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The Canadian Nuclear Laboratories’ proposed site for disposing radioactive waste has opponents watching with apprehension. Here’s what you need to know about the Near Surface Disposal Facility

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An aerial view of Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories, located 200 kilometers northwest of Ottawa, in 2021.Canadian Nuclear Labratories/Handout

One glance at Building 250 confirms that its demolition will be complicated.

Workers clad in protective gear are busy removing its asbestos cladding, which has been gridded off in orange ink into alphanumerically labelled boxes. The four-story wood structure cannot simply be knocked down with a wrecking ball. Before methodical dismantling can begin, virtually every plank, floor covering and panel must be studied and characterized.

Building 250 is one element of a multi-billion-dollar headache for the federal government. It’s among the oldest buildings at Chalk River Laboratories, 200 kilometers northwest of Ottawa, which long served as Canada’s premier nuclear research facility. Today the facility’s operator, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), is addressing the resulting radioactive waste. It has already torn down 111 buildings, but Building 250 is among the most hazardous: it contained radioactive hot cells and suffered fires that spread contaminants throughout.

CNL needs a specially designated place to dispose of this hazardous detritus. This week, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission held final hearings for its environmental review of the Near Surface Disposal Facility (NSDF), CNL’s proposed landfill site for radioactive waste on what is now a thickly wooded hillside at Chalk River. Its decision is expected sometime around the end of this year, and no small number of opponents are watching with apprehension.

The NSDF would not merely facilitate remediation of federal land; this is also about tidying up Canada’s balance sheet. Once completed, the NSDF would knock $450-million off the federal government’s $8.1-billion liability for remediating old nuclear sites. Joseph McBrearty, CNL’s president and CEO, said his company is undertaking the nation’s most complex and challenging environmental remediation project.

“When you look at the vast amount of cleanup that we have to do, really it’s almost staggering in some respects,” he said.

Here’s what you need to know.

How would the NSDF work?

CNL describes it as an “engineered containment mound” designed to hold up to 1 million cubic meters of solid waste in 10 separate cells. Similar to modern landfills, the NSDF’s liner would comprise several natural and synthetic layers. Once filled, it would be capped with more synthetic layers, sand, rockfill and topsoil. Also included would be a dedicated wastewater treatment plant to process leachate.

Kerry Rowe, a professor of geotechnical and geoenvironmental engineering at Queen’s University, who has worked on waste containment design for four decades, including for municipal landfills and nuclear waste facilities, was hired as an independent reviewer of the NSDF design. He concluded it’s far superior to similar facilities in the United States.

“They developed a system that is state of the art, which is as good as you can do with what we know today,” he said. “And despite people’s fears, the level of risk from this landfill is substantially less than a large municipal solid waste facility.”

CNL has asserted that the mound’s radioactivity concentration will fall 2,000-fold during its first century of existence and reach background levels shortly thereafter. After 500 years, a family could live on top of it, farming livestock and vegetables for their own consumption, and receive radioactivity doses an order of magnitude lower than current regulatory limits.

What wastes will it contain?

CNL says the NSDF will consist mainly of contaminated soils and loose demolition waste. The remainder will be sealed in packaging to isolate it from groundwater. Some of it was buried long ago in sand trenches that must be dug up, some is currently stored on-site in shipping containers, and some remains in walls and floors of buildings awaiting demolition.

Meggan Vickerd, CNL’s general manager of waste services and NSDF project lead, said none of that historical contamination escaped the Chalk River site. But CNL maps show that a handful of radioactive contaminants have migrated across the site in sizeable plumes.

CNL characterizes all of the NSDF’s contaminants as low-level, meaning the majority have half-lives of fewer than 30 years. Examples of low-level waste include contaminated clothing and safety gear, soil, concrete, wood, vegetation and equipment.

While the bulk of it is already at Chalk River, more would be trucked in from Canada’s second largest nuclear research site (Whiteshell Laboratories in Pinawa, Manitoba, closed in 1998) as well as from hospitals, universities and private companies.

Gordon Edwards, an activist and consultant with the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, accused CNL of obscuring the origin and hazardous nature of much of the waste. He said the worst of it includes cobalt-60 imported into Canada from other countries by private companies. He questioned why taxpayers should pay for its disposal.

“They’re not being up front in telling people where these wastes are coming from,” he said. “That’s a fundamental deception.” (A CNL spokesperson denied that any NSDF wastes had ventured outside Canada’s borders.)

