Blog: Day 2 – Concerns of Accidents and Safety Dominate Radioactive Waste Dump Hearing

Photo: Ottawa River, Pembroke, ON

* This is the second in a series of blogs by CELA’s summer law students, Rebecca Waxman and Adam Meadows, live from the CNSC hearing room. Check back every day as they share reflections and reactions from the nuclear licensing hearing. Read the full series here

PEMBROKE, ON – On Day 2 of the environmental assessment and licensing hearing for the nuclear waste project at Chalk River, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission heard from twenty intervenors, including industry associations and public interest groups on the theme of the project’s Long Term Safety Case. 

The day began with the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) stating that their practices meet or exceed Canadian regulatory guidelines. They wished to calm residents about the potential scares of seismic events by outlining how the proposed Near Surface Disposal Facility (NSDF) could withstand an earthquake 100x as large as the most powerful earthquake in Eastern Canada in the past 350 years.

The regulatory staff at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) presentation outlined what they considered to be the most plausible potential exposure scenarios and the resulting radiation that would occur. Their modelling predicted that in the worst-case scenario that they analyzed, a maximum radiation exposure less than the average background radiation dose in Canada would occur. The CNSC staff stated that the CNL NSDF design was built to last longer than 550 years, at which point, less than 1% of radionuclides would remain based on half-life times.

Despite these reassurances by the CNL and the CNSC staff, Dr. Ole Hendricksen- presenting for the Ottawa River Institute – questioned the models which accounted for exposure levels of radiation to the public. Comparing the NSDF to other similar facilities, the Ottawa River Institute posed several questions to the CNL and CNSC about accident scenarios such as grouting and drop and load incidents which account for alarming levels of dust inhalation and exposure to gamma radiation. Their concern was over the inadequacy of models to protect workers and other members of the public from smaller scale but relatively regular incidents such as those described. 

Later, the Commission heard from Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area (CCRCA), who noted that waste from research facilities (like CNL) is usually considered a higher hazard waste and must be appropriately dealt with as such. They also highlighted that there is already a comprehensive primary decommissioning plan for Chalk River and although it should be the starting point for determining the amount of waste generated.

Mr. George Dolinar of the CNL made a bold statement in response to concerns raised by intervenors over effluents being discharged from the facility: “the facility will result in no significant adverse effects to biota and humans in the area…the facility will be safe to those around it”. Unsurprisingly, this broad statement drew many questions from other intervenors given the range of the radionuclides being stored and in legacy and accident waste at Chalk River today, not to mention the future waste the facility plans to accept. 

“We keep hearing that the amount of long-lived radionuclides make up a small proportion of the total waste. This is simply not true. Tritium would be released in immense quantities” said Dr. Ole Hendrickson of the CCRCA. Comments like those from Mr. Dolinar in addition to those inaccurate statements about the amount of long-lived radionuclides led Dr. Hendrickson to question how thorough the CNL has been in the NSDF proposal, “it doesn’t provide great confidence in the work that’s been done to assess this facility,” he noted.

The Old Fort Williams Cottagers Association, questioned why a site so close to the Ottawa river-which supplies drinking water to millions- was chosen when alternative sites further away from culturally significant wetlands could have been selected instead. Since they are the first downstream community which would be affected given a radiation breach, the Association expressed deep concern over the potential impact to the environment and drinking water.

The Old Fort William Cottagers also supported concerns over the NSDF being placed on traditional unceded Algonquin Territory, noting their understanding that the rock formation itself holds incredible spiritual and cultural value to local Indigenous peoples.

 In the submission from Northwatch, representative Brennain Lloyd called on the CNL to strive for more protective standards: if I stand in the rain with an umbrella, I’m with the status quo, it’s good, but a tent would be even better at keeping me dry, but a snug house would be best. I want the CNL to strive and give us a snug house as a standard for this facility.

Throughout the day, intervenors and community members representing the public sought more clarity as to whether they could truly feel safe in their local environments should this facility be approved and proceed.

Tomorrow, the hearing will continue and you can tune in live online

Rebecca Waxman is a JD Candidate (2024) at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University. She has a strong interest in environmental and administrative law and is currently Co-Chair of Dalhousie’s Environmental Law Students’ Society. Rebecca’s summer role at CELA is generously funded by the Schulich Academic Excellence Internship program.

Adam Meadows is a JD Candidate (2023) at Osgoode Hall Law School. He has a particular focus in Indigenous and Environmental law, recently completing an Intensive Program in Indigenous Lands, Resources, and Government at Osgoode.