Manitobans should be worried about a plan to permanently cover over nuclear waste in Pinawa with grout, say some local environmentalists.

And what happens here could set a precedent for the rest of Canada, said environmentalist Anne Lindsey.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission held an information session on the second floor of Winnipeg's Millennium Library Tuesday from 9:30 to 11 a.m.

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, a multinational consortium, is on contract to Natural Resources Canada to manage nuclear waste in Pinawa and Chalk River, Ont.

It wants to entomb the toxic waste and defunct research reactor in Pinawa, about 100 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. The CNSC confirmed that has never been done before in Canada.

Manitoba's High-level Radioactive Waste Act states that no person shall:

a) Store waste that was not produced or used for research in Manitoba.

b) Provide facilities for the storage of spent nuclear fuel, not intended for research purposes, that was produced at a nuclear facility or in a nuclear reactor outside Manitoba.

c) Provide interim storage for more than seven days.

d) Store nuclear waste or nuclear fuel underground or in an environment that is not continuously monitored. There must be reasonable human access to the containers. 

e) Provide facilities for the disposal of high-level radioactive wastes in Manitoba.

Lindsey said the proposal goes against the original plan to remove highly contaminated waste and contain the rest but keep it accessible.

Proposal 'runs contrary to Manitoba law': NDP

There's been a plan in place since 2012 to remove all the highly radioactive components from the reactor and parts of the reactor itself to some future disposal site, which is to be determined because one doesn't yet exist in Canada, Lindsey said.

And it's illegal in Manitoba to dispose of high-level nuclear waste.

"So what they were going to do is remove all the high-level components and deal with the less radioactive or the lower-level wastes that were left behind. That has changed," she said.

"Now the proposal is to just entomb the entire reactor, including all the parts that were probably contaminated … to entomb it in some kind of grout and leave it there right on the banks of the Winnipeg River.

"So that's a pretty significant change from what was planned before [and] we feel that is probably contravening the law of Manitoba."

Rob Altemeyer, the provincial NDP's environment critic, was at the Tuesday morning information session. 

"The biggest concern here is that the proposal to bury this damaged nuclear facility in concrete permanently runs contrary to Manitoba law," he said. 

"The Manitoba High-level Radioactive Waste Act says quite clearly you are not allowed to permanently bury radioactive waste in Manitoba, particularly if no one can access the site and make sure that everything is OK." 

1978 accident caused leak of coolant

​The reactor was used for various research purposes but never to produce electrical power for Manitoba. It did, however, use nuclear fuel and in 1978 there was an accident that caused a leak of coolant that contaminated parts of the reactor that weren't supposed to be exposed, Lindsey said.

The proposal calls for the reactor to be entombed "in some kind of grout" but there's not a lot of information available about what type of grout would be used, she said.

"It does not look like a safe proposal to put this dangerous radioactive waste so close to the surface in this questionable sort of grouted environment so close to the Winnipeg River," Lindsey said.

"The issue here really is whether or not it can be kept away from water, because once water gets into it, the flow of water in that site is toward the river."

Pinawa is the site of Atomic Energy of Canada's Whiteshell laboratories, once the largest nuclear research facility in Western Canada.

Established in 1963, the lab employed nearly 1,300 people at its peak, but research gradually dwindled and the lab was closed in the mid-1990s.

"The used fuel in Pinawa has been taken out of the reactor and I'm pretty sure it's stored on site in concrete bunkers and it's being monitored. So it's retrievable," Lindsey said. "So if there is a leak they'll detect it, they can quickly get in there and change up the protection.

"The problem with putting it a little bit underground and grouting it is if a leak is detected, it would be very hard to retrieve it to repackage it. So it's kind of taking a big risk."

Kevin Lee, a senior regulatory policy officer at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, said information sessions like Tuesday's are an important outreach activity before a licensing review takes place.

"We want to make sure that when people want to make a representation before the commission that they do so in an effective manner and they know how they should go about doing that," he said.