(Ottawa, October 30, 2017) The multinational consortium running Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) and managing Canada’s federally-owned radioactive waste announced on Thursday (October 26th) that it will remove intermediate-level waste, which requires remote handling, from its plans for a giant radioactive mound beside the Ottawa River at Chalk River, Ontario.
Citizens’ groups who have been working for months to sound the alarm about the CNL proposal hailed the announcement as a partial victory. Over 200 submissions, most highly critical, were sent to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission during the public comment period for the project’s environmental impact study that ended in August.
CNL said in a press release October 26th that it was responding to comments from the public and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, and that wastes intended for disposal in the proposed facility will meet guidelines for low level radioactive waste set out by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
“We are pleased that our concerns are being heard,” said Johanna Echlin of the Old Fort William Cottagers’ Association, based in Sheenboro Quebec. “We said from the start that the facility should not contain “intermediate level” waste which is supposed to be disposed of in underground caverns according to the IAEA.”
There is still a long way to go before the proposal could be considered acceptable, according to Echlin. She notes that even “low level” radioactive waste is not supposed to be disposed of on top of the ground in a mound according to the IAEA. “It’s only common sense”, says Echlin. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist or nuclear engineer to understand that radioactive waste should not be placed on plastic liners that will deteriorate long before the waste becomes harmless.”
“Low-level” waste is a misnomer that causes a lot of confusion, according to Dr. Ole Hendrickson of Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area. “Low-level” waste is so named because it can be handled without using robots or special shielding, unlike used nuclear fuel rods which can provide a fatal dose of radiation within seconds to a person standing a few feet away.
“Low-level” radioactive waste can contain very hazardous materials, says Hendrickson. “Man-made isotopes such as plutonium, neptunium, and americium have extremely long half lives. They are highly toxic and will be around for thousands of years. Yet significant quantities are destined for this facility if it gets approved.”
Citizens groups say the proposed technology, an “engineered mound” similar to a municipal landfill, is not acceptable. They would like to see a “state-of-the-art” facility that would keep the radioactive materials out of the air and water for as long as they remain harmful, which could be longer than 100,000 years. Facilities currently under construction in Finland and France which utilize engineered caverns in stable rock, tens of metres below the surface, would be much safer and could serve as an example for a new Canadian facility.
Dump opponents are also concerned about the site for the facility. “You couldn’t choose a worse site for this dump if you tried,” according to Echlin, “on the side of a hill, that would have to be deforested, and smack in the middle of a wetland that drains into the Ottawa River only a kilometre away”.
Proximity to the river is causing worry about possible contamination of drinking water since the Ottawa River is a drinking water source for millions of Canadians downstream of Chalk River in cities such as Ottawa-Gatineau and Montreal.
Ole Hendrickson of the CCRCA notes that siting was not done according to IAEA guidance that calls for a site that can ensure the environment will be adequately protected during the entire lifetime of the facility. “CNL should explore the 70,000 acres of federal land adjacent to the Chalk River Labs property to find a more suitable location,” Hendrickson said. “With a better location, away from the river and in stable rock, we could all get behind this project and build a facility that Canada can be proud of,” he added.