FORT WILLIAM, QC – Cottagers and residents alike packed the Hotel Pontiac Saturday morning to voice their concerns about Canadian Nuclear Laboratories' proposed Near Surface Disposal Facility (NSDF).
The meeting was organized by the Old Fort William Cottagers’ Association.
Despite assurances from CNL officials the NSDF design is a safe and proven technology which would be used to mainly store low and intermediate-level waste generated at the Chalk River site, few people seemed convinced it was a good idea in the first place to locate a waste facility anywhere near the Ottawa River.
Property owner Mark Jennings said it just makes sense one would want to avoid being near the water.
“It should be clear that being next to a fast moving river is the last place one would want to locate a nuclear dump,” he said.
Marvin Flood voiced the same question, wondering why, since Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. owned 10,000 acres on its Chalk River site, did CNL pick a handful of acres which were located so close to the river.
Algonquin elder Gilles Dupuis questioned the wisdom of locating the NSDF below the hydroelectric dams on the Ottawa River, which historically had flooded the area. He wasn't assured by talk the site would be monitored regularly over the long term to ensure any potential problems would be detected quickly and fixed.
“We don't want to monitor the bad event, we want to prevent it from happening in the first place,” he said.
Others said they were confused by the definitions of “low” and “intermediate” waste, and wanted an accounting of exactly what would be stored there, the amount of radiation it was emitting and how long would it remain that way. Some commented on wanting to know how the NSDF's contents would impact their health and their family's health over the long term.
Several brought up the question of liability in case the facility failed, and several times the design itself was criticized.
Kurt Kehler, CNL's vice-president of decommissioning and waste management, said the design is sound and in use at facilities around the world. It is based on multiple layers of defence including waterproof liners to prevent it from leaking into the ground, plus having a water treatment plant on site to deal with any water which has worked through the engineered containment mound to reach that base liner.
He said what would be allowed into the mound would be strictly controlled and will not contain anything highly radioactive, such as spent fuel.
“That will not be going into the NSDF,” Kehler said, which is being built and operated specifically to protect people and the environment.
He said the project has gone through a risk analysis to ensure it can survive intact from anything – earthquake, tornadoes, floods and the like. The site itself is elevated well above the historic flood plain, and a lot of analysis and study has gone into the decision to locate it at the best possible site.
“This property is probably the most studied tract of land in Canada,” he said. “We believe if you look at all of the aspects of it, you will find this is the best site for the NSDF.”
Kehler said CNL is not making any money off of this disposal site; instead, they are spending money to take care of legacy wastes by cleaning up and disposing of them safely. He said that is in the employees best interest, too, that they do this to the best of their ability, as they also live and play and use the water of the Ottawa River.
As for liability, Kehler said the property and all issues related to it remains in the hands of AECL and the government of Canada. CNL - a consortium of four companies - is contracted to operate it. He said if something went wrong, the Canadian government would go after CNL for redress, but the main liability is owned by Canada.
Kehler said their proposal is so technically sound “there is no Plan B,” as they don't think any would be necessary. The ultimate ruler on this would be the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), who will need to approve and licence the project. That agency will also monitor and ensure compliance with it.
Pat Quinn, CNL's director of corporate communications, said a lot of the more detailed technical information people were seeking is spelled out in their Environmental Impact Statement, which details the project. It is submitted to the CNSC as part of the approval process, and is available online.
According to CNL, the NSDF is to be used for the disposal of mostly low-level waste and a small amount of intermediate-level waste, mainly contaminated soil and building debris resulting from the decommissioning and demolition of more than 100 buildings and structures at the Chalk River site – a necessary part of revitalizing the site – and to provide a safe and permanent disposal for waste from 65 years of science and technology and the laboratories’ continuing operations.
The majority of the NSDF's contents, some 90 per cent, is already stored, or would be produced, out of activities at the Chalk River site. Of the remainder, about five per cent would be waste originating from the Whiteshell Laboratories, in Manitoba and other AECL sites, such as the prototype reactors Douglas Point and Gentilly-1; and less than five per cent would be commercial sourced inventories for example from Canadian hospitals and universities, a service that has been underway for decades.
It will be built to operate for 50 years, after which it will be capped and effectively sealed off. The site will continue to be monitored for at least the next 300 years after it has ceased operations, or longer if government regulators determine that time period needs to be extended.
Those objecting to the NSDF have stated they feel it is too risky, its design not proven to be safe over a long period of time, is located too close to the Ottawa River and is being rushed ahead unnecessarily to meet a 2020 completion deadline.
The public has until August 16 to comment on CNL’s draft environmental impact statement (EIS) regarding the disposal facility. If approved by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, construction would begin in 2018.
To date, no public hearing has been scheduled to deal with the application for approval, which is part of the process, but one is expected to be set up sometime in 2018.