, en Ontario, à 150 km au nord-ouest d’Ottawa.

Les scientifiques indépendants et le public n’ont pas eu d’occasion de s’exprimer officiellement sur le projet depuis août 2017, alors que des centaines de commentaires critiques ont été soumis à la Commission canadienne de sûreté nucléaire (CCSN). La CCSN est l’« autorité responsable» en vertu de l’ancienne Loi canadienne sur l’évaluation environnementale et prévoit tenir une audience sur l’émission d’un permis cette année. Un Comité d’experts recommandait en 2017 que la CCSN ne soit pas chargée de l’évaluation environnementale des projets nucléaires. Le Comité avait aussi noté que la CCSN était largement perçue comme un « régulateur captif » des entreprises plutôt qu’un organisme indépendant.

L’Assemblée des Premières nations et plus de 140 municipalités du Québec et de l’Ontario ont adopté des résolutions s’opposant au dépotoir nucléaire de Chalk River.

Voici six raisons d’ARRÊTER ce projet:

1. Le site proposé est tout simplement inapte à recevoir un dépotoir, de quelque type qu’il soit. Le site est à moins d’un kilomètre de la rivière des Outaouais, qui forme la frontière entre l’Ontario et le Québec. La rivière fournit l’eau potable à des millions de Canadiens. Après avoir passé les LNC, elle coule entre Ottawa et Gatineau, au pied de la colline du Parlement, puis jusqu’à Montréal. Le site est exposé aux risques de tornades et de tremblements de terre; la rivière des Outaouais constitue d’ailleurs une ligne de faille géologique majeure. Le site est partiellement entouré de milieux humides et le substrat rocheux est poreux et fracturé.

2. Le monticule prévu contiendrait des centaines de matériaux radioactifs, des douzaines de produits chimiques dangereux et des tonnes de métaux lourds. Parmi les matériaux radioactifs destinés au monticule, on trouve du tritium, du carbone 14, du strontium 90, quatre types de plutonium (un des matériaux radioactifs les plus dangereux lorsqu’inhalé ou ingéré), et jusqu’à 80 tonnes d’uranium. Vingt-cinq des 30 radionucléides cités dans l’inventaire de radionucléides pour le monticule ont une longue durée de vie. Ces renseignements donnent à penser que le dépotoir demeurerait dangereusement radioactif pour quelque 100 000 ans.

La très grande quantité de cobalt 60 dans le dépotoir émettrait tellement de radiation gamma que les travailleurs devraient utiliser un blindage en plomb pour éviter une exposition dangereuse. L’Agence internationale de l’énergie atomique (AIEA) considère le cobalt 60 à haute activité comme un « déchet de moyenne activité », qui doit être stocké en profondeur.

Le dépotoir recevrait aussi des dioxines, des BPC, de l’amiante, du mercure, jusqu’à 13 tonnes d’arsenic et des centaines de tonnes de plomb. Il contiendrait aussi des milliers de tonnes de cuivre, de fer et 33 tonnes d’aluminium, des métaux qui pourront amener des voleurs à creuser dans le monticule après la fermeture du site.

3. Le monticule laisserait s’écouler des matériaux radioactifs et dangereux dans la rivière des Outaouais durant son opération et après sa fermeture. L’énoncé des incidences environnementales décrit plusieurs des façons dont le monticule pourrait laisser fuir son contenu. On prévoit que le monticule se désintégrera avec le temps, un processus qualifié d’« évolution normale ».

4. Il n’existe pas de niveau sécuritaire d’exposition aux radiations qui s’écouleraient du monticule de Chalk River dans la rivière des Outaouais. Chacun des matériaux radioactifs qui s’échapperait du site augmenterait les risques de malformations congénitales, d’altérations génétiques, de cancer et d’autres maladies chroniques. L’AIEA considère que les déchets radioactifs doivent être soigneusement stockés à l’écart de la biosphère et non dans un monticule en surface.

