On the Yellowcake Trail Part Four: Nuclear Waste Across Canada

Anna Tilman

girl playing with radioactive flowers

"Say it with flowers" by Otto Schade. Photo by Gary Knight CC, cropped from original

This article is part of a series – On the Yellowcake Trail – that tracks all aspects of uranium in Canada, from mining and milling to processing and use, throughout its eighty-year history. The series begins with the history of uranium in Canada, from its initial discovery to the rapid development of mines that placed Canada as the prominent world leader in uranium production. Each mine has a story and each story has a common thread and legacy.

download the complete series as a PDF

Waste not, want not

Nuclear waste is the Achilles’ heel of the nuclear industry. The wastes created along the yellowcake trail, be it from mining, processing, refining, or use, are a legacy for hundreds of thousands of years. Every single nuclear facility in the world is a waste site, whether it is operating or not.

By the mid 1970s, the neglect of radioactive waste was no longer acceptable to the public. Two main issues were front and centre.

  • Spent fuel: At the end of its useful life in a fission reactor, the “spent fuel” contains hundreds of different fission products, many of them not found in nature. It is so radioactive as to be lethal in seconds to anyone near to them.
  • Port Hope, Ontario: Radioactive contamination dates back to the 1930s, from refining radium and uranium ores and discarding the waste anywhere and everywhere around town.

So governments established task forces and panels to study these issues and find a solution. But after more than thirty years, the solutions offered are no solutions.

Radioactive waste is an inescapable by-product of nuclear fission in the nuclear power industry. To recycle or re-process this waste leads to even more liquid radioactive waste, and gives access to plutonium, that could be used for nuclear weapons.

Radioactive waste has been dumped in sinks or flushed down toilets, left in dirt ditches or landfills, incorporated into construction materials, and trucked through almost every town or hamlet in the nuclearised world. It is deadly in minuscule quantities. There is no way to eliminate it, and no way to keep it completely contained for a million years.

Radioactive waste  in Canada

Radioactive waste has been produced in Canada since the early 1930s, with the first radium mine at Port Radium in the Northwest Territories and refining the radium and uranium ores at Port Hope, Ontario.

Today, radioactive waste is generated from the full gamut of nuclear operations; uranium mining and milling, refining and conversion; nuclear fuel fabrication; nuclear power plants; nuclear research; the manufacture and use of radioisotopes, and decommissioning.

Radioactive waste is legally restricted to the nuclear industry. It is divided into three categories:

  • High-Level Radioactive Waste (HLRW) includes nuclear fuel waste, referred to as spent fuel, from CANDU power reactors, research reactors, and isotope production.
  • Low Level Radioactive Waste (LLRW) includes every form of radioactive waste except for spent fuel, and uranium mining and milling wastes.  It is a category of “exclusion.” LLRW is divided into “on-going waste” and “historic waste” from Canada’s early period of nuclear activity.
  • Uranium mining and milling wastes includes both mill tailings and waste rock.

All three categories are subject to federal control under the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC). The producers and owners of the waste are responsible for its management, except for “historic waste,” for which the federal government is responsible.

Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORM) comes from the processing of raw materials, particularly upstream oil and gas. These activities can cause naturally occurring radioactive materials such as thorium, uranium, potassium, to accumulate to elevated concentrations in waste streams. Because NORM is not part of nuclear energy production, it is exempt from federal control, except when transported, leaving the responsibility to the provinces and territories.

Nuclear power – historical background

In the 1960s, nuclear power mushroomed in Canada. Other countries, particularly the UK, the US, and France, were also on the bandwagon. At home, Atomic Energy Commission Ltd. (AECL) and its partners (Ontario Hydro and the private sector) built test reactors and Canada’s first commercial CANDU reactor.  From 1971 to 1993, 22 CANDU reactors started up, the first in Pickering, Ontario and the latest at Darlington, near Pickering.

Today, the nuclear picture has dimmed somewhat. The test reactors were shut down long ago, and the nuclear fleet is aging. Seventeen nuclear power plants are still running in Canada, three are being “refurbished,” and two are in limbo. Nuclear power projects have been delayed and AECL has lost its glitter. It is on the block to be sold, to anyone interested.

Spent fuel (High-Level Radioactive Waste)

Of all types of nuclear waste, the most dangerous is the spent fuel from nuclear reactors.  This “High Level Radioactive Waste” consists of over 200 deadly radioactive elements, such as plutonium, cesium, krypton, and iodine, as well as other highly toxic substances, including lead and arsenic.

