Plan to store nuclear waste along Ottawa River raises concerns

Added: Wed, 03/29/2017 - 7:52pm
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Laurent Robillard-Cardinal &
Allyson Beauregard

CHALK RIVER – A disposal facility for radioactive waste, on East Mattawa Rd., a kilometre from the Ottawa River, could become a reality within a couple of years. The project was proposed by Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), which operates Chalk River Laboratories (CRL), just across the river from the upper Pontiac.
Last spring, CNL, a consortium of five corporations, proposed a “Near Surface Disposal Facility” project, the NSDF, to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) requiring an Environmental Impact Statement. A NSDF is an “engineered disposal facility” for radioactive waste. The facility will cover about 34 hectares and stand about 18 meters high -- an ‘engineered mound’ at near-
surface level on the Chalk River site. The facility will operate for at least 50
years, although radioactive materials have a much longer life span.
“About 95% of the waste is already here (in Chalk River). We have accumulated material over decades. That’s what will go into the Near Surface Disposal Facility (NSDF). We are considering demolishing over 100 structures, and the demolition waste . . . will go here, too”, said Patrick Quinn, CNL spokesperson.
Approvals needed
The target for construction is 2020, but requires Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) approvals. Official information on the project
is basically unavailable except via websites. The Journal attempted to
contact CNSC, their agent handling the project, the CEAA and their communications officer, Tom Smith; none were available for comment.
The government states that “An environmental assessment conducted under the Canadian Environmental Assess-ment Act, 2012, and a decision affirming that
the proposed activities will not cause significant adverse environmental effects is required before the CNSC can make a licensing decision.” 
The CEAA’s Environmental Impact Statement is now available on the CNL website (; the CNSC has given the public two months to comment.
Local organizations concerned
That CNSC decision is due in January, 2018, said Dr. Ole Hendrickson, researcher for Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area; he considers it 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 Journal.
Dr. Hendrickson said, having dealt with the CNSC in the past, he’s wary of its objectivity. “(We believe) the CNSC is closely tied to the nuclear industry. The CNSC and the CNL public affairs will cooperate to decide what information will be released,” he said, suggesting project information is limited on purpose.
“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 proposal. Details of wastes proposed for disposal must be included in the environmental assessment,” he stressed, and asked if radioactive wastes with long half-lives, or non-radioactive hazardous wastes (such as mercury), will be included.
The CNL’s Quinn said everything is public and transparent: “We’ve engaged with groups, such as the Old Fort William Cottagers Association. The regulatory framework . . .  is also a public process. People will have the opportunity to review the environmental assessment material and make comments and participate. The public can also contact us directly.”
“We’ve had 14 public information sessions and seven more are scheduled,” he added.
Hendrickson questioned the lack of information about the purpose of the facility, and its commercial activities. “Will wastes from Canada’s nuclear power reactors be sent to this facility for disposal?” he asked. Quinn stated that waste from other reactors is not on the list.
Quinn also added that waste from other sites will be minimal. “We’ve talked about accepting material from the Manitoba’s Whiteshell Laboratories currently being decommissioned and there’s the potential of material from prototype reactors, Douglas Point (Manitoba) and Gentilly One (Québec). . . . a tiny amount.”  Quinn says this waste material is already owned by Atomic Energy of Canada (AECL).  AECL also did not return the Journal’s call. 
Enduring for centuries
The Old Fort-William Cottagers Association (OFWCA)’s Johanna Echlin, is also speaking out and questions the facility’s durability: “Will any liner survive our weather, or earthquakes, for that length of time? The site is on low-lying wetland, surrounded by water. I believe it will leech out into the river. The site is also on a major fault line above porous and fractured bedrock.  Somewhere down the line, someone will be paying for this,” she stated.
Quinn feels there is no issue here. “CNL employs 2,800 people; the majority live along the Ottawa River. We’ve talked about extreme weather events, seismic activity, and we know it is engineered to withstand extreme circumstances.”  He added that the project includes treatment of run-off from the mound due to rain or snow and of any liquids developing inside the mound.
According to Marilee DeLombard, president of Pontiac Environmental Protection, this in not just a case of “Not in my Backyard”: “We recognize the need for secure storage of radioactive waste, but very serious questions must be asked about anything that could threaten the health of the Ottawa River and the life that depends on it.”
Getting municipalities on board
The cottagers’ association insists, “Disposal of radioactive and other waste must be limited to Chalk River’s current levels of generated radioactive waste.”
The municipality of Sheenboro adopted a similar resolution, December, 2016, against importing nuclear waste. However Mayor Doris Ranger was unwilling to comment on the project. 
MRC-Pontiac's position
According to Warden Raymond Durocher, the MRC will not intervene in the CNSC review nor “form an opinion” until the review is complete.
Durocher said important questions concern the site’s size, guarantees in place, any testing of river and underground water supplies, and liability concerns.
Pontiac MP Will Amos said he is “absolutely confident” in the approval process currently underway and encourages the public to make their views known. He said there are circumstances where the cabinet can review a CNSC decision.
Collecting comments from the public
According to the Environmental Impact Statement, realeased on March 17, 2017, no residual effects were identified for human health during
the NSDF Project life cycle and it is not likely to result in significant residual adverse effects on most environmental components, except for bats and Blanding’s turtle where the NSDF will contribute slightly to existing significant adverse cumulative effects on these species.
Ottawa Riverkeeper has received intervenor funding to take part in
the assessment and has hired two independent experts to review and
provide comments on the Environmental Impact Statement.
The CNSC will be accepting comments from the public and Indigenous groups for the next 60 days. “CNL must address all concerns and questions submitted to CNSC,” concluded Echlin.