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Scientists decry plan for Ontario nuclear-waste site

A warning sign outside of the nuclear reactor at the Atomic Energy Canada Limited plant in Chalk River, Ontario, on December 19, 2007.

FRED CHARTRAND/The Canadian Press

Former AECL scientists are condemning a plan to build a nuclear waste facility at the Chalk River site on the Ottawa River, saying it would be ill-equipped to handle the level of radioactive material planned for it.

The government-owned, private sector-operated Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) is proposing to build a $325-million facility to dispose of a large quantity of low- and intermediate-level waste generated from the demolition of aging buildings and other contaminated material generated over the past 65 years.

But several former senior scientists who worked there say the CNL proposal is seriously flawed and represents a threat to human health and the environment.

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In 2015, the Canadian National Energy Alliance consortium won a contract to manage the Chalk River laboratories. The group includes SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. and U.S. engineering giants, CH2M Hill Inc. and Fluor Corp.

The former Conservative government split up the country's nuclear flagship, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., selling its commercial business to SNC-Lavalin and retaining its research operations, including Chalk River, in CNL.

Ottawa is financing a $1.2-billion, 10-year effort to transform the aging Chalk River site, where the Candu reactor was developed. CNL is constructing some new facilities and demolishing older buildings. The company is also managing the site's longer-term decommissioning.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) is currently reviewing CNL's plan for the nuclear waste disposal facility that would be a five-storey-high, dome-like structure and would hold one million cubic metres of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste. The material is generated and stored on site, and the new facility is meant to provide permanent disposal.

David Winfield, a former senior scientist in safety management at AECL, said international standards suggest permanent disposal of intermediate-level radioactive waste should be done in vaults built deep underground in impermeable rock.

"The proposed design seems not to be appropriate to handle that level of waste," Mr. Winfield said in an interview Tuesday. In addition to his role at AECL, Mr. Winfield has done consulting work on safety issues for the International Atomic Energy Agency.

He also worries CNL is locating the disposal facility in a swampy area of the sprawling Chalk River site, which could cause material to leach from it.

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Another former AECL senior scientist, William Turner, said the new management appears to be rushing the plan in order to have it operational by 2020, and worries they are driven by financial considerations, including performance bonuses. "If this isn't done right, they will walk away with pockets full of money and Canadians will be left with an enormous bill," Mr. Turner said in an interview.

In a submission to the regulator last month, a former AECL director of safety engineering and licensing said CNL's proposal "employs inadequate technology and is problematically located."

"The proposal does not meet regulatory requirements with respect to the health and safety of persons and the protection of the environment," Dr. J.R. Walker said in a lengthy critique of the plan.

CNL president Mark Lesinski defended the company's proposal, saying the near-surface facility will provide "safe and permanent disposal" of radioactive materials.

In a statement provided to The Globe and Mail, Mr. Lesinski said the company carried out extensive geotechnical and hydro-geological tests to ensure the location was the best place to put it.

The site will primarily contain low-level radioactive waste – which requires no shielding for exposure – while more dangerous intermediate-level waste will represent no more than 1 per cent of the total material, he said.

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"As proponent/licensee, CNL must demonstrate to the regulator (CNSC) that inclusion of these limited quantities of [intermediate level waste] is safe," Mr. Lesinski said.

Editor’s Note: An early version of this article incorrectly identified Dr. J.R. Walker as Dr. Robert Walker.
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