What You Should Know About Nuclear Waste in Ottawa-Gatineau Q&A

Are you unsure about what is going to happen to the nuclear facilities near Ottawa? Are you concerned about proper steps being taken to deal with the nuclear waste for reactors in the area? Then check out our Q&A about what you should know about the concerning nuclear waste disposal proposals on the Ottawa River.

Why should residents of Ottawa-Gatineau be concerned about radioactive waste?

Two proposals are currently on the table for disposal of large quantities of radioactive waste alongside the Ottawa River upstream of Ottawa-Gatineau:

  1. A giant above-ground mound at the Chalk River site for one million cubic metres of radioactive waste on the side of a hill, adjacent to wetlands and a creek that flows into the Ottawa River about one kilometre away. This proposed dump is misleadingly called the "Near Surface Disposal Facility" by the proponent, despite the fact that the Environmental Impact Statement says it will be five to seven stories high.
  2. "Entombment" of the NPD reactor at Rolphton, Ontario, less than 100 metres from the Ottawa River. The proponent wants to fill this shut-down, prototype reactor with cement and abandon it in place, although it will remain very radioactive for thousands of years.
What kinds of radioactive waste would these facilities contain?

The Chalk River Laboratories were started in the 1940's as part of the effort to produce atom bombs. They initially produced plutonium for weapons before getting into nuclear power research and production of medical isotopes.  The NRX and NRU reactors generated large quantities of man-made radioactive substances.

Fissioning of uranium and neutron bombardment of reactor components make metal, concrete and even water radioactive.  Although spent fuel would not be included in the facilities, they would contain a wide variety of man-made radioactive substances, some with long half-lives that will be hazardous for 100,000 years and more. The Rolphton reactor is also contaminated with these long-lived, post-fission wastes.

What are the potential problems with these proposals?

Neither project follows guidance from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as to how radioactive waste should be managed. The IAEA says that post-fission wastes - especially long-lived ones like plutonium - must be stored in stable rock, below the surface of the earth. The IAEA says only "very low level", short-lived radioactive materials can go in a landfill. The IAEA says entombment should only be used in emergencies.

Both of the projects will result in radioactive materials entering the Ottawa River, through surface water and groundwater movement.

The Ottawa River provides drinking water for millions of Canadians including citizens of Ottawa and Gatineau.

Any addition of radioactive materials to the drinking water of people downstream will increase risks of birth defects, genetic mutations, cancer, and other adverse effects on health.

Who is proposing these projects?

The project proponent in both cases is Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), which is owned by a multinational consortium called the Canadian National Energy Alliance. It was formed specifically to bid on contracts to operate Canada's federally-owned nuclear facilities.  The previous Conservative government brought in a "government-owned, contractor-operated" or GoCo model, creating a new corporation called Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL).  After making a winning bid the consortium received control over all of the shares in a new corporation.

The Canadian member of the consortium is SNC Lavalin, a corporation facing charges of fraud, bribery and corruption in Canada this year.

The lead U.S. member of the consortium (CH2M) has been convicted of fraud in the United States and is under investigation currently for mismanaging the decommissioning of a plutonium facility in Washington State similar to the ones at Chalk River.

Who is opposing these projects?

More than 130 municipalities in Quebec including 82 mayors from the Montreal Metropolitan Community have passed resolutions opposing these projects.

Many First Nations, NGOs, retired scientists, and individual citizens are on record as objecting to the projects, in submissions that are posted on the public registry for the Environmental Assessments which are ongoing.

What is the timeline and who will decide whether the projects are approved?

The projects were all on very fast tracks to approval by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), the sole body responsible for all things nuclear in Canada including environmental assessment. Due to the huge number of concerns raised as part of the environmental assessments for the projects, they are behind schedule while the CNSC and proponent CNL work behind closed doors to try to make all the problems, gaps and substantive concerns go away or at least be shown to be able to be "mitigated".

There are no fixed timelines at the moment. The CNSC has stated that there will not be a licensing hearing before the end of 2018.

It is a serious problem that the sole body responsible for the decisions on these projects is the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. The CNSC is widely seen as a "captured regulator" that puts the needs and interests of the nuclear industry ahead of protecting public health and the environment. The CNSC prides itself on being independent and its decisions not being subject to parliamentary review.

Why doesn't the government stop the projects?

The previous Conservative government brought in the GoCo model in 2015 and hired the current consortium under a 10-year contract. The contract specifically directed them to bring in cheap and quick solutions.

Unfortunately, government officials generally seem unconcerned and happy to let the process run its course. There is much unwarranted trust in the CNSC among elected officials and their staff who delegate and defer to the CNSC on all nuclear related topics.

What can I do?

You can take action by writing to your federal, provincial, and municipal representatives about the danger of the Chalk River and Rolphton nuclear waste proposals and urging them to take action against these plans.

Ecology Ottawa is also raising awareness and demanding action against these dangerous plans with our all-candidates municipal election survey. Find out if your candidates are committed to protecting the Ottawa River and Ottawa citizens here. If the candidates for your ward haven't answered our survey yet, you can take action by contacting them directly and asking them to answer it and to stand against these proposals.

More information can be found at here, courtesy of Concerned Citizens:

Ten Things Canadians need to know about the Chalk River Radioactive Mega-dump

Ten MORE things Canadians should know about the Chalk River radioactive mega-dump 

Nine quick facts about the NPD reactor "entombment"

This article is based on material provided by Concerned Citizens.

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