Proposed radioactive waste disposal site in Chalk River raises concerns

Reactor's neighbours alarmed over radioactive toxins in river

A plan to build a disposal facility for radioactive waste from Chalk River Laboratories near the Ottawa River isn't sitting well with conservationists, but the company behind the project wants to assure people who live by the river the landfill will be safe.

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories has proposed building a five-storey-high mound roughly a kilometre from the river to store mostly low-level waste from the Chalk River nuclear facility, about 180 kilometres west of Ottawa.

The "near surface disposal facility" would be operational by 2020, and would take up to 1 million cubic metres of waste by the year 2070, when it would be closed.

"I understand that we definitely need to take care of the waste that's been building up at that site. But of course we have some concerns," Ottawa Riverkeeper Meredith Brown told host Hallie Cotnam on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

"This is a project that will eventually abandon low-level and intermediate-level nuclear waste right beside the Ottawa River, so of course we're concerned about what the impacts on the river will be in the long term."

Brown is worried about leachate — potentially contaminated water coming from the the site — seeping in to the river. 

But Kurt Kehler, vice-president of decommissioning and waste management at Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, wants to assure concerned residents and environmentalists there's a plan for that.

"Leachate occurs while it's being filled. So through precipitation — rain and snowfall — obviously before it's capped, will get into the waste, and will leach out. And we collect all that leachate and treat it," Kehler said on Ottawa Morning.

"Our experience at other sites is about ten years after you finish the cap, all the moisture has drained out, and you've treated that, and you will no longer have any leachate at that point in time."

Concerns about waste levels

While the plan is to store mostly low-level radioactive waste, one per cent of the disposed waste will be intermediate-level, which raises red flags for Brown.

"We're really concerned about the intermediate-level waste, because what they're proposing for this — it's really a landfill. It's a landfill for hazardous waste. And those landfills are made to last up about 500 years, and intermediate level waste will last for thousands of years," she said.

But Kehler says that small amount only contains the "very lowest edge of intermediate-level waste" and that monitoring will be conducted for "hundreds and hundreds of years" after the mound is capped and closed.

Once CNL's contract is up after 10 years, the site and its assets will be the responsibility of the federal government, namely Atomic Energy Canada Limited and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

"People are commonly using the word dump. It's not a dump. It's a very engineered facility. It is engineered to last for 500 years, and so the science is there," said Kehler.

The company is planning more open houses this spring for people in the area looking for more information on the project.

Read Canadian Nuclear Laboratories' environmental impact statement here.