5. Les normes internationales de sécurité n’autorisent pas l’utilisation de dépotoirs pour disposer des déchets radioactifs. L’AIEA considère que seuls des déchets de très faible activité peuvent être placés dans une installation en surface, comme un dépotoir. Le Canada se déroberait à ses obligations internationales comme État membre de l’AIEA et signataire d’un traité international sur les déchets nucléaires s’il autorisait ce dépotoir à obtenir sa licence.

6. Le monticule géant de Chalk River ne réduirait pas la responsabilité légale du Canada face aux déchets nucléaires, qui s’élève déjà à 8 milliards de dollars. Il pourrait au contraire l’alourdir. La remise en état de cette colline de déchets radioactifs serait très difficile. Les coûts d’assainissement pourraient dépasser ceux de la gestion des déchets s’ils n’avaient pas été mis dans le monticule.

Monsieur le Premier Ministre et mesdames et messieurs les Membres du Conseil des Ministres: Retirez à la CCSN le pouvoir de décision en cette matière et arrêtez le dépotoir nucléaire de Chalk River. Protégez la rivière des Outaouais pour les générations actuelles et futures de Canadiens.

Veuillez recevoir l’expression de nos sentiments les plus sincères,

Gordon Edwards, Regroupement pour la surveillance du nucléaire, Montréal, QC

Éric Notebaert, Association canadienne des médecins pour l’environnement, Montréal, QC

Réal Lalande, Action Climat Outaouais, Gatineau, QC

Paul Johannis, L’Alliance pour les espaces verts de la capitale du Canada, Ottawa, ON

Lynn Jones, Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area, Ottawa, ON

Johanna Echlin, Old Fort William (Quebec) Cottagers’ Association, Sheenboro, QC

Robb Barnes, Écologie Ottawa, Ottawa, ON

Beatrice Olivastri, Les ami(e)s de la terre Canada, Ottawa, ON

Ole Hendrickson, Ottawa River Institute, Ottawa, ON

Eva Schacherl, Coalition Against Nuclear Dumps on the Ottawa River, Ottawa, ON

Hon. Erin O’Toole, Chef de l’opposition

Yves-François Blanchet, chef du Bloc québécois

Jagmeet Singh, Chef du Nouveau Parti démocratique

Annamie Paul, Chef du Parti vert du Canada

To Prime Minister Trudeau and members of the federal cabinet ~ Stop the Ottawa River radioactive waste dump

January 25, 2021

Dear Mr. Trudeau and members of the federal cabinet:

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 plans to hold a licensing hearing this year. 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.

Prime Minister Trudeau and Members of Cabinet, we urge you to take the decision-making authority out of the hands of CNSC for this project and stop the Chalk River nuclear waste dump. Protect the Ottawa River for current and future generations of Canadians. 

Yours sincerely,

Gordon Edwards, Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, Montreal, QC

Éric Notebaert, Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, Montreal, QC

Réal Lalande, Action Climat Outaouais, Gatineau, QC

Paul Johannis, Greenspace Alliance of Canada’s Capital, Ottawa, ON

Lynn Jones, Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area, Ottawa, ON

Johanna Echlin, Old Fort William (Quebec) Cottagers’ Association, Sheenboro, QC

Robb Barnes, Ecology Ottawa, Ottawa, ON

Beatrice Olivastri, Friends of the Earth Canada, Ottawa, ON

Ole Hendrickson, Ottawa River Institute, Ottawa, ON

Eva Schacherl, Coalition Against Nuclear Dumps on the Ottawa River, Ottawa, ON


Hon. Erin O’Toole, Leader of the Official Opposition

Yves-François Blanchet, Leader of the Bloc Québécois

Jagmeet Singh, Leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada

Annamie Paul, Leader of the Green Party of Canada

Ottawa River looking north; photo taken opposite Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories

Groups oppose plans to abandon defunct nuclear reactors and radioactive waste ~

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Ole HendricksonFebruary 3, 2021ENVIRONMENT

Signs indicating the presence of radioactive waste. Image credit: Dan Meyers/Unsplash

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) has just given a green light to the preferred industry solution for disposal of nuclear reactors — entomb and abandon them in place, also known as “in-situ decommissioning.” This paves the way for the introduction of a new generation of “small modular” nuclear reactors or SMRs.

