A view of the Ottawa River from Major’s Hill Park. Photo: Olivia Hnatyshyn

by Olivia Hnatyshyn

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) is looking for approval to dispose of one million cubic metres of nuclear waste in an engineered mound formed over a decommissioned nuclear facility, just 1.2 kilometres away from the Ottawa River. 

The plan is to repurpose Chalk River Laboratories, located in Renfrew County, 180 kilometres north-west of Ottawa. Chalk River became the first operational nuclear reactor outside of the US in 1945; it also suffered the first serious reactor accident in the world in 1952, which led to 4,500 tons of radioactive water being dumped in ditches 1,600 metres from the Ottawa River. It was permanently shut down on March 31, 2018.

The groundwork for this plan was laid by the Harper government’s major restructuring and privatization of Canada’s nuclear industry. This first saw the Crown corporation Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) sell its CANDU reactors to SNC-Lavalin in 2011. Then in 2015, AECL gave the contract to operate CNL and the Chalk River facility to an international consortium of engineering corporations — again including the scandal-plagued SNC-Lavalin, as well as Fluor Corporation, the world’s largest engineering and construction company.

 “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.”

CNL is proposing to convert Chalk River into an engineered disposal facility for low-level radioactive waste. Since the facility is on the shore of the Ottawa River, CNL’s plans have caused widespread concern about nuclear waste leaking into the river. 

The Ottawa River is the source of drinking water for more than a million people in Ontario and Quebec who live along its 1,271-kilometre length. Locals worry the project might poison  this important water source and inflict other environmental damage.

At a press conference in September 2019, Green Party candidate Angela Keller-Herzog criticized the plan. “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,” Keller-Herzog said.

An environmental assessment is still pending for the project. The scope of the environmental assessment states that commentary and questions from the public, and specifically the Indigenous community, must be taken into account for CNL to obtain licensing. The parameters of how much Indigenous ecological knowledge will be considered is unclear.

The Ottawa River is of vital importance to the Algonquin Anishinaabe people, who know it as the Kitchissippi (‘Great River’). Their territory corresponds with its watershed and they have used it for trade, travel, and sustenance since time immemorial.

Since the plan was proposed in 2016, protests have been taking place. Several Indigenous communities, Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County, and other environmental activists have been at the forefront of the opposition, urging the federal government to intervene. 

In 2018, grand council chief of the Anishinabek Nation Patrick Madahbee said, “Trying to build this giant mound of radioactive waste … is insanity.”

However, CNL president Mark Lesinski blames many of the objections on  “misunderstandings” about the nature of the plan and of nuclear waste itself.

What is nuclear waste? 

Nuclear energy is often referred to as one the cleanest forms of energy, as its production emits no greenhouse gases or chemical pollutants. However, the radioactivity of its waste can be lethal and long-lasting.

Nuclear waste can also be called “used fuel” — it is the product that remains after nuclear fuel, like uranium or plutonium, is used to produce energy in a reactor. Nuclear reactors produce energy by breaking the atomic nucleus of the fuel in two. The leftover fragments of the nucleus are called fission products, which can include radioactive isotopes. 

Isotopes are variant forms of a particular element that contain the same numbers of protons but different numbers of neutrons in their nuclei. If this ratio is unstable, the isotopes will be subject to decay — over time they will emit radiation (energy and subatomic particles), which allows them to settle into more stable atomic structures.

The problem is, this radiation can damage living cells and DNA. And these radioactive isotopes can take all forms; solid, liquid and gas. This is the infamous nuclear waste.  

All nuclear waste can decompose naturally, however, depending on the isotope, it could take thousands of years (or more) before the substance loses its radioactivity. 

CNL recently modified their plan from storing some amounts of intermediate-level nuclear waste, to only storing low-level radioactive waste in the plant.

Jules Blais, a biology professor at uOttawa specializing in toxicology and environmental chemistry, comments on CNL’s modification, “That would make quite a difference. Low-level waste would be less harmful and would also take less time to become harmless.”

