Canada’s nuclear regulator authorises construction of waste facility

11 January 2024

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) has amended the nuclear research and test establishment operating licence held by Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) for Chalk River Laboratories (CRL). The 169-page amendment authorises the construction of a near surface disposal facility (NSDF) on the CRL site, in Deep River, Ontario, and on the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabeg peoples.

Before making its licensing decision under the Nuclear Safety & Control Act (NSCA), the Commission concluded that, under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012, the NSDF Project is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects. This is conditional on CNL’s implementation of all proposed mitigation and follow-up monitoring measures, including continued engagement with Indigenous Nations and communities and environmental monitoring to verify the predictions of the environmental assessment (EA). CNSC also concluded that the design of the NSDF Project is robust, supported by a strong safety case, able to meet its required design life, and sufficient to withstand severe weather events, seismic activity, and the effects of climate change.

The Commission said it carefully considered all submissions and perspectives received throughout the multi-year regulatory review and hearing process, which began in 2016. In making its EA decision, CNSC concluded that the NSDF Project protects human health and the environment, including the Ottawa River, and that the proposed site is an acceptable and safe location for the NSDF Project. The Commission found that the site selection and NSDF design meet International Atomic Energy Agency standards.

The amended nuclear research and test establishment operating licence remains valid until March 31, 2028. It includes two new conditions that require CNL to implement licensing regulatory actions and EA regulatory commitments for the NSDF Project. CNSC's decision applies only to the construction of the NSDF Project. CNL will be required to apply for a separate licence to operate the facility.

CNL has been authorised to construct the NSDF to dispose of low-level radioactive waste at the CRL site. Low-level radioactive waste includes contaminated building materials, soils, and operational equipment such as, protective shoe covers, clothing, rags, mops, equipment and tools.

The NSDF will be a mound built at near-surface level, consisting of multiple disposal cells made of systems that cover the base and top of each cell, collect leachate, detect leaks, and monitor the surrounding environment. The final cover will be installed on each cell once the cell is full. The total capacity of phase 1 (cells 1-6) will be 525,000 cubic metres and phase 2 (cells 7-10) 475,000 cubic metres, for a total capacity of 1m cubic metres. The facility will have an expected operating life of at least 50 years. The NSDF Project location is entirely within the licensed boundary of CRL site and is situated 1.1 km from the Ottawa River, on a bedrock ridge that slopes away from the river.

As to environmental monitoring, CNSC is directly addressing concerns. More than 50 specialised scientific and technical experts, including geoscientists and structural engineers – at the CNSC and across government – have carefully reviewed all details of the proposal. This examination includes analysing proposed protective materials, studying water flows and evaluating structural integrity, in order to ensure the proposed NSDF would meet Canada’s environmental standards.

Before making its decision, CNSC conducted an environmental and licensing technical assessment of the proposal including a two-part public hearing. The first part, held virtually in February 2022, included presentations by CNSC staff and CNL. Interventions submitted by the public and by Indigenous Nations and communities were heard at the second part of the hearing held in May and June 2022.

More than CAD190,000 ($142,000) in financial assistance was approved to support the participation of 11 applicants in the Commission hearing process. Indigenous Nations and communities who made oral submissions had the option to make final oral submissions at a hearing in 2023.

CNSC is a quasi-judicial administrative tribunal set up “at arm’s length” from government, independent from any political, government or private sector influence. It makes decisions with respect to regulating nuclear safety, including licensing decisions, and is also independent of CNSC staff. CRL is owned by the federal Crown corporation Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL). As the licensee, CNL operates the site under a government-owned, contractor-operated model.

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