Radioactive Dumps and Water Don’t Mix

Riverkeeper Meredith Brown gives an update on our nuclear waste file.

You might be surprised to learn that a significant portion of Canada’s largest environmental liabilities lie within our own Ottawa River Watershed. Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) has accrued about 8 Billion dollars worth of liabilities in the form of contaminated wastes that must be safely stored in order to protect our water and life.

Approximately 180 km upstream from our National Capital Region, on the Ottawa River, toxic and nuclear waste has been accumulating at the site of Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) since 1945. In 2015 AECL entered into an operating agreement with the Canadian National Energy Alliance, a private-sector consortium led by SNC-Lavalin. The agreement is largely about dealing with wastes and advancing research and design for small modular reactors.

There are two significant decommissioning projects undergoing federal environmental assessments and Ottawa Riverkeeper continues to participate in the process, working with the proponents,  experts and communities to understand risk, impacts and the different feasible, safe solutions.

Chalk River Near-Surface-Disposal Facility (NSDF)

The biggest project is the proposed near-surface-disposal facility (dump) for toxic and radioactive waste from Chalk River and from other federal nuclear operations at WhiteShell (MB) and Gentilly (QC). The proposed solution is to dig a very large hole in a swampy area of the property, line it, build a leachate collection system and start filling up the hole with toxic waste. They estimate it will take 50 years to fill the dump with one million cubic metres of waste. It will rain and snow on the waste, creating contaminated leachate that will be collected and treated. Treatment is complicated and some of the contaminants are impossible to treat at all. The “treated” leachate will be drained into Perch Lake wetlands that empty into the Ottawa River.

Ottawa Riverkeeper would like to see a waste storage facility that is contained, thus eliminating the mixing of water and radioactive waste, eliminating the billions of litres of contaminated water that will result from this proposed design option. We believe this option would have the least impact on our waters. When I ask CNL why they don’t choose this option they tell me it is too expensive, yet they fail to break the costs down and truly compare options. Whoever gets the contract to build and operate the water treatment facility for the leachate will make a considerable profit. Treating and monitoring leachate will be required for at least 75 years.

Timeline Update for NSDF

At a recent meeting of the Chalk River Environmental Stewardship Council (ESC) we learned that CNL has not completed their final Environmental Impact Statement. There was an overwhelming number of interventions from public and comments from government that CNL is addressing. CNL said there is a very low probability the Environmental Assessment (EA) will be released in 2018, pushing the CNSC regulatory hearings to 2019. You can read Ottawa Riverkeeper’s comments on the draft EIS here.

Rolphton, NPD Decommissioning

The Nuclear Power Demonstration (NPD) reactor was Canada’s first candu reactor built on the Ottawa River in Rolphton, Ontario, just upstream of Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories. The NPD began operation in 1962 and was operational until 1987. As of 2006, all fuel and non-nuclear equipment have been removed from the site, while much of the nuclear equipment is still present. Water continues to leak into the reactor building and every year CNL pumps water contaminated with tritium, PCBs, mercury and lead from the building into the Ottawa River.

CNL proposes to entomb the building in concrete and seal it with grout to minimize exposure to water. We were surprised to see this proposal since the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) does not recommend reactor entombment except in emergencies. This project is now undergoing a federal environmental assessment that Ottawa Riverkeeper is following closely. This coming June CNL will submit their final EIS to the regulator, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC). In October 2018 CNSC will issue the EA report and licensing document that will be open for public comment for 30 days. The CNSC will hold a hearing in December 2018 to inform their decision on the environmental assessment and licensing.

If you are curious to see the NPD site, CNL is inviting the public to participate in the chimney swift roost counts taking place in May. Chimney swifts are threatened birds that have taken a liking to the NPD stack.

NRU shut down

On Easter Weekend (March 31st, 2018) the world’s longest operating nuclear reactor, Canada’s National Research Universal reactor (NRU) was shut down after a series of short-term licence renewals to prolong its life. The long and careful decommissioning of the reactor is set to begin. This is a stark reminder that Canada does not yet have a disposal facility to deal with intermediate and high-level nuclear waste. The proposed NSDF at CNL will be filled with low level waste only. International consensus is for high level waste to be buried in deep geological repositories.

Lacking National Policy on Nuclear

Given that Canada has been a leader in nuclear science and nuclear power we find it shocking that our country has no official policy regarding the long-term management of non-fuel radioactive waste. A federal policy on non-fuel radioactive wastes is urgently needed.

As Canadian taxpayers, we are all on the hook to clean up our nuclear waste on the Ottawa River and beyond. Just as Canada has been a leader in nuclear technologies we would like to see Canada lead in the field of nuclear waste management. The fastest, cheapest solutions are rarely the best solutions.

5 responses to “Radioactive Dumps and Water Don’t Mix”

  1. Gordon MacMillan says:

    I believe that Canadians have a right to know the various treatment/disposal options with cost comparisons for federal nuclear wastes from the former Rolphton and Chalk River sites with additional toxic wastes transported from other locations. The timeline must reflect independent impact studies leading to full public consultation and approval of final implementation plans.

  2. Janet Graham says:

    I am very concerned about the quality of water in Ottawa and would like to continue to receive information & updates. Thank you

  3. Peter Fox says:

    I just finished reading your blog, which brings to light Canada’s long neglected nuclear waste disposal problems. I recall as an Environmental Studies student at the University of Waterloo in the early 1980’s debating nuclear power pros & cons with engineering students. My argument always began and ended with the fact that nuclear energy should have remained experimental until there is a disposal/re-use solution for the waste, not to mention what to do with decommissioning old reactors and buildings. Those young engineers in trading were confident there would be a technological solution. Well, almost 40 years have passed, and here we are with same disposal conundrum.
    Thank you for your work in monitoring Canada’s current nuclear waste disposal issues and proposals. Protecting our land and water for future generations is paramount. As the future unfolds, the purity of Canada’s natural environment will continue to become more valuable to Canadians and the world.
    Peter Fox

  4. Larry W says:

    The projects (NSDF and Rolphton) will go ahead if the Nuclear Regulator is confident all parameters are safe to the public and the environment. The number of interveners are numerous but really have little effect on the outcome. One good thing that resulted from public intervention is much better transparency on the projects and the availablity of documentation. The Regulatators did complete their review of both the NSDF and Rholpton application that that CNL submitted. The Regulators found 194 and 226 deficiencies respectively in the applicant’s submissions … Most of the links to documents can be garnered from the CEAA website … and … As for the accepting only LLW to the proposed site. It is not easy characterizing LLW nuclear waste. According to the defination of LLW which is Waste that is above clearance levels, but with limited amounts of long lived radionuclides. Such waste requires robust
    isolation and containment for periods of up to a few hundred years and is suitable for disposal in engineered near surface facilities (IAEA) …. all good bedtime reading

  5. Heather L Stevens says:

    It breaks my heart that in 2018 this is not a priority to our government. This is a reflection on all citizens at large. The sewages that are still flowing in to these waters need a new environmental construction code that is punishable by law. No one resident nor business has the rights to allow their sewage and waste to impact our environment.