Proposed nuclear disposal facility generating concern
Laurent Robillard-Cardinal & Allyson Beauregard
A disposal facility for radioactive waste a kilometre away from the Ottawa River could see the day in a couple years. The project’s proponent is Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), which operates Chalk River Laboratories (CRL), just across the river from the Pontiac.
“About 95% of the waste is already here (in Chalk River). Through decades of operation, we have accumulated material that has been in storage here. That’s what will be disposed of in the Near Surface Disposal Facility (NSDF). The project is focused on the remediation of the CRL site. One of the key aspects is looking at the demolition waste from some of the buildings we will be taking down in the next little while. We are looking at demolishing over 100 buildings/structures,” explained Patrick Quinn, CNL spokesperson.
The NSDF is planned to have an operating life of at least 50 years and as proposed, would be an engineered mound built at near-surface level on the CRL site. The facility will cover about 34 hectares and stand about 18 meters high. Quinn clarified that although the NSDF mound will be about 18 meters in height, it would be built on a hill and follow the landscape closely. “The mound wouldn't actually be that high,” he said.
The target date for the NSDF’s operation is 2020, but CNL, formed by a consortium of five corporations, first needs to get the green light from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC).
This body “regulates the use of nuclear energy and materials to protect health, safety, security and the environment; to implement Canada’s international commitments on the peaceful use of nuclear energy; and to disseminate objective scientific, technical and regulatory information to the public.”
The CNSC’s Commission Tribunal (the Commission), formed by seven appointed permanent members, is the CNSC’s decision-making body that makes environment assessments and licensing decisions for all major nuclear projects.
The federal government states that “Under the Nuclear Safety and Control Act, CNL’s proposal requires approval by the CNSC and involves an amendment to the CRL Nuclear Research and Test Establishment Operating Licence. An environmental assessment conducted under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012 is required, and an decision affirming that the proposed activities will not cause significant adverse environmental effects is required before the CNSC can make a licensing decision on this proposal.”
Local organizations concerned
The CNSC is scheduled to make a decision on this important file in January 2018, one Dr. Ole Hendrickson, researcher for Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area, considers potentially “precedent setting.”
“This is the first project in Canada to involve permanent abandonment disposal of radioactive waste with no intent to retrieve or monitor it at least after the initial 50 year period of operation,” he told the Bulletin. The Old Fort-William Cottagers Association (OFWCA), located near Sheenboro and represented by Johanna Echlin, is also very concerned about the proposed project.
Having dealt with the CNSC in the past, Hendrickson is wary of their objectivity. “We had some experiences that lead us to think the CNSC is closely tied to the nuclear industry. The CNSC and the CNL public affairs will cooperate to determine what information will be released to the public,” he said, suggesting there is a lack of information available about the project.
“The sentence ‘The NSDF Project may also accept a very small amount of intermediate-level waste (ILW) and mixed wastes’ is inadequate to provide a clear understanding of the proposed project. It is particularly important to know if radioactive wastes with long half-lives, or significant amounts of non-radioactive hazardous wastes (such as mercury) would be included in the proposed facility. A detailed description of wastes proposed for disposal must be included in the environmental assessment,” he wrote in a statement.
However, Quinn said the whole process has been very public and transparent: “We’ve engaged in groups, such as the OFWCA. The regulatory framework is also a very public process. People will have the opportunity to review the environmental assessment material and make comments. The public can also contact us directly.”
“We’ve had 14 public information sessions and seven more are scheduled. Many people are in support of the activities we’ve undertaken,” he added.
Regardless, Hendrickson believes there’s a lack of adequate information “about the purpose of the proposed facility, such as what commercial activities the proponents have in mind. A key question is whether wastes from Canada’s nuclear power reactors could be sent to this facility for disposal.” Quinn says waste from the reactors is not on the list of materials to be accepted at the facility.
Quinn said the amount of waste accepted from other sites will be limited. “We’ve talked about accepting material from the Manitoba-based Whiteshell Laboratories currently being decommissioned and there’s the potential of accepting material coming from prototype reactors, from Douglas Point (Manitoba) and Gentilly One (Québec). That’s a tiny amount and the key here is that the waste material is owned by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL),” said Quinn.
AECL is a federal Crown corporation, whose mandate is to “enable nuclear science and technology and fulfill Canada’s radioactive waste and decommissioning responsibilities.” It delivers its mandate through a contractual arrangement with Canadian National Energy Alliance (CNEA) for the management and operation of CNL under a Government-owned, contractor-operated (GoCo) model.
Enduring the test of time
On top of the potential of accepting waste from outside Chalk River, Echlin is also worried about the facility’s durability: “Do you think any liner will survive our kind of weather or earthquakes, for that length of time?”
She also believes that down the road, something will puncture the liner: “it’s on low lying wetland and is surrounded by water. I believe it will leech out into the river. The proposed site is located on a major fault line above porous and fractured bedrock. There must be another solution.”
However, Quinn says Echlin worries are unfounded. “The facility will be safe. CRL employs 2,800 people, the majority of whom live along the Ottawa River. This is our home too and the protection of the environment is important to us all. We’ve talked to people about extreme weather events, seismic activity, and we know it (the NSDF) is engineered to withstand quite extreme circumstances.”
Quinn added that the NSDF includes a plan for wastewater treatment to collect both runoff from the mound due to natural elements such as rain or snow, as well as liquids developing in the mound over time, and then treat them and safely return them to the environment. “CLR is already on the river, and 95% of the material is already here and we are placing it in a better situation. There’s an opportunity for a better situation through a permanent disposal site, which also allows us to remediate some of the property here,” he explained.
Hendrickson believes the decision to abandon waste in large quantities should be reviewed by elected officials and not technocrats.
Getting municipalities on board
OFWCA as already adopted a resolution indicating that it “strongly objects to CNL receiving and accepting radioactive waste and any other waste from another site outside the Chalk River facility. Disposal of radioactive waste and any other waste must be limited to Chalk River’s current levels of generated radioactive waste.”
The municipality of Sheenboro adopted a similar resolution in December against imported nuclear waste. Contacted by the Bulletin, Sheenboro Mayor Doris Ranger was unwilling to comment.
“It’s a difficult thing for some of the mayors in the area because some of their residents work in Chalk River,” said Echlin.
MRC Pontiac's position
According to Raymond Durocher, MRC Pontiac Warden, the MRC will not intervene in the review of the proposal or form an opinion about the proposed project until the review is complete and a report is released. “We are following the process like everyone else, ” he said, noting it is a very important file because of its proximity to the Ottawa River.
Durocher said questions such as what exactly the site will be, what guarantees will be in place, if there will be testing of the river and underground water supplies, and if there are possibilities for liability all need to be determined.
“I don't think the CNSC will take this lightly,” he concluded, claiming the MRC is closely following the file.
Collecting comments from the public
Starting March 17, the CNSC has provided the public with two months to comment on the NSDF’s environmental assessment.