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Ottawa River’s Best Kept Secret

I visited the beautiful waterfront on the Ottawa River in the town of Deep River last week, following site tours at Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories and Rolphton. A sign at the waterside park says it is Ontario’s “best kept secret” and it’s all too true . Other spectacular vistas dot the Ontario side of the river east and west as you travel along, looking across at the ancient hills looming gracefully on the Quebec side of the river.

What you will also see if you stop at the historical plaques on Highway 17 is a set of fading photos near Rolphton commemorating the country’s first commercial nuclear demonstration reactor. It extols the success in using on-line fueling, and a heavy water moderator in what would become the CANDU nuclear technology. But I don’t think the operators and scientists who crowded into the control room for a photo op on the day they flipped the “on” switch in 1962 realized what was to follow by way of a legacy of nuclear waste.

It turns out that we are destined to leave a legacy far more lasting than any other human construction. For time scales beyond human imagination, and longer than all of human evolution to date, we are bestowing long-lived high level radioactive waste, along with the heaps of low and intermediate level radioactive waste that goes with it.

A raft of nuclear waste projects are now in Environmental Assessment processes, along the Ottawa River, the Winnipeg River, and Lake Huron.

Two of these projects are located at Rolphton, Ontario, and Whiteshell, Manitoba. Crown corporation Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) and the now-privately owned Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) are proposing a novel approach: they want to entomb the remains of the nuclear demonstration plants in grout and cement and leave them in that state forever. The Rolphton project description is here and the Whiteshell project description is here. The used fuel was removed decades ago (more on that later), but the steel parts in the interior of the plant remain radioactive. Both of these project descriptions say that radionuclides will be released to the Ottawa River and the Winnipeg River, respectively. CNL is in the middle of characterizing how much and what pathways would be involved, to inform the environmental assessment. They describe this approach as “in situ” decommissioning and position it as a breakthrough in radioactive waste management.

Another proposal is called the “Near Surface Disposal Facility” (NSDF) and is planned for the Chalk River location (project description here). What I and colleagues were told on a recent site tour by CNL staff, is that it will take low level radioactive waste from not only some of the Chalk River legacies, but also from other sites, including commercial radioactive waste. The commercial low level radioactive waste will include hospital and university waste already on site, but future commercial opportunities are “not precluded’ depending on the policy direction they get from AECL, as long as it meets the waste criteria (which are yet to be made public). The volume of this site is planned to be 500,000 cubic metres, expandable to a million cubic metres. For comparison, a million cubic metres is four times the currently recommended capacity for the low and intermediate level waste facility proposed for the Deep Geological Repository near Kincardine. This is a very large volume of waste. I’m not sure that the residents and municipal leaders in the beautiful communities along the Ottawa River realize that this “NSDF” project is not only a clean-up of some of the radioactive messes already on site, but a new “commercial” opportunity for CNL and its new owners, to bring in low level radioactive waste from elsewhere.

Also still on the books, according to our CNL hosts, is the proposal for an intermediate level waste Deep Geological Repository (DGR) for the Chalk River facility. If AECL gives the go-ahead, they will proceed with getting the approval processes underway for that project as well.

That brings us to another DGR, the proposal for Low and Intermediate level waste near Kincardine, 1 kilometre from Lake Huron, which is opposed by hundreds of municipalities in both the US and Canada. Ontario Power Generation (OPG) is proposing to bury low and intermediate level waste 700 metres below the surface in deep shafts on the grounds of the Bruce nuclear facility. This project morphed, beginning in the first week of the environmental assessment hearing that started in 2013, to include refurbishment waste from OPG’s reactors at Darlington. They also acknowledge that they might later apply to double its size and include decommissioning waste when Pickering and other nuclear plants close. No longer is it the “used mops and brooms” project that the community heard about when they were asked to get on board. To make matters worse, there was never an assessment of alternative sites, nor any meaningful assessment of alternative approaches, contrary to proper environmental assessment. After the Joint Review Panel recommended this project be approved, subject to conditions, it went on to the previous federal cabinet who deferred it until after the election. It now sits with environment Minister McKenna and her cabinet colleagues. Minister McKenna has since asked OPG for the same type of information that the public and the JRP repeatedly asked for – such as actual alternative site assessment, and OPG has said it will provide no such thing – hoping I suppose, that eventually their failure to asset actual alternative sites will be over-looked. This needless project should just be withdrawn by OPG on the direction of the Ontario government and in the meantime, I trust that the federal Environment Minister will not be fooled (you can see our latest letter to the federal Minister on this project here).

Still to deal with is high level fuel waste. This waste, along with some of the “intermediate” level waste, will stay radioactive and toxic to humans and the environment for hundreds of thousands of years. It won’t decay to background levels, akin to natural uranium, for a million years, according to the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO). That organization, set up by federal statute, consists of the nuclear operators, who’ve been put in charge of finding their own solution to this high level nuclear waste. Their answer is also a “DGR” – another deep geological repository, and they are in the middle of searching for a site somewhere in the Huron County / North shore of Georgian Bay or Lake Superior areas. Nine sites remain under investigation. Among the issues the NWMO must consider is: what can be done to ensure that no humans in the future ever ever break into the waste repository? (The same concern exists at Whiteshell and Chalk River for those facilities which will include “intermediate” long lived radioactive waste. At these ones, they hope strong concrete will do the trick.) What kinds of barriers can be erected or installed, and what kinds of warning signs or languages used that would understood, not only in 20 years, or 200 years, but in 2000 or 200,000 years? The NWMO has just proposed their next five year implementation plan and is looking for public comments between now and October.

I haven’t even discussed all of the other radioactive legacy sites like Port Granby, Port Hope, Elliott Lake and northern Saskatchewan from past approaches to mining and processing uranium. I’m hopeful that as we look at our energy future, we can take account of the mess we’ve made by relying so largely on nuclear power, especially in Ontario. I’m also hopeful that more of us will stop and take a look behind us, at the radioactive trash heaps, and participate in the processes looking at what to do about it. In the meantime, some of these processes appear to be the other “best kept secret” along the Ottawa River.

Photo credits:
Marina at Deep River. Photo: Theresa McClenaghan
Commemoration plaque Highway 17 at Rolphton Ontario: First operation of Nuclear Power Demonstration Reactor, 1962. Photo: Theresa McClenaghan
Sun setting over Chalk River July 2016. Photo: Theresa McClenaghan