Revised plan for nuclear waste site fails to convince critics

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) says only "low-level" nuclear waste would be allowed at the planned facility near the Ottawa River, but that revision hasn't appeased critics.

Chalk River site would only accept 'low-level' nuclear waste, CNL says

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories is proposing a 'near surface disposal facility for the disposal of solid, low-level radioactive waste' near Deep River, Ont. (Canadian Nuclear Laboratories)

Efforts to appease critics of a planned nuclear waste facility near the Ottawa River appear to be falling short.

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) at Chalk River, Ont., is hoping the revised plan will move it a step closer to obtaining the approvals it needs for a "near surface disposal facility for the disposal of solid, low-level radioactive waste" at nearby Deep River, Ont., about 180 kilometres northwest of Ottawa in Renfrew County.

According to the manager of regulatory approvals for the disposal facility project, the biggest change is the type of waste that would be accepted. 

"The inventory is now only low-level radioactive waste," Sandra Faught said. "Back in 2017, there was a small percentage of intermediate-level waste, and that has been eliminated from the proposed inventory."

Several buildings at the Chalk River campus, which opened in 1945, would be decommissioned and the remnants would go into the proposed facility. This file photo from 1961 shows engineers checking a nuclear valve test rig. (Fred Blackstein)

Remnants of decommissioned buildings on the Chalk River campus, along with contaminated soil and a "small percentage" of low-level nuclear waste from "off-site locations," would be allowed at the waste site, according to the new plan.

CNL, a consortium that includes SNC Lavalin, needs to obtain environmental approvals and meet licensing requirements before it can begin construction on the facility, possibly in 2021. 

Water worries persist

Critics have called the project a nuclear waste "dump," and worry it could eventually leach into the Ottawa River, just 1.2 kilometres from the planned site.

"Radioactive wastes should never be abandoned right beside major water bodies," said Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, in a news release.

Faught notes that in its revisions, CNL's modelling and monitoring has expanded to include an eight-kilometre stretch of the Ottawa River downstream from the Chalk River site.

"We have now gone downstream to ensure that there would be no effects on the Ottawa River as a result of the project. By expanding the regional study area, we've included a greater portion of the Ottawa River," Faught noted.

Lynn Jones (with bull horn) stands beside Ole Hendrickson and other protesters concerned about what they call a nuclear waste 'dump' in 2018. (Julie Ireton/CBC )

Ole Hendrickson, a former government research scientist and researcher for the group Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area, said even with the recent changes the proposed facility doesn't comply with International Atomic Energy Agency guidelines.

He said that's because Canadian law doesn't compel CNL to meet those international standards.

"So if the government itself, which is responsible for policy, does not have a policy that says it will meet international standards, that basically leaves Canadian nuclear laboratories free to do whatever they want," Hendrickson said.

CNL employees watch over the control room of the National Research Universal (NRU) reactor at Chalk River in 2018, days before its closure. (Sarah Sears/CBC News)

    The Chalk River nuclear facility is a federal site that contains waste generated during decades of federal research and development, he said.

    "The federal government is the owner of the waste, not Canadian Nuclear Laboratories. It's responsible for safe disposal, and it has simply abdicated its responsibility by handing over it to this consortium."

    In 2014, the federal government gave CNL control over nuclear operations at Chalk River, but the government continues to own the nuclear assets.