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Concern over Chalk River Nuclear Site’s radioactive wastes

How safe is the Ottawa River from nuclear waste? Canada’s National Observer   April 8th 2019  “……..Canada’s first nuclear reactor began operating at Chalk River, about 160 kilometres northwest of Ottawa. Since 1944, the facility has served as Canada’s major nuclear science hub. Researchers at CRL have studied reactors, nuclear energy and weaponry and produced medical isotopes for patients around the world.

“It is crucial to protect the drinking water source of over two million people,” says Ottawa Riverkeeper, a full-time, non-profit organization that serves as a public advocate for the watershed and is a key intervenor in the environmental assessment of the waste proposal.

The Chalk River site resembles an old university campus. It’s cut out of a thick and isolating forest spanning about 10,000 acres, with neatly trimmed patches of grass, and a regimented mix of large brick and smaller white structures.

The facilities owned by Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) are about seven kilometres from the gate at the border of Chalk River, a community of fewer than 1,100 residents, some of whom work at the lab which has about 2,800 employees.

Signs on a chain link fence and tree trunks along the perimeter indicate the grounds are protected by armed officers. Surveillance cameras cast a visual blanket over the road to the security clearance booth and over much of the site.

Chalk River Laboratories has for decades faced questions over the way it deals with its radioactive waste. Environmentalists have decried the facility for discharging waste into the river and for leaks. CNL says its methods for treating waste are sound and the regular liquid effluent discharges into the river have no significant public health or environmental impact on drinking water. It reports a steady evolution of environmental stewardship.

Fresh concern erupted after CNL announced detailed plans to build a nuclear disposal facility to permanently house one million cubic metres of radioactive waste — about 400 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth.

In May 2016, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission launched the environmental assessment process for the disposal project with an initial call for public comment.

Environmentalists and concerned citizens questioned how nuclear waste can remain securely contained for hundreds of years, and how it might endanger water quality if any leaks.

The waste has accumulated over decades of Chalk River’s operations. It includes low-level material, such as equipment from operations that has been irradiated and buildings that housed the reactors, and intermediate-level waste, such as filters used to purify reactor water systems and reactor core components. The irradiated material sits anywhere from a few metres to a few kilometres from the Ottawa River. ……..

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) promotes itself as a global leader in developing applications for nuclear technology through research, engineering and waste management services.

It is a subsidiary of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), a federal Crown corporation, and operated by the Canadian National Energy Alliance, a private consortium. Its operations are licensed by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the nation’s nuclear regulator.

What do water quality tests near Chalk River say?

Some nearby residents and environmental groups have argued that, while CNL says it is committed to safeguarding the health of the Ottawa River during the decommissioning process, questions remain about the lab’s ability to safely dispose of radioactive waste.

The lab’s history is peppered with minor leaks and malfunctions – and a few major ones. Critics worry that the organization’s confidence in the safety of decommissioning efforts is misplaced.

For instance, critics claim the lab is not fully transparent about its water quality testing methods and has not properly informed the public on plans for permanent storage and disposal of the radioactive material.

Ottawa resident Ole Hendrickson is a member of the Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area, an Ottawa-based environmental activist group whose volunteers have worked for the clean-up and prevention of radioactive pollution from the nuclear industry in the Ottawa Valley for more than 40 years. He’s also a member of CRL’s environmental stewardship council, which convenes company officials, community representatives and other stakeholders several times a year to discuss updates from the lab.

Hendrickson said in an interview that CNL is stingy about providing environmental monitoring data, and that many of the documents with information on testing he has received through access to information requests include significant redactions.

Yet authorities in nearby towns appear unconcerned.

Brenda Royce works at the Ontario Clean Water Agency in Petawawa, about 20 kilometres downstream from Chalk River. It is a provincial Crown agency that the town contracts to do its water quality testing and water system maintenance.

In addition, Royce said her office collects a water sample from the Ottawa River at Petawawa every day for CNL to conduct its own tests. But the office does not get the results of the tests back from the private lab.

Every year, Petawawa’s water agency publishes its own report on the town’s drinking water quality and treatment system. The agency’s report includes testing for many chemicals — including uranium — but not for the two main radionuclides that might be discharged from Chalk River Laboratories operations: tritium and strontium. “It’s just what we do,” Royce said, adding she has never been curious to see results on radioactive waste in the water system.

Petawawa’s director of public works said he has never met with Chalk River officials over potential water quality hazards in the area……..

In 2012, the site’s former Crown operator contracted Université Laval to conduct independent environmental tests of the water, air and vegetation around Chalk River Laboratories and the municipalities of Petawawa and Pembroke, just south of the facility, which would be most directly affected by any potential nuclear contamination in the river. The results for 2012, 2013 and 2015 have been posted on the nuclear industry regulator’s website, and results for 2018 will be published. As of yet, no tests returned results that were expected to cause adverse health effects.

Canada’s Nuclear Safety Commission did not provide data or respond to technical questions before publication and was not available for an interview.

Test results from 2015 show levels of radioactive isotopes present in the river, such as strontium and tritium, were far below the threshold that would affect human health.

Health Canada guidelines state the maximum concentrations of strontium and tritium in drinking water are seven milligrams per litre, and 7,000 becquerels per litre, respectively.

Independent tests for strontium and tritium in the Ottawa River at Rolphton, Petawawa, and Pembroke were conducted specifically for this story. The results found strontium and tritium were not at dangerous levels in the water, as of November 2018. All indicated waste levels in the river were similar to results found by researchers from Université Laval in 2015, and reported last year by the lab itself.

While some local opponents believe there is no safe dose of radiation or safe level of radioactive waste, CNL says it abides by the standards set by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and the International Atomic Energy Agency, a United Nations body.

Members of CNL’s team acknowledge there are differences in international standards when it comes to certain substances, including tritium and strontium………..

When it comes to its own environmental monitoring, CNL releases a monthly performance report that indicates routine groundwater sampling at 170 locations across the site. The report does not include detailed results for the specific radioactive substances tested.

The Ontario Ministry of Environment conducts water quality tests at Petawawa every year and has never shown any concern over potential nuclear material in the water. As part of its Nuclear Reactor Surveillance Program, the Ontario Ministry of Labour published reports in 2011 and 2012 that show very low tritium levels in Ottawa’s water. No further reports have been published since.

This publication contacted recently elected municipal and provincial representatives, and the local federal politician whose seat will be up for election in 2019.

None of the representatives for the Chalk River area commented on the proposed waste facility or its possible impact on water quality. Renfrew-Nippising-Pembroke MPP John Yakabuski did not provide an interview. The area’s federal MP, Cheryl Gallant, was not available. Laurentian Hills mayor John Reinwald, the chief administrative officer and all council members did not respond to interview requests………..

April 9, 2019 - Posted by | Canada, wastes

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