Why the Chalk River dump should not proceed (Pt.1)

Nuclear Power Plant and Flowering Meadow

Here are some reasons for such widespread disappointment over the licensing of the Chalk River megadump by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), January 9, 2024. The project is objectionable on grounds of poor siting, lack of consent, radioactive leakage, bad governance, and lack of alternatives. This is the first time in Canada’s history that permission has been given for a permanent facility for human-made radioactive materials (i.e. post-fission nuclear wastes).

(1) POOR SITING. Siting a toxic landfill beside the Ottawa River that provides drinking water for millions of Canadians downstream serves only the interests of the industry. CNL wants to push radioactively contaminated material to the edge of their property to make room for more development. This choice is not made on health or environmental grounds but entirely for industrial convenience. (CNL is a privately-owned entity, belonging to a consortium of multinationals.)

Alternatively, from the crown land that houses the Chalk River site, one could go 20 kilometres away from the river, and put the waste in shallow below-ground chambers that can be monitored for leaking – better for people and the environment, but more costly for industry. CNSC’s sole mandate is to protect people and the environment, not to do the bidding of the industry.

(2) LACK OF CONSENT (a) Chalk River is on the unceded territory of the Algonquin Nation. Ten of 11 Algonquin communities here emphatically do not consent. According to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, there should be no storage or disposal of toxic materials on indigenous lands without the free, prior, informed consent of the Indigenous people. After its “final” licensing hearings for the project, another year was made available for Algonquin input, and that input revealed many serious flaws in the environmental impact statement (EIS). This input was disregarded by the CNSC.

2 (b) 130 municipalities down-river did not consent to this project, including all of Montreal’s agglomeration council. So, the approval is given at the request of the industry, that accumulated the radioactive waste over many years, but without the consent of the people who may suffer when leakage occurs.

2 (c) Our government, and industry, have stressed that, in the case of HIGH-level radioactive waste, they are searching for a WILLING host community, and they say they will not impose a waste facility on an unwilling community. What of the many unwilling communities here? Why do the interests of the industry trump the interest of local Canadian citizens?

3 (a) RADIOACTIVE LEAKAGE. Many radionuclides to be included in the dump remain dangerous for hundreds of millennia. Plutonium-239 (half-life of 24,00 years), Technetium-99 (half-life of 210,000 years), Chlorine-36 (half-life of 301,000 years), Iodine-129 (half-life of 17 million years). How can the CNSC assure that these materials, contained in a 25-metre-high landfill covering 14 hectares of land, will outlast the pyramids of Egypt which are only 5,000 years old? What kind of science can guarantee protection of people and the environment from toxic materials stored in an earth-covered mound over such enormous time periods? Leakage is inevitable. Such long-lived toxic materials do not belong in a surface mound subject to subsidence, erosion, and extreme weather.

3 (b) Even shorter half-life materials are too mobile in the environment to be totally contained. Tritium is radioactive hydrogen – it forms radioactive water molecules which already escape into the river in large amounts, but at very low concentrations. Tritium has a half-life of 12.3 years. (Part 2 to come)

 Gordon Edwards, PhD – Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, Montreal