SMRs bring many challenges, including safety of untested designs, nuclear weapons proliferation risks, high costs, disposal of radioactive waste, and public acceptance. Groups concerned about nuclear safety are objecting to plans in the works to abandon these nuclear reactors and the radioactive waste they produce once they are shut down.

Over 100 Indigenous and civil society groups have signed a public statement opposing SMR funding, noting that the federal government currently has no detailed policy or strategy for what to do with radioactive waste. Many of these groups are also participating in a federal radioactive waste policy review launched in November 2020.

The Assembly of First Nations passed resolution 62/2018 demanding that the nuclear industry abandon plans for SMRs and that the federal government cease funding them. It calls for free, prior and informed consent “to ensure that no storage or disposal of hazardous materials shall take place in First Nations lands and territories.”

SMR waste includes not only reactor fuel but also the reactors themselves.

An SMR emits no radiation before start-up (other than from uranium fuel) and could easily be transported at that stage. But during reactor operation, metal and concrete components absorb neutrons from the splitting of uranium atoms — and in the process, transform into radioactive waste. Removing an SMR after shut-down would be difficult and costly, and comes with the need to shield workers and the public from its radioactivity.

Abandoning nuclear reactors on site has been in the works for some time. CNSC helped draft a 2014 nuclear industry standard with in-situ decommissioning as an option and then included it in a July 2019 draft regulatory document.

However, when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a peer-reviewed report on Canada’s nuclear safety framework last February, it said in-situ decommissioning is “not consistent” with IAEA safety standards.

The IAEA suggested that CNSC “consider revising its current and planned requirements in the area of decommissioning to align with the IAEA guidance that entombment is not considered an acceptable strategy for planned decommissioning of existing [nuclear power plants] and future nuclear facilities.” It also noted that CNSC is reviewing license applications for in-situ decommissioning of shut-down federal reactors in Ontario and Manitoba, and encouraged Canada “to request an international peer review of the proposed strategy” for legacy reactors.

But CNSC continued to pursue this strategy. Clever language in a June 2020 document appeared to rule out on-site reactor disposal, but left the door open where removal is not “practicable”:

“In-situ decommissioning shall not be considered a reasonable decommissioning option for planned decommissioning of existing nuclear power plants or for future nuclear facilities in situations where removal is possible and practicable.”

At public meeting last June, CNSC Commissioner Sandor Demeter asked: “why are future facilities in this sentence when in fact we should be designing them so that in-situ decommissioning is not the option?” Former CNSC staff member Karine Glenn replied that “leaving some small parts of a structure behind…especially if you are in a very, very remote area, may be something that could be considered.” 

Glenn is now with the industry-run Nuclear Waste Management Organization, tasked with leading the development of a radioactive waste management strategy for Canada.

Commissioners decided to approve the regulatory document, but with added text to clarify where in-situ decommissioning would be acceptable. They asked for additional text on “legacy sites” and “research reactors,” stating that “[t]he Commission need not see this added text if it aligns with the oral submissions staff made in the public meeting.”

But no new clarifying text was added to the final version of the document published on January 29, 2021. It enables abandonment of SMRs — by retaining the reference to future nuclear facilities — and of “research and demonstration facilities, locations or sites dating back to the birth of nuclear technologies in Canada for which decommissioning was not planned as part of the design.”

The CNSC seems willing to ignore international safety standards — and a decision of its own commission — to accommodate nuclear industry proponents of SMRs and allow radioactive waste to be abandoned in place.