Low-level waste decomposes within 300 years, but time frames can vary significantly.   

How will it be stored?

Nuclear waste is best stored deep underground. The Chalk River plant plans on a near-surface level disposal facility. CNL proposes that it will take 50 years to fill the facility with nuclear waste, taking up the equivalent space of 1,000 football fields in length

“One of the reasons for putting nuclear waste underground is that the thick rock will prevent the radiation from reaching the people at the surface, and ecosystems at the surface,” says Blais.  

CNL’s plan does not include burying the waste deep underground and instead proposes creating a mound, with a cover system over top of the waste.   

Approximatly 90 per cent of the nuclear waste to be stored is already at the Chalk River location. The decomposing buildings at Chalk River contain traces of radioactivity from former scientific research, such as cancer research, conducted in the labs in 1940-1960. 

According to AECL, “In some cases, temporary waste storage areas and facilities dating back to the 1940s, 50s, and 60s has led to the contamination of the surrounding soil. While this contamination is contained at the Chalk River site, it needs to be remediated in order to protect the environment.”  

The remainder of the low-level waste will come from other nuclear waste facilities, and from various universities and hospitals.

What are the risks? 

There are many possible risks for storing nuclear waste at Chalk River. However, the likelihood of problems occurring are difficult to judge.   

CNL released an executive summary of the potential risks in 2017. Risk factors include natural disasters and natural geological processes, such as the shifting of tectonic plates, which could alter the position of the buried waste. 

“There is also the risk that radioisotopes can get into groundwater, and then groundwater can reach the surface,” explains Blais. If water found under the earth surfaced naturally, as it often does, it can bring with it traces of the radioactive waste, which would then be airborne on the surface. To deal with the possibility of groundwater surfacing, CNL has designed a surface water management system, to hopefully reduce harmful radiation. 

The main concern for opponents of the project is the possibility of the nuclear waste leaking into the Ottawa River, since the waste facility is so close to the waterway.    

“If the nuclear waste got into the river then these isotopes could eventually be taken up by the plants and the algae, and then they could make their way into the food chain,” explains Blais. This is a concept known as bioaccumulation. Toxic matter can accumulate in the systems of organisms consuming radioactive matter. Land animals also consume the water and aquatic life, spreading nuclear waste beyond the water source. 

Of course, if the Ottawa River showed traces of nuclear waste, water treatment plants would have to send out advisories, and Ottawa, among other areas, would be put on a water ban. 

In addition, the CNL summary report also indicates that the construction of the waste site would destroy the habitat of the Blanding turtle, which is classified as a threatened species in Ontario. “It is possible that the level of habitat fragmentation and road mortality existing on the CRL site are significantly impacting the population of Blanding’s turtle in the Base Case at an unsustainable rate,” the report notes. “The destruction of proposed critical habitat for Blanding’s turtle will require a Species at Risk permit.”

Is it worth it? 

AECL plans to invest $1.2 billion dollars in the renewal of Chalk River Laboratories. CNL is still in the process of getting this project approved. Environmental risk factors are still being assessed. The nuclear waste plan does not meet the standards of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Canadian law currently does not enforce these regulations.  

It is uncertain whether this project will result in harm to the Ottawa River water. However, what is certain is that the nuclear waste currently at Chalk River needs to be properly maintained to protect the environment.

“As a concerned citizen I would want to know that the storage is being done in a way that minimizes risk for isotopes being released from groundwater… if storage is done carefully, if  it’s placed in a stable environment where there’s very little movement of groundwater, then it can be quite safe,” Blais assured The Leveller

It is difficult to weigh the ultimate risk if this project goes through. Yet what does seem clear is that the federal government is paying a private consortium to dispose of nuclear waste in ways that are not up to international standards — and that poses certain risks to the Ottawa River, which provides drinking water to over a million people and habitat to countless animals, including threatened species like the Blanding turtle.

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