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Ontario town slams proposal for nuclear-waste facility, citing safety issues

A sign marks the entrance to the Chalk River Laboratories in Chalk River, Ont., in 2012. The nearby town of Deep River has opposed a proposal to build a nuclear-waste facility at the location.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Town of Deep River, Ont. – home to Canada's nuclear pioneers for 60 years – has slammed a proposal to build a near-surface nuclear-waste facility at the nearby Chalk River laboratories, saying the company appears to put its scheduling issues ahead of safety.

Government-owned, private-sector-managed Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) proposes to build a $325-million facility to dispose of a large quantity of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste generated at the historic research centre, and to bring some waste material from other sites that it manages.

CNL is responding to widespread criticism of the project among local, pro-nuclear residents by revisiting its plan to include a small amount of intermediate-level waste at the site, Kurt Kehler, vice-president for decommissioning and waste management, said in an interview on Wednesday.

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In a submission to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the Town of Deep River argued the company's plan is flawed and that the draft environmental-impact statement that was submitted to the regulator is missing key information.

However, in an accompanying letter, Mayor Joan Lougheed said the town supports CNL's effort to provide for the safe storage and disposal of nuclear waste. Deep River is home for many of the lab's current and retired employees; it has a population of roughly 4,000 people, situated on the Ottawa River some 200 kilometres northwest of the national capital.

"We're doing our due diligence and responsibility as representatives of the Town of Deep River," Ms. Lougheed said in an interview on Wednesday. "We all have a responsibility to deal with waste and waste management."

She said town supports the storage of low-level radioactive waste at such a near-surface site, but has concerns about the intermediate-level radioactive material that requires isolation and containment for more than several hundred years.

In 2015, the Canadian National Energy Alliance consortium won a contract from the former Conservative government to manage the former Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. research facilities, now known as Canadian Nuclear Laboratories. The group – which includes SNC-Lavalin Group Inc., and American engineering giant CH2M Hill Inc. and Fluor Corp. – was tasked with bringing private-sector efficiency to AECL operations.

In its submission, Deep River says CNL failed to engage the municipality and its residents, offering a presentation rather than meaningful consultation. It suggests the consortium appears to be more focused on timely and profitable execution of the project than on safety and long-term management of the waste.

Particularly in the consideration of alternative options, "at times it appears the project schedule and costs were the driving forces influencing the assessment rather than public health, safety and the environment," it said.

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The town and CNL are in negotiations over what compensation will be paid to the municipality as the host community, and Mr. Kehler described Deep River's demands as "pretty lofty."

As well, several First Nations groups either oppose the proposal outright, or say that they have not been properly consulted even though the research facilities are located on unceded traditional territory that is subject to land-claim negotiations.

CNL's proposal – which aims to have the waste facility operational in 2021 – is running into fierce opposition from some AECL retirees. Several scientists who worked at facility say the CNL plan fails to meet international standards for safely dealing with intermediate-level waste (ILW).

"We've heard those comments and we're taking that under serious advisement," Mr. Kehler said. "And so we'll be coming out with a recommendations shortly to the commission. … We are taking ILW issue seriously and I think we'll come up with an appropriate resolution that will make just about everybody happy."

The plan currently calls for 1 per cent of the total volume to be intermediate-level waste, and the company says that material would be on the lower end of the intermediate range. CNL is separately developing plans for the more dangerous intermediate-level waste that exists on the site.

Mr. Kehler also rejected the suggestion that CNL is compromising safety for financial reasons, saying the company is proceeding according to a schedule laid out by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the nuclear-safety commission.

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