By Jamie Pashagumskum
A controversial bid by Canadian Nuclear Laboratories to construct a containment unit for decades-old nuclear waste in Chalk River — at a site close to the Ottawa River about 200 kilometres upstream from Ottawa — is facing opposition from critics concerned about potential contamination.
CNL says the near-surface disposal facility would safely store “legacy waste” from the Chalk River nuclear facility, some of which dates back to the 1950s.
Lynn Jones, an activist with the Concerned Citizens of Renfrew and Area, said the group is uneasy about CNL’s plans for the disposal site because they say the “near-surface” description of the facility is misleading.
“CNL is using the term for a giant above-ground landfill type of facility. And it’s going to be seven storeys high, so it really isn’t ‘near surface’ at all,” Jones said. “We call it the Giant Mound.”
Jones voiced her opposition to the waste storage plan at a public consultation in January held in Pembroke. The event was hosted by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.
In addition to the planned waste facility, CNL has applied for a 10-year renewal of its licence to operate Chalk River Laboratories.
There were more than 80 public submissions on CNL’s application, the majority of which had serious concerns over the company’s plan for storing its nuclear waste.
Most critics argue that the dump is too close to the Ottawa River, a source of drinking water for many Ottawa Valley communities, including Ottawa and Gatineau.
Nora Dookeran of the Green Party of Ontario said she strongly objects to the planned disposal site’s proximity to the river.
Dookeran was also critical of the townships in the area for supporting CNL and said she was first contacted by Renfrew citizens desperate for answers.
“Providing money and jobs is (the townships’) primary concern,” Dookeran said. “All of the safety and environmental conditions are not being addressed to people’s satisfaction.”
“They (CNL) contribute over 300 million to our local economy,” Peter Emon, a Renfrew County councillor said. “It’s very important for us to ensure that site continues to operate.”
Emon said the county is comfortable with the safety regime that is in place at Chalk River and said new protocols are being implemented to better inform the public.
Emon called Renfrew County the home of Canada’s nuclear industry and said most of the 2,900 staff at the Chalk River nuclear complex reside in the communities that make up Renfrew County.
“We recognize our responsibility as does the company. That offers us a level of protection and confidence,” Emon said.
But another concern about the proposed waste site is that it’s on a major fault line, which Dookeran argues does not comply with international safety standards.
The International Atomic Energy Agency’s safety guide for near surface disposal facilities for radioactive waste states: “The siting of a near surface disposal facility should take into consideration the potential hazards to the facility . . . such as erosion or seismic activity.”
Dr. Ole Hendrickson, an environmental biologist with the CCRA, said the safest strategy would be to store the waste away from the river and not in a seismically active zone.
According to Hendrickson, the units currently storing radioactive waste at
Chalk River are leaking and polluting the local environment.
“Something needs to be done sooner rather than later,” Hendrickson stated, arguing that above-ground storage units would be a better solution than the proposed “mound.”
Members of the Renfrew group, along with other critics of CNL’s waste plan, held a protest march in Ottawa last month to express opposition to the planned nuclear dump site. Another march is planned for April.
Despite public concern, the licence renewal for CNL to operate its Chalk River facility is expected to win approval from the CNSC review committee. The renewal is likely to be announced in March.