A sign outside the reactor at the Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) nuclear facility in Chalk River, Ontario (taken 2007)

A sign outside the reactor at the Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) nuclear facility in Chalk River, Ontario (taken 2007)

OTTAWA Enough nuclear waste to fill more than a hundred Olympic-sized swimming pools could be buried in an underground chamber near the Ottawa River, upstream from Parliament Hill and about a million residents of the nation’s capital.

The federal government is eyeing the site of the Chalk River nuclear reactor, 160 kilometres northwest of Ottawa, as a radioactive waste site.

Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. says 267,000 cubic metres of low- and medium-grade nuclear waste is now stored above-ground in steel containers at the Chalk River site. The amount of radioactive material is expected to grow to 360,000 cubic metres by 2100. That’s enough debris to fill 106 Olympic swimming pools now, and 144 by the end of the century.

Government-owned AECL is looking at building an enormous underground repository to bury the detritus of six decades of nuclear testing at the Chalk River site. The cavernous compound would consist of shafts, access tunnels and as many as 223 storage rooms for the radioactive waste.

A document posted recently on a website that advertises government contracts outlines the proposal.

“Atomic Energy of Canada Limited is investigating the suitability of the Chalk River laboratories site for hosting a geologic waste management facility as part of the Nuclear Legacy Liabilities Program funded through Natural Resources Canada,” the document says.

“The (geologic waste management facility) is envisioned to be an underground engineered-geological repository consisting of shafts, access tunnels and emplacement caverns located at a nominal depth of 500 to 1,000 metres in the bedrock at the (Chalk River laboratories) site.”

Site studied for 6 years

AECL began looking at the Chalk River site as a nuclear burial ground six years ago. While the government has not yet decided where to bury the radioactive waste, Chalk River holds promise.

“No features have been found to disqualify the bedrock of the Chalk River laboratories site from hosting a GWMF,” the document says.

“The bedrock of the Chalk River laboratories site below a depth of 400 to 500 metres appears to have a good potential to safely host a GWMF for Chalk River laboratories’ (low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste) although the work to date is premature in nature.

“The many unknowns and uncertainties ... will need to be addressed as part of any future detailed siting-characterization process, if the government of Canada decides to initiate such a process.”

Ottawa Riverkeeper, a local conservation group, meets regularly with AECL to talk about the health and safety of the waterway. The group’s executive director, Meredith Brown, said there is always some chance radioactive material could leak into the Ottawa River.

“It’s always a concern,” Brown said.

“There’s always a chance (of a leak). I guess it depends largely on how they build it, right? I mean, obviously they’re going to have to built it to handle any seismic activity in the area. I take it that they know what they’re doing in that respect.”

Site in Earthquake zone

The proposed site is in the Western Quebec seismic zone, an earthquake belt that surrounds the Ottawa Valley from Montreal to the town of Temiscaming, Que., as well as the Laurentian mountains and parts of Eastern Ontario.

The AECL contract document notes the majority earthquakes in the area are very small, measuring between 2.0 and 4.5 in magnitude on the Richter scale.

However, the Natural Resources Department’s website says there have been at least three significant earthquakes there in the past. The most powerful occurred in 1935, when an earthquake measuring 6.2 on the Richter scale shook the Temiscaming area.

No one from AECL was available for an interview.

In an emailed statement, the Crown corporation said it would not make any decisions about where to store the waste without a full environmental assessment and public consultation.

“This is the first step in a long process designed to find a safe location for the long-term storage of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste, which is already located at the Chalk River site,” the statement said.

“No decisions have been made by the Government to locate such a facility to (Chalk River laboratories); this (request-for-proposals) is a preliminary step to assess whether the site warrants continued consideration.

“AECL has completed a number of studies that investigate options for the long-term management of the legacy radioactive waste stored at the Chalk River site. AECL will continue to contribute expertise to support government decision-making regarding the infrastructure required to manage this waste inventory.”

The Crown corporation has long been a headache for successive federal governments. AECL has cost Canadian taxpayers billions of dollars and faced major cost overruns at key projects in recent years while struggling to find a buyer.

In May 2009, the Conservative government announced plans to spin off AECL’s commercial reactor business from its research division. The announcement coincided with what turned into a lengthy shutdown of the company’s Chalk River research reactor, which caused a worldwide shortage of the medical isotopes used to detect cancer and heart ailments.

The National Research Universal reactor was down for 15 months. There were times when it looked like the half-century-old reactor might never return to service.

An earlier shutdown in late 2007 also strained the global isotope supply and ended only after Parliament voted to bypass the nuclear safety regulator’s closure order.

The government finally sold AECL’s Candu nuclear reactor business to SNC-Lavalin in October for $15 million.

Since the sale of the reactor business, AECL has focused on its nuclear laboratories division, mainly in Chalk River and Pinawa, Man. The division, which has a staff of more than 3,000, manages nuclear waste, conducts research and produces medical isotopes.

The Canadian Press