Meanwhile, the federal government has assigned the nuclear industry itself — via the Nuclear Waste Management Organization — the task of developing a radioactive waste strategy for Canada. Barring public outcry, that strategy will be abandonment.

Ole Hendrickson is a retired forest ecologist and a founding member of the Ottawa River Institute, a non-profit charitable organization based in the Ottawa Valley.

Presentation – Update on Chalk River radioactive waste disposal -BCI Jan. 2021

This presentation was given at the AGM of Biodiversity Conservancy International, January 14, 2021

This slide from the presentation shows Chalk River Labs in 1948.  The original 10 megawatt version of the NRX reactor had been completed a year earlier, in July 1947.   Plutonium was extracted from uranium irradiated in the NRX and shipped to the U.S. to make nuclear weapons.  Later, irradiated targets containing plutonium were shipped to the U.S, for processing there.  This continued until the mid-1960s.  

Natural Resources Canada estimates that over half the nuclear wastes at Chalk River – including contaminated buildings, buried wastes, and contaminated lands – came from Cold War weapons-related activities.

Hill Times Letter to the Editor ~ We need parliamentarians to stop project, prevent Ottawa River from being permanently contaminated by gigantic radioactive landfill

January 18, 2021

Re “CNL working to accomplish responsible action in managing Canada’s nuclear research and development legacy” (The Hill Times, Letters to the Editor, December 14, 2020).

This letter from Joe McBrearty, President and CEO of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) deepens my concern about the handling of Canada’s $8 billion nuclear waste liability. 

Mr. McBrearty claims that the Chalk River Mound beside the Ottawa River, 150 km north of Ottawa-Gatineau, “will contain only low-level radioactive waste which contains radionuclides that require isolation and containment for only a few hundred years.”

Unfortunately this claim does not stand up to scrutiny.

Last month CNL published its final environmental impact statement listing a partial inventory of radionuclides that would go into the gigantic five-to-seven story radioactive mound (aka the “NSDF”).

Twenty-five out of the 30 radionuclides listed in the inventory are long-lived, with half-lives ranging from four centuries to more than four billion years. To take just one example, the man-made radionuclide, Neptunium-237, has a half-life of 2 million years such that, after 2 million years have elapsed, half of the material will still be radioactive. 

The inventory includes four isotopes of plutonium, one of the most deadly radioactive materials known, if inhaled or ingested.

It is incorrect to say that these materials “require isolation and containment for only a few hundred years.” Many of them will be dangerously radioactive for more than one hundred thousand years. The International Atomic Energy Agency states that materials like this must be stored tens of meters or more underground, not in an above-ground mound.

The CNL inventory also includes a very large quantity of cobalt-60, a material that gives off so much strong gamma radiation that lead shielding must be used by workers who handle it in order to avoid dangerous radiation exposures. The International Atomic Energy Agency considers high-activity cobalt-60 sources to be “intermediate-level waste” and specifies that they must be stored underground. Addition of high-activity cobalt-60 sources means that hundreds of tons of lead shielding would be disposed of in the mound along with other hazardous materials such as arsenic, asbestos, PCBs, dioxins and mercury.

CNL’s environmental impact statement describes several ways that radioactive materials would leak into surrounding wetlands that drain into the Ottawa River during filling of the mound and after completion. It also describes CNL’s intent to pipe water polluted with tritium and other radioactive and hazardous substances from the waste treatment facility directly into Perch Lake which drains into the Ottawa River.

I stand by my original conclusion: We need parliamentarians to step up now to stop this deeply flawed project and prevent the Ottawa River from being permanently contaminated by a gigantic, leaking radioactive landfill that would do little to reduce Canada’s $8 billion nuclear waste liability.

