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Don’t underestimate ravages of climate crisis when storing nuclear waste

Published in the Hill TImes, September 11, 2023
Image from CBC

By Meg Sears

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission should heed Mother Nature’s warning and deny the present proposal for near-surface nuclear waste disposal at Chalk River. In today’s weather, much less the future, the commission is unlikely to meet its goal to keep nuclear waste secure for hundreds of years.

What happens when a federal Environmental Impact Assessment is fundamentally flawed? Will authorities pause for a rethink when a key assumption and design limitation of the assessment is wrong, risking catastrophic failure? 

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is facing this late-day reality test as it is poised to rule whether the Chalk River nuclear waste facility can go ahead as planned.

The 2021 Environmental Impact Statement for near-surface nuclear waste disposal lists severe rainfall as the top risk for stability of the hillside site. Excessive rain could result in the nuclear waste being swept down the hill and into Perch Lake, Perch Creek, and the Ottawa River a kilometre away. Chemicals would pollute the ecosystem and food sources, as well as drinking water for millions of people in smaller towns, as well as in Ottawa and cities downstream. 

On Aug. 10, 2023, where the Rideau, Ottawa and Gatineau rivers tumble together, chiefs of Kebaowek, Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg and Mitchibikonik Inik First Nations, elders and other experts, made final submissions to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. As they spoke against the nuclear waste disposal site at Chalk River, attendees heard the roar of rain drumming on the roof. 

During this event, Ottawa streets and basements flooded, traffic stopped, power failed, sewers backed up, and more than 300 million litres of untreated water flowed into the Ottawa River. At least, unlike nuclear waste, untreated sewer water degrades within weeks—not years or generations. 

The Environmental Impact Statement weather severity estimates are out of date. It defines “heavy rainfall” to be more than 0.7 cm per hour—one seventh of what fell during the hearing. The statement also cites a 2013 estimate of low tornado risks—an insult to fresh memories of catastrophic tornadoes and derechos in Eastern Ontario.

The acceleration of climate disasters is boggling Canada’s long-term predictions of the scale of extreme weather. The nuclear waste disposal facility was designed to withstand end-of-the century estimates of less than five cm of precipitation in a day for Deep River, and over five cm in a day—not an hour—for Ottawa

Ottawa’s not alone in breaking rainfall records. July 2023 brought rainfall disasters to Nova Scotia, with rainfall up to 50 cm per hour measured in one location. Much of the province experienced 20 cm in a day, causing widespread damage. The climate predictions from the federal government call for much less—up to 9 cm in a day by the end of the century.  

If an Environmental Impact Assessment for a bridge was discovered to be flawed—that the bridge would not withstand a storm as severe as what occurred just last month—it would be pause for thought and a good reason to reconsider the plans. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission should heed the warning from Mother Nature and deny the present proposal. In today’s weather, much less the coming years’, the Commission is unlikely to meet its objective to keep nuclear waste secure for hundreds of years.