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The final chapter for a historic reactor

By Stephen Uhler, The Daily Observer

ROLPHTON - This is where Canada's nuclear power industry began.


When the Nuclear Power Demonstration (NPD) reactor came on line in 1962 near Rolphton, it was the first time in Canada electricity was generated using nuclear energy. It became prototype of the internationally successful Candu line of heavy water reactors, and for 25 years afterwards was used to train Ontario Hydro workers on the operation of a nuclear power station.

The NPD was shut down in 1987, drained of water and depowered, fuel elements removed and stored at the Chalk River Labs site. It has stood this way ever since until now, when the last chapter in its life is being written.

On Jan. 20, 2018, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, the consortium operating Chalk River Labs under contract with Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., held an open house on the very site of the reactor itself, in order to show interested parties what the work of decommissioning the site is all about.

Around 50 people attended the tour of the concrete structure, where CNL technical personnel explained aspects of the process to decommission the facility. It is the very first power reactor in Canada to be decommissioned.

It was the second of two public site visits, held as part of the public consultation and comment process which is in itself part of convincing the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission to approve the licencing of CNL's plan to bury the reactor in place by 2020. That hearing is scheduled to be held in December.

Meggan Vickerd, operations manager of the Nuclear Power Demonstration Facility and CNL Licensing Activities, said the plan has been in development for some time, and the consensus has been sealing off the reactor site is the safest way to deal with it.

She said trying to dig it up would release materials into the environment and expose the workers to potential risks, so it is better to deal with it where it lies.

“The body of the reactor is set below ground in bedrock, and is already in a pretty solid place,” Vickerd said. “There is no disposal site in Canada for reactors, so our plan is to dispose of it in place.”

She said the plan calls for the entire structure to be collapsed inside the below ground parts, essentially the basement, which dips below 80 feet, then seal it with a special material being called grout, a flowable concrete-like material which will be specially tailored on site to fill in the whole thing.

Vickerd said no other waste will be permitted to be entombed with the reactor and the debris from the structure.

Once this is completed, a massive concrete cap topped with liners, geotextiles and grass to divert the flow of groundwater away from it. The water itself will be held by other engineered structures so as to not flow off site.

The decommissioned site will be monitored over the next 100 years or so to ensure it remains intact as part of long-term care and maintenance activities.

One structure which will be spared from demolition is the tall ventilation stack, which has become the roosting place of 2,500 chimney swifts.

The plan and all its potential impacts are outlined in 600 pages of research and engineering work, describing the containment plan and all associated and potential risks, wrapped up in a draft Environmental Impact Statement which has been submitted it to the regulator (the CNSC).

The regulator is now gathering input to be used as part of the approvals process. That statement is now being offered to the public to comment on throughout 2018.

“There are no predicted adverse environmental effects because of this project,” Vickerd said, but all public concerns will be collected and included in the final draft of the EIS, which would be the subject of public hearings in the fall of 2018.

The tentative hearing date for final approval of the project is Dec. 12, 2018, at the end of the public review period. This is not connected to the public hearing due for the Near Surface Disposal Facility, which is being dealt with separately by the CNSC.

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