Many of these radioactive substances have extremely long half-lives, guaranteeing their presence and that of their dangerous by-products for millions of years. This waste must be kept completely isolated from the environment essentially forever.

Apart from fission products in the reactor fuel, radioactive activation elements are formed wherever neutrons impact on any other material nearby. With time, a nuclear plant becomes unstable and is radioactive waste.

The fuel bundles last  from one to two years, after which they are removed from the reactor by remote control to water-filled pools for about 10 years, and then to dry storage containers. All spent fuel is stored at the reactor site. These storage methods are not necessarily reliable beyond several hundred years, even ignoring societal break-down.

The final solution – the “AECL Concept”

In the wake of rising public concern over radioactive waste, a solution was needed for storing this dangerous waste. The “solution” needed to be packaged and sold as safe and long-term to assuage public concerns. In 1977 AECL, along with its industry and government partners developed a concept for the ultimate disposal of the spent fuel.

The concept was naively simplistic – bury all of the spent fuel in an underground repository deep in the Canadian Shield, making it safe “forever,” i.e., for 500 years. The site would be closed and essentially abandoned.

For more than two decades research and discussion have focussed on the AECL concept.

In 2002, the federal government established the Nuclear Waste Management Office (NWMO), putting the industry in charge, contrary to the Seaborn Panel’s recommendation for an agency at “arms length” from the industry.

The NWMO is now approaching communities that might be interested in being a host site, to alleviate economic and social problems.

So far one community, Ignace, Ontario, (between Thunder Bay and Kenora), has expressed some interest, although that interest is not fully shared by all residents.


Problems with containment are known. For example,

  • Radioactive iodines are highly reactive gaseous fission products. Over time, they can cause corrosion in the metal cladding of the bundles.
  • “Corrosion-resistant” copper, as proposed for containers to enclose the fuel bundles, may not be corrosion resistant. Decay has been found in copper artefacts from an old warship raised from the Stockholm Harbour.

A material is yet to be discovered that is impervious to all chemical and radiological assaults for a million years.

By the end of 2007, Canadian nuclear power reactors had produced close to 2 million bundles of spent fuel. If no new reactors are built, and the existing facilities close as scheduled, the number of used fuel bundles is projected to be around 5.2 million by 2050.

Low-Level Waste – the catch-all category

Low Level Radioactive Waste can range from virtually innocuous to highly hazardous for a long time. It includes contaminated materials from cleaning and maintenance and contaminated soils, to more hazardous waste such as used reactor core material.

The more radioactive portion of LLRW is called Intermediate-Level Radioactive Waste (ILRW). It requires special shielding, while the lower levels are considered safe to handle.

Currently, there is no facility in Canada for the long-term management of L&ILRW, although efforts are underway to establish such a site.

Nuclear power plants and Low-Level Waste

Hydro Quebec and New Brunswick Power store all of their L&ILRW on site.

Ontario’s nuclear plants store all their LLRW at the Western Waste Management Facility (WWMF), operated by Ontario Power Generation (OPG). This facility is located at the Bruce Nuclear Complex on Lake Huron in Kincardine, about 250 kilometres northwest of Toronto.  The Complex is one of the largest combined nuclear power sites in the world.

The WWMF consists of an incineration plant (the only facility of its kind in Canada), storage sites for low and medium level waste, and a dry storage facility for spent fuel from the Bruce power plants.

Most of the lower level radioactive waste is incinerated. The resulting ash and the rest of the waste are stored in an above-ground concrete warehouse. The more hazardous waste is buried.

The WWMF may be destined to become the site of a proposed Deep Geologic Repository (DGR) for the long-term storage of L&ILRW for Ontario’s power plants.

The proposed DGR would be 680 metres underneath the Bruce site and store 160,000 cubic metres (m3) of L&ILRW.  All of the current waste, about 70,000 m3, would be retrieved and placed in this new facility.

The burning question is how the new facility will deal with waste accumulating from the operation of the reactors and from decommissioning. The answer may well lie in incineration, dispersing radioactive material into the environment.

The plan awaits final approval.

Chalk river laboratories

Much of the early work at the Chalk River Laboratories (CRL) was tied to WWII and the Cold War-era fuel processing experiments. Every possible type of waste is stored at Chalk River, from used spent fuel to liquid HLRW and LLRW. About 380,000 m3 of contaminated soils are a result of AECL’s research, as well as from historic waste cleanups at several sites, 200,000 m3 from Port Hope alone. The total waste L&ILRW inventory to the end of 2007 for “research and development” is in the order of 500,000 m3.

