Deep discussion

Officials propose to entomb Pinawa's old nuclear reactor


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PINE FALLS — The company charged with decommissioning the nuclear reactor at Whiteshell Laboratories near Pinawa wants to leave it in the ground and backfill it with concrete.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/12/2016 (2180 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

PINE FALLS — The company charged with decommissioning the nuclear reactor at Whiteshell Laboratories near Pinawa wants to leave it in the ground and backfill it with concrete.

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) is proposing to entomb Whiteshell Reactor #1 (WR-1), rather than have it disassembled and removed from the 11,000-acre site near Pinawa in the Canadian Shield.

It would become the first nuclear reactor in Canada to be disposed of by burial. The plan is to demolish surface buildings but leave the reactor in its five-storey-deep basement and seal it with concrete grout.

DAVE JOHNSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES A mines supervisor tours a tunnel at the plant in 1986.

“This reactor is suitable (for entombment) because it’s relatively small,” said Brian Wilcox, CNL director of project delivery, at an open house in Pine Falls Thursday night. CNL has been unveiling the plan at open houses in eastern Manitoba since August.

The new plan would speed up the decommissioning process, with completion by 2024. The reactor site, which is like a small village with about a dozen buildings and at least 60,000 square feet of building space, would be razed and landscaped. Only a fenced-off grassy mound, 40 metres by 40 metres, beneath which the reactor is stored, would remain.

The nuclear reactor last operated in 1985, and has been kept in temporary storage ever since. It was used to help develop Candu reactors, and to study waste management of radioactive water and deep geological disposal of radioactive material. Decommissioning of the reactor began in 2003.

Ottawa contracted nuclear energy laboratories such as Whiteshell Laboratories to CNL during the final days of the Harper government in September 2015. The arrangement is government-owned, contractor-operated, a model used for the nuclear energy industry in both the United States and United Kingdom.

Virtually all of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. employees were transferred to CNL, with the idea that rigours of private enterprise could provide better management.

Wilcox conceded entombment was not the original plan. The original plan was to dismantle and remove WR-1 and its related infrastructure. A possible site for storage was the nuclear site at Chalk River Laboratories in Ontario, but a storage structure would have to be built there.

CNL said entombing the site is a safer option. There is greater risk of contamination of workers and the environment from disassembling, transporting and disposing of the reactor and radioactive material in a new location.

Moving the reactor would also be more expensive. Wilcox said complete removal of WR-1 and radioactive material and storing it elsewhere would cost four times as much as entombment, although he could not produce actual figures.

Artist rendering What the facility would look like after being filled with concrete.

Only two people showed up at CNL’s open house in Pine Falls, as it was on the same night as the community supper where $2 bought a turkey dinner. The supper started six years ago as a show of solidarity when the pulp and paper mill closed.

CNL promised to hold another meeting.

Lisa Aitkin, whose farm is about five kilometres from the AECL site, questioned the life span of the encasement versus the radioactive material it encloses. CNL said the concrete monolith could last up to 1,300 years.

However, it does not yet have figures for how long the reactor and radioactive materials would remain dangerous. That is still being studied and will be presented next spring in another round of public meetings.

Aitkin, who attended two of the open houses but not the one in Pine Falls, would like to see an open house in Winnipeg. After all, she said, the Winnipeg River is within metres of the site “and it feeds into Lake Winnipeg.” Many Winnipeggers have cottages on the lake.

The Whiteshell Laboratories site extends to the edge of the Winnipeg River, with the nuclear reactor about 500 metres away, CNL officials said. The groundwater runs through the Whiteshell Laboratories site into the Winnipeg River.

Wilcox said CNL is “talking about” possibly holding an open house in Winnipeg.

Beverly Dube, mayor of Powerview-Pine Falls, noted her community is downstream from Pinawa on the Winnipeg River.

Artist rendering An artist’s rendering of Whiteshell Laboratories near Pinawa provided by Canadian Nuclear Laboratories. The company says entombing the site would be safer than disassembling and moving it.

She said people are just starting to process the information.

“We’ve lived with this for how many years, with the work (AECL) did before. People have always expressed concerns of what could have occurred all these decades,” she said.

The first nuclear reactor to be encased in concrete was in Hallam, Neb., in 1967-68. There are at least eight sites in the world using the method, mostly in the United States but also in Russia, Switzerland and Puerto Rico.

CNL’s open houses are part of its preparation for an environmental impact statement, to be completed next summer. It would still have to undergo an environmental assessment, including public hearings run by an independent board.

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