Friday, September 22, 2023

A longer view

As public hearings on the proposal to build a Near Surface Disposal Facility at Chalk River come to a close this week, there is much debate on whether siting a nuclear waste dump on the shores of the Ottawa River is a good idea.
What makes it a good idea is that this is where a nuclear research laboratory was located some 70 years ago because of the need for such facilities to have easy access to vast supplies of water.
As a result of that decision, the Chalk River site is where decades worth of radioactive waste material has accumulated, which makes disposing of it right there the most expedient, least-cost solution, compared with transporting wastes elsewhere for disposal.
And, as a result of the original decision to locate a nuclear facility on the Chalk River property, the site has already become contaminated with radioactive wastes, which renders it a preferable site for a long-term storage of those wastes, compared with contaminating another piece of the planet by building a facility somewhere else.
So, there are several reasons why the site at Chalk River would be a good place to build a nuclear waste disposal facility. Unfortunately, none of them has anything to do with the inherent requirements of the proposed facility itself, namely to contain radioactive wastes safely and securely for thousands of years.
In fact, quite the opposite.
Siting a near-surface nuclear waste disposal facility on water courses that interact with a nearby river presents major engineering challenges to prevent leakage and leaching, because anything that comes out of the dump will most certainly end up in the river.
All to say that something that happened long ago not only leaves us with a problem, but seems to be severely limiting our options for how we solve it.
From the beginning of the atomic age, the industry’s Achilles Heel has been the problem of disposing of nuclear wastes. It’s not insignificant. Some wastes are lethal for centuries and even millennia, well beyond what any homo sapiens can reasonably promise will be safely protected.
This led some to argue decades ago that it made no sense to proceed with nuclear development on the gamble that a solution would be found to the disposal problem. The memory of a nuclear industry PR person sent over in the early 1970s to assure members of the Pontiac Anti-Nuclear Action Committee (PANAC) that technology would one day provide the answer is as clear as if it happened yesterday.
But the disposal solution modern technology is offering is itself millennia old, essentially involving digging a hole in the ground and burying the unwanted material.
Just as putting the stuff in the ground by the Ottawa River is presented as the state-of-the-art option available to us now, we might well wonder what challenges and constrained options such a decision taken now will place on people living in years to come.
Once established as a repository for nuclear garbage, will it simply make sense down the road for waste from other facilities to be trucked over to the Ottawa Valley for disposal? Some believe that radioactive waste from the Whitehall nuclear facility north of Winnipeg is already making that journey.
The government is now attempting to parlay legitimate concern over our fossil fuel future into popular support for a future powered by nuclear energy, and is making plans to locate small nuclear generating stations all over the country to make that a reality. Will Chalk River become the obvious place to build them?
Despite the catastrophes known as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, the federal government’s efforts to develop Canada’s nuclear industry has pressed on and can be expected to continue to do so. Canada has sold nuclear reactors to occasional feuding neighbours India and Pakistan, as well as Romania and China, among others. We have been caught participating in an international uranium price-fixing and bid-rigging scheme.
Even now, the proposal to build the Chalk River facility on unceded First Nations territory over the objections of several First Nations is difficult to understand as anything other than cynical, given claims by the government, a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), to hold reconciliation among its highest priorities. (See Fair Comment on page five).
Expedience has a certain power in shaping human decisions. But what may serve the interests of a few today may not necessarily be in the best interests of many more who will have to live with the consequences, whether in the near or distant future.
Sometimes there are issues that require us to see beyond the immediate opportunity to solve a problem in the simplest way possible or to save a buck.
Sometimes there are issues that require us to take a longer view.

Charles Dickson


This article is available free to all subscribers to The Equity. If you are a subscriber, please enter your email address and password below.


If you are a subscriber but have not yet set up your online account, please contact Liz Draper at to do so.


To become a subscriber to The Equity, please use our Subscribe page or contact