The 52-year old medical isotope-producing reactor at Chalk River has been leaking tritium-laced water into the Ottawa River. It is now shut down. So far, repairs to this incontinent reactor have failed.

LLRW from radioisotope production at other facilities is disposed of down the drain if the radioisotopes decay in minutes. If longer lasting, the waste is sent to Chalk River.

Historic waste

The trail of historic waste goes back to the early 1930s, with the discovery of radium and uranium ore at Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories and refining at Port Hope, Ontario.  It also resulted from industrial practices using radium (e.g., in watch dials) and the “inadvertent” use of radioactive waste in construction and fill.

Current estimates for historic waste are in the order of 1,750,000 m3, the largest component of LLRW.

“Managing” historic waste comes down to removing it from its original site and storing it elsewhere, either nearby or in Chalk River. The original site is considered “remediated,” but the waste remains.

About 95% of the known historic waste is in the Port Hope area. Other known sites are:

  • Along the Northern Transport Route where spills occurred as uranium and radium ore were shipped 2200 kilometres from Great Bear to Fort McMurray,
  • Surrey, BC where a smelting operation used niobium ore containing radioactive thorium, and
  • Toronto, Ontario where incineration and processing radium-contaminated scrap metal occurred in the 1940s.

Port Hope – a legend and a lesson

An estimated 1.75 million m3 of soil contaminated with radioactive material, heavy metals and chemical toxins are found in and around Port Hope, specifically the municipalities of Port Hope and Clarington nearby. This contamination is a result of decades of activities dating back to 1932, with the first radium and later uranium refining facilities.

Used building materials contaminated with highly radioactive materials were given away by the government to anyone who wanted them and used in homes and other buildings throughout Port Hope.

By the mid 1970s, the degree of contamination throughout the community became public knowledge.  Contamination was discovered in roadbeds, ravines and parks, the public beach, the harbour, school grounds and in the yards of many of Port Hope’s 16,000 residents.

Controversy over health impacts abounds. Health Canada has not found cause for concern, but other studies have found otherwise. Twenty-five years of deliberations were held on what to do with the waste. Attempts to locate a willing community to “host” the Port Hope Area waste failed. Finally, on October 16, 2009, a “solution” was found – the waste is to be stored locally.

Digging up over 1.2 million cubic metres of radioactive contaminated soil in Port Hope is a major and potentially very hazardous operation. Most of the waste lies beneath homes and the harbour. Any excavation could lead radioactive material, such as radon and other carcinogenic matter, to become airborne and spread hundreds of kilometres.

A similar but less complex cleanup in Ohio cost $4.4 billion. Of the initial $260 million committed by the federal government, $110 million has been spoken for. It won’t be known until 2011 whether the remaining $150 million will cover the full cost.

The nuclearized world at a glance

More than 50 years after the first commercial nuclear power plants went operational in the United Kingdom and the United States, the world’s 270,000 tonnes of spent fuel remain in limbo. Despite decades of effort, no country in the world has yet found, approved, or implemented a publicly acceptable solution, including deep geological disposal, for “safely” storing its spent nuclear fuel.

For over twenty years, a repository deep beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada was to be the one site in the United States to store all of its spent nuclear fuel. But that proposal has just recently been withdrawn.  Only two active repository projects are left, one is in Finland in the Baltic Sea, still awaiting government approval, and the other in Sweden, but less advanced. Meanwhile, in February President Obama announced $8.3 billion in loan guarantees to build the first US nuclear power plant in nearly three decades.

The Chernobyl catastrophe in 1986 is the worst nuclear power plant disaster in history, causing thousands of deaths and leaving a highly radioactive uninhabitable wasteland. Over 500,000 men were brought in for the “clean-up” immediately after the explosions at the reactor. The radiation was so intense that even the robots malfunctioned.

The sarcophagus built to “cover” the reactor was hastily put together. Now, almost twenty-five years after the disaster, it is crumbling and liable to collapse. Portions of the core of the reactor are still exposed to the elements. In 1997, the G7 countries pledged funds toward a new sarcophagus, but after thirteen years mired in political turmoil and corruption, the estimated costs have doubled and the project has not even begun.

Nuclear waste is deadly in minuscule quantities. A single radioactive atom lodged in the lung can cause lung cancer. There is no way to eliminate it, and no way to keep it completely contained for a million years so that no atoms can escape. The only real solution is to not produce it in the first place. The only way to win the nuclear game is to not play it.

Anna Tilman is a toxics researcher and a member of the Board of the International Institute of Concern for Public Health

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