This photo shows a RH72-B cask, certified by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to transport waste requiring remote handling, en route for disposal at a deep geologic repository.
This photo shows a RH72-B cask, certified by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to transport waste requiring remote handling, en route for disposal at a deep geologic repository. Credit: U.S. Department of Energy / Nuclear Safety Commission, Flickr

Along with cost overruns and nuclear weapons proliferation risks, waste disposal appears to be an intractable problem for the nuclear industry.

In September 2015, the Harper government completed its restructuring of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL). The government’s main objective was to reduce as quickly and cheaply as possible the roughly $16-billion environmental liability represented by AECL’s defunct reactors and the complex brew of radioactive wastes they produced.

AECL now receives nearly a billion dollars annually to “manage the Government of Canada’s radioactive waste and decommissioning responsibilities.” The 2021-22 Main Estimates allocate$808 million for this purpose. 

AECL pays this money to a consortium of two Texas-based companies and SNC-Lavalin under a 10-year contract rumoured to be worth more than $10 billion (details have never been revealed). The consortium wants to put non-fuel radioactive waste produced by AECL’s six defunct reactors in Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba into a mound it calls the “NSDF” next to the Ottawa River, 200 kms upstream from the nation’s capital.

The chosen site at the Chalk River, Ontario location of AECL’s two oldest reactors is far from ideal. Waste would be piled seven stories high on a rocky hillside adjoining wetlands and a lake draining into the river, one kilometer distant.

Trucking of waste from across Canada to Chalk River is well under way, despite opposition from Ottawa, Gatineau, Montreal and other downriver municipalities. First Nations groups also oppose the NSDF mound proposal and waste shipments.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), Canada’s nuclear licensing body, is conducting an environmental assessment of the NSDF mound. Under the version of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act passed by the Harper government in 2012, the CNSC has sole authority to approve the mound. CNSC approval of Canada’s first permanent disposal facility for nuclear reactor waste would be precedent setting.

For over four years CNSC officials have secretly negotiated with Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) — a former AECL subsidiary now owned by the consortium — to develop an acceptable version of the NSDF mound proposal. Under CNSC guidance, CNL has agreed in principle to greatly reduce the quantities of radioactive substances that would go to the NSDF mound. But as a result, the mound could now accommodate only a small percentage of the $16-billion federal nuclear liability.

If the NSDF mound would cost upwards of a billion dollars, make only a small dent in the liability, and still pose long-term risks to downstream Ottawa River communities, why not examine alternative technologies and sites? 

As long as the consortium receives its contractual payments it has no incentive to develop safer and more cost-effective approaches. And the CNSC’s sole aim is to licence the facility — efficient use of tax dollars is outside its mandate.

The CNSC is ready to give its stamp of approval. It has scheduled a two-part hearing for February 22 and May 31 next year.

Will the Government of Canada finance a radioactive waste facility that would do little to reduce its nuclear liability and contaminate the Ottawa River forever?

Ole Hendrickson

Ole Hendrickson

Ole Hendrickson is an ecologist, a former federal research scientist, and chair of the Sierra Club Canada Foundation's national conservation committee.