Letter to the editor published in the Hill Times Monday January 18, 2021

Small Modular Reactors and Proliferation /Tolerance of Nuclear Weapons

Gordon Edwards, January 12, 2021

Uranium enrichment is indeed a proliferation-sensitive technology as is clearly demonstrated by the Iranian situation. Even though, under the terms of the NPT and all other international accords, Iran has the right to enrich uranium to any degree that might be desired, for civilian purposes only, in practical terms the western powers do not at all trust Iran to exercise that right. So they are prohibited from doing so, even to the 20% (minus epsilon) level, which is what many of the proposed SMNR designs require.

Right up until the final shutdown of the NRU reactor at Chalk River, Canada was using weapons-grade uranium (>93%) targets for the production of technetium-99m generators for use in hospitals around the world, and I was told by an Iranian scientist in Salzburg that Iran wanted weapons-grade uranium for exactly the same reason – medical isotopes. All of this ignoring the fact that weapons-grade uranium is NOT needed for this purpose, whether in Canada or anywhere else, and in actual fact technetium-99m generators can be produced in a cost-effective manner without the use of a nuclear reactor of any kind, or even using uranium of any kind.

But – in the interests of a nuclear weapons free world – Canada should indeed be encouraging the international / multinational control (or oversight) of ALL enrichment facilities.

But that is small potatoes. Canada claims the NPT is the backbone of its non-proliferation commitment, but India has not signed the NPT and has already developed a nuclear weapons capability beginning in 1974 with plutonium produced in a Canadian reactor (the CIRUS, a clone of the NRX). Whereupon Canada insisted there would be no more nuclear cooperation between Canada and India – but all the time, India remained a member of COG (the CANDU Owners Group) and went on to build more than a dozen CANDU “clones” without direct Canadian help (other than the fact that we sold them under very generous terms the original CANDUS that were the cookie-cutter models for all the others.  And then, under Stephen Harper, we resumed sales of uranium to India without any requirement that they get rid of their nuclear arsenal or even stop expanding it, and without signing the NPT. Which makes all the other countries who signed the NPT to have access to Canadian uranium and/or technology look like fools, because India got all the goodies without accepting the NPT responsibilities. Canada should stop selling uranium to India if the NPT is really so important.

But even that is small potatoes. Article VI of the NPT says that the “ official  nuclear weapons states USA, UK, France, Russia and China, must negotiate in good faith not only to eliminate nuclear weapons but to achieve general and complete disarmament (i.e. elimination of armies and an end to war).  Clearly, none of these nuclear superpowers are embarked on such a path, and until they do, Canada should refuse to sell uranium to any of them. Or at least should put constant pressure on the, to comply with Article VI. The fact that these things are not done indicates that Canada is only paying lip-service when it says that NPT is the basis for its non-proliferation policies.

PET told the UN General Assembly that if we want a world free of nuclear weapons, we must end the arms race – and we must begin with a strategy of suffocation, to choke off the vital oxygen on which it feeds, meaning the production of the two “strategic nuclear materials” which serve as primary nuclear explosives, i.e. weapons-grade uranium and weapons-grade plutonium.

These same considerations should apply when it comes to the extraction of plutonium from irradiated nuclear fuel.  At the very least, there should be a requirement for such facilities (reprocessing plants) to be under international control just as enrichment plants should be under international control. Of course, better yet would be the abolition of reprocessing and uranium enrichment altogether, taking Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s 1978 “strategy of suffocation” to its ultimate limit. PET told the UN General Assembly that if we want a world free of nuclear weapons, we must end the arms race – and we must begin with a strategy of suffocation, to choke off the vital oxygen on which it feeds, meaning the production of the two “strategic nuclear materials” which serve as primary nuclear explosives, i.e. weapons-grade uranium and weapons-grade plutonium. However we now know that, for weapons purposes, ALL plutonium is “good” plutonium, so the division of plutonium into weapons-grade and non-weapons-grade is illusory. Ultimately, then, the strategy of suffocation means no nuclear reactors whatsoever.


Trinity (nuclear test) - Wikipedia
Trinity test of a plutonium bomb (Wikipedia)

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 (

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.

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