Wastes deemed “intermediate” and “high level,” including the hulks of decommissioned research and prototype reactors and their spent fuel, will require different final resting places. Those waste products include a callandria (a large reactor component) lying beneath a mound in a fenced-off field at Chalk River known as Waste Management Area A. The component is from the NRX reactor, which exploded during a major accident in 1952.

Who’s behind this?

Chalk River is owned by Atomic Energy of Canada (AECL), a federal Crown corporation. Little more than a decade ago, AECL employed thousands of full-time workers. But after extensive divestitures and restructuring, today it’s a shell of its former self, employing fewer than 50.

What’s left are balance sheet demons, notably the $8.1-billion liability for decommissioning contaminated sites. Chalk River accounts for more than three quarters of that.

That’s where CNL comes in. It’s a company controlled by a consortium made up of SNC-Lavalin and two Texas-based companies, Fluor and Jacobs. AECL hired CNL in 2015 to manage substantially all of its operations, including its waste. The hope was that CNL, a private-sector entity, would move more nimbly than a federal entity. This is big business: Ottawa sends AECL more than half a billion dollars annually to pay for remediation efforts alone.

Why does this environmental assessment matter?

The CNSC’s decision will not only determine the future of CNL’s remediation efforts, but could also influence how more hazardous nuclear wastes are handled. Some observers believe the NSDF’s approval would set a favorable precedent for other proposed facilities, including the Nuclear Waste Management Organization’s Deep Geological Repository, a proposed underground storage facility in Ontario for highly radioactive spent fuel from power reactors.

How much will this cost?

Building the NSDF is expected to take three years and cost $475-million. Once operating, closure, maintenance and surveillance costs are included, the final price tag would be $750-million.

How much support does the project have?

Nuclear waste facilities are among the toughest sells imaginable. This one proved no exception.

The NSDF attracted considerable opposition from some municipalities, First Nations, property owners and activists. Citing a wide range of environmental concerns, many of them have written letters to the CNSC urging it to reject the project.

Other municipalities, particularly those hosting nuclear facilities or workers, were unabashedly enthusiastic. CNL’s proposal also commands near-unanimous endorsement from all corners of Canada’s nuclear industry: supporters include Ontario Power Generation, Cameco, BWXT Canada, Aecon and Moltex Energy.

Several First Nations said they had not been adequately consulted. The Algonquins of Ontario said the project would negatively impact Algonquin rights and interests. Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation said CNL’s definition of low-level waste was misleading, and that it feared the NSDF would receive more highly radioactive materials. (But Curve Lake First Nation agreed with CNL that the project would not likely harm the environment, nor Indigenous rights and interests.)

Crucially, the CNSC’s staff have already granted the NSDF their blessing. In a lengthy document published in January, they recommended the Commission find that the project “is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects.”

Is it a good idea to build the NSDF so close to the Ottawa River?

The opinion of the Ottawa River Institute, a charity, is typical of the project’s opponents: It said the NSDF would contaminate the watercourse. As a more secure alternative, it pointed to underground silos made from reinforced concrete, used to dispose of low-level waste in Finland.

“It’s just piled right on top of a sloping hillside surrounded by wetlands, one kilometer from the Ottawa River,” said Ole Hendrickson, one of the organization’s directors. “It would be hard to come up with a worse technology and site for permanent nuclear waste disposal.”

Pontiac County, a collection of 18 municipalities with 14,000 residents in southwestern Quebec, has said it is opposed to the NSDF, owing to the proximity issue. Larger municipalities downstream, including Ottawa and the Montreal Metropolitan Community, have been less vehement, but have expressed concerns about risks to their drinking water.

“If approved, the leaking radioactive mound will pollute the Ottawa River, adversely affect property values, and pose health risks to current and future generations in the Ottawa Valley,” two groups, Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area and the Old Fort William Cottagers’ Association, said in a joint letter in April.

CNL said proximity is largely beside the point: the real issue is how quickly rainwater migrates. The mound will be built on a bedrock ridge sloping away from the river. A raindrop landing there will take between seven and 12 years to migrate to the Ottawa River. Ms. Vickerd said no contaminated water would be permitted to escape.

Queen’s University’s Dr. Rowe said multiple lines of defence will protect the river, including the NSDF’s cover, liner, monitoring systems and distance.

“Let’s not forget that there is already waste buried there,” he added. “It shouldn’t be there. It needs to be dug up and disposed of in a safer way.”

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