What should we do with radioactive waste?

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Folks in the Pontiac are among the best-informed people in Canada about what NOT to do with radioactive waste. Thanks to seven years of coverage by independent media like the Journal, readers have seen much information about the folly of piling up one million tons of radioactive waste in a giant mound one kilometer from the Ottawa River at the Chalk River Laboratories.

We have heard from experts who say the site is wrong because it’s too close to the OttawaRiver, a site of drinking water for millions of Canadians downstream. Furthermore, the bedrock at Chalk River Labs is porous and fractured. The Ottawa River is a fault line and the area is seismically-active. It has also been pointed out that the Ottawa Valley has become tornado prone in recent years.

Experts tell us that an above-ground mound is not suitable for the Chalk River legacy waste, which is full of long-lived radioactive materials like plutonium that will remain hazardous and radioactive for many thousands of years. The mound is designed to last only 550 years, so it will degrade and disintegrate long before the waste becomes harmless.

We have heard many times that the mound does not meet safety standards of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

And yet, the dump was approved on January 8 by none other than Canada’s “captured nuclear regulator,” the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), an agency that many people say promotes the projects it is supposed to regulate.

The CNSC decision to approve the NSDF is the subject of two legal challenges launched last week, one by citizens’ groups and one by Kebaowek First Nation. It will likely take considerable time for these legal challenges to be dealt with in the federal court.

In the meantime, it is important to try to answer the question, “What should we do with the Chalk River radioactive waste?”

People who have thought a lot about this question say there is no good solution; there are only “less bad” solutions. The waste will go on being radioactive and hazardous for many thousands of years into the future, far longer than Western Civilization has existed so far. And since Earth recycles everything, there’s not really any place we can put radioactive waste that will permanently keep it out of the biosphere.

But all that said, here are some things to aim for:

  • A careful siting process, involving First Nations and local communities, to ensure that waste is managed in facilities well away from important drinking water sources;
  • Monitored, retrievable storage, in shallow rock caverns below the ground, to lessen the potential impact of extreme weather and erosion and keep radioactive materials out of the air, soil and drinking water;
  • Careful packaging and labeling of the waste so that future generations can repair the packages as needed and take necessary precautions when dealing with it;

In the short term, at Chalk River, the existing groundwater treatment facilities could be upgraded to fully capture the existing plumes from the leaking waste areas. And waste in leaking sites at Chalk River could be dug up and stored above ground in concrete structures while awaiting a plan for a carefully sited facility well away from the Ottawa River.

Responsible management of the federally owned wastes at Chalk River would likely cost more than a giant mound but it would protect the Ottawa River, keep Ottawa Valley residents safe and provide good jobs for many years to come.