City committee examines plans to bury nuclear waste upstream

The City of Ottawa wants the company that runs the Chalk River nuclear facility upstream to do more to protect the Ottawa River.

Over 8 hours, city hears from dozens of concerned residents and nuclear agencies

A view of the Chalk River Laboratories research facility from the water. Councillors on the city committee responsible for water and environmental issues stopped short of outright opposing two Canadian Nuclear Laboratories projects on Tuesday. (Reno Patry/CBC)

The City of Ottawa wants the company that runs the Chalk River nuclear waste facility to do more to protect the Ottawa River, and not accept nuclear waste from outside Ontario if it goes ahead and builds a large disposal site.

But councillors on the city committee responsible for water and environmental issues stopped short of outright opposing two Canadian Nuclear Laboratories projects: creating a mound to dispose of radioactive waste less than one kilometre from the river, and sealing the country's first reactor near Rolphton, Ont., in specialized grout.

This debate about nuclear waste upstream from Ottawa has been taking place since 2016. Many people have raised alarms about plans to store waste for thousands of years near a water course, especially one that provides drinking water to more than a million people.

    Coun. Theresa Kavanagh called for Tuesday's debate among Ottawa city councillors, because she says she's a "water lover" who has been concerned about the issue since before her 2018 election. She originally called for council to oppose the plans but, with colleagues, modified the language to address city staff concerns about the entire Chalk River site.

    For instance, the city wants no waste imported from other provinces, wants access to data about river monitoring, and a better alert system should a spill take place. 

    Councillors will also call on the federal environment minister to launch a regional assessment of radioactive disposal projects in the Ottawa Valley.

    "We have to have a close watch on what's happening," said Kavanagh.

    Staff say facility better than status quo

    Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. said the new disposal site at Chalk River would handle a large amount — one million cubic metres — of "low level" radioactive waste in solid form, mainly from old buildings from the 1940s through 1960s that need to be taken down. The small, 43-employee Crown corporation also has small amounts of waste in other locations, but 95 per cent is already at the big, long-standing research site at Chalk River.

    The federal government continues to own that facility, but transferred operations to the private sector in 2015. A consortium called the Canadian National Energy Alliance, of which SNC-Lavalin owns 50 per cent, has the long-term contract there through its Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL).

    City staff responsible for Ottawa's drinking water supply say they feel CNL's disposal plans would be better than status quo.

    "In principle, we feel that the engineered facility, along with its wastewater treatment, does provide improved protection for the river," said Ian Douglas, a city water quality engineer.

    For 25 years, the city has done weekly tests of river water for radioactivity, and has seen only small amounts of the radioactive isotope tritium, far below acceptable levels for drinking water. There had been a spill in 1988, Douglas noted, and higher levels recorded in the 1970s and 1980s.

    "The risks [to drinking water] from Chalk River, especially based on the track record, I think are low in terms of having a health impact for our residents," Douglas told councillors.

    Waste to last millennia

    Critics disagreed that the hazardous waste at Chalk River was "low level," or that the disposal methods would be an improvement. Storing waste near the surface, in an area prone to earthquakes and near a river would undoubtedly fail in the coming millennia, they said. 

    "It's really a landfill, and a landfill type of facility is not at all appropriate for these types of wastes," said Ole Hendrickson, who called the waste a "witch's brew."

    Hendrickson was one of nearly three dozen public delegations, to address committee during Tuesday's detailed discussion.

    Many said they lacked confidence in the oversight of the federal regulator Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, arguing the commission appears too cozy with CNL. Public delegations called for other options, and to not rush, given the federal government is now updating its policy for disposing of radioactive waste.

    The near surface disposal facility (NSDF) proposed by the privately owned Canadian Nuclear Laboratories would be on a ridge less than one kilometre from the Ottawa River, not far from Chalk River Laboratories in the foreground. (City of Ottawa)

    "We're not talking here about the next election. We're not talking here about the next century. We're talking about millennia forward," said Gordon Edwards, president and co-founder of the non-profit Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility. 

    "The pyramids of Egypt are only 5,000 years old. These wastes will be around for much, much longer than that."

    Nuclear agencies

    The nuclear site's owner, operator, and regulator, answered technical questions for hours about nuclear storage and future scenarios.

    CNL's director of the waste site, Meggan Vickerd, said it's wrong to compare the project to a municipal landfill, given the high-level design it requires. CNL creates models so that the facility might survive an earthquake, flooding, or be habitable if a future generation settled there, she said.

    CNL employees live and work in the area, and the company also wants to protect the Ottawa River, Vickerd added.

    The Chalk River site itself has been studied from all angles and operates safely, said Haidy Tadros a director general with Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. She pointed to the commission's 500 experts, all with a mandate to only approve projects that are safe for the Canadian public.

    A vice-president with Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL), meanwhile, said the federal government has $8 billion in liabilities on its books for radioactive waste overall, which it plans to deal with.

    "Who really is accountable for these sites? Who is accountable for these wastes? The answer is AECL," said Shannon Quinn.

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