Plan to entomb nuclear reactor breaks promise to Manitobans, watchdog group says

A watchdog group says a plan to entomb the old nuclear reactor at Pinawa, Man., could pose a risk to people and the environment.

"This plan that they've come up with would, in effect, create a nuclear waste disposal site right next to the Winnipeg River. That was not a location that was ever selected to be a nuclear waste disposal site," Anne Lindsey, a member of Concerned Citizens of Manitoba, told Radio Noon host Marjorie Dowhos.

The watchdog group held an information session at the University of Winnipeg on Tuesday which included scientists, residents and First Nations members who say the plan by Canadian Nuclear Laboratories breaks a promise to Manitobans that the radioactive material would be removed and safely stored at another site.

The decommissioning process for the nuclear research reactor in Pinawa, 95 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, started in 1998. CNL has been contracted by Natural Resources Canada to manage nuclear waste in Pinawa and Chalk River, Ont.

CNL's current plan would see the reactor buried in a structure about 21 metres deep, with the top of the reactor about six metres below the surface. The structure would be encased in walls about 27 metres thick.

Safer plan: CNL

That's an improvement over the original plan to remove the material, which was created in the 1990s, says Dan Coyne, the general manager of the Whiteshell Closure Project for Canadian Nuclear Laboratories.

"We believe that the plan was flawed from the 1990s with regards to the approach there. And we believe we're offering a better solution for the Canadian taxpayer dollars that's protective of the environment," he told Radio Noon.

CNL compared the risks involved in cutting up the pieces of the reactor and transporting them and determined that the new plan offers the least amount of risk, Coyne said.

He said currently, there is no national permanent solution for disposing of nuclear waste in Canada.

Concerned Citizens of Manitoba has said that CNL's plan contradicts Manitoba's High-level Radioactive Waste Act.

Radioactivity from the material inside will inevitably leak out, Lindsey said.

"They are counting on the radioactivity to diminish enough by the time it gets out into the environment. However, scientists who actually worked in in the reactor for many years and who are very, very familiar with it have major criticisms of that model," she said.

Coyne says the amount of radiation that does escape will be "factors below" what the average Manitoban is exposed to in background radiation. CNL's plan also calls for the site to be monitored for up to 300 years.

Nearby Sagkeeng First Nation, which gets its drinking water from the Winnipeg River, has also expressed concerns about the potential impact of the plan.

Coyne says CNL has taken members of the community, including First Nations, on tours of other entombed reactor sites in the U.S. They have also held 15 open houses in the community to tell people about their plan.

The next step is to revise the environmental impact statement based on feedback from the community and submit it to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission for approval.