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location of disposal site at Chalk River (CBC)

Nuclear waste storage undermined by climate change

Published in National Observer, October 25, 2023
Image from CBC

Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson was likely relieved to announce the Integrated Strategy for Radioactive Waste. Throughout the minister’s life, Canada has engaged in nuclear research and power generation without a permanent solution for the nuclear waste (sometimes mocked as “building an outhouse without digging a hole”). Concerns remain, however, as long-term storage of nuclear waste is increasingly risky with the worsening climate crisis.

The strategy describes federal plans for long-term storage of radioactive waste:

  • The most hazardous high- and medium-level waste in a national “deep geological repository.”
  • Lower-level hazardous waste closer to the source in a “near-surface disposal facility” (NSDF) to be “safely managed” over the long term by makers and owners of the waste.

Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories is proposed to host an NSDF site on the shore of the Kitchi Sibi (Ottawa) River, on unceded Algonquin territory. Here scientists first worked on defence in the 1940s, and ongoing nuclear research and the operation of experimental reactors have resulted in voluminous waste that will remain toxic longer than reliable planning horizons.

A federal Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) of the proposed NSDF cobbled together summaries of information and reports generated over about a decade. There is limited assessment of the natural environment in the federal EIS, so the Algonquin First Nations retained experts and published Assessment of the CNSC NSDF and Legacy Contamination in June 2023.

The federal strategy depicts an NSDF on flat ground, but Chalk River’s is proposed to be on a hillside. Severe rainfall poses high risks because it may overwhelm the leachate decontamination facility, and it also poses risks to physical stability as the mound is constructed over the coming decades. Too much rain could wash nuclear waste down the hill and into Perch Lake, contaminating Perch Creek and the Kitchi Sibi River a kilometre away.

Radioactive and toxic chemicals could pollute the local ecosystem and food sources (e.g., fish), as well as drinking water for millions of people downstream in smaller towns, Ottawa and other cities. Design criteria were estimates of one-in-100-year weather events, updated to 2018. In 2023, precipitation records are being repeatedly broken.

The consultation regarding the Chalk River NSDF was closed following final submissions on Aug. 10, 2023. At the sacred site where the Rideau, Kitchi Sibi and Gatineau rivers tumble together, chiefs of Kebaowek, Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg and Mitchibikonik Inik First Nations, Elders and other experts spoke to the CNSC via teleconference. During testimony, attendees heard a roar of rain drumming on the roof.

This rain event flooded Ottawa streets and basements, stopped traffic, took out power and backed up sewers. Five centimetres of rain fell in an hour, and more than 300 million litres of untreated water flowed into the Ottawa River.

The Chalk River EIS vastly underestimates future weather severity, defining “heavy rainfall” as over a mere 0.7 centimetres per hour. Consultants updated the estimate of tornado risks in 2018 following one event; this is not informed by fresher memories of numerous catastrophic tornadoes and derechos in eastern Ontario. As weather assumptions are disproven, so go conclusions regarding the integrity of the proposed waste disposal facility.

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 outdated end-of-the-century estimates of less than five centimetres of precipitation in a day for Deep River, and over five centimetres in a day — not an hour — for Ottawa.

Ottawa is not alone in breaking rainfall records and disproving future estimates. July brought rainfall disasters to Nova Scotia, with rainfall up to 50 centimetres per hour measured in one location. Much of the province experienced 20 centimetres in a day, causing widespread damage. Canadian federal climate predictions call for much less — up to nine centimetres in a day by the end of the century.

In response to this information, the CNSC replied that weather concerns were included in the Notice of May 17, 2023, and it was satisfied with the information it has reviewed.

If an environmental impact assessment for a bridge discovered the bridge would not withstand a storm as severe as what occurred during final review, it would be a good reason to reconsider the plans. The CNSC should heed the warning from Mother Nature and deny the proposal for this engineered hillside nuclear dump.

Postscript: Ambitious plans for nuclear expansion, including using old reactors beyond design limits and novel smaller nuclear reactors, should also be re-examined. There is still no nuclear waste solution; experimental designs have a consistent track record of being late (or failing) and over-budget; rising ocean levels and increasingly severe weather put reactors at risk; warming of water bodies used for cooling is not sustainable; and there are strategic advantages to investing in immediately available alternative electricity sources (why do more roofs not have solar panels?) and local micro-grids as power storage costs fall and energy efficiencies are improved.