Chalk River Labs. Image Source: National Research Council via Capital News Online.
Chalk River Labs, Ontario. Tucked away on the Ottawa River, near the small town of the same name in the Laurentian Hills (a range that becomes the Adirondacks as you cross the US border), this nuclear research facility sits 180 kilometres (110 miles) north-west of the country's capital. Established in 1944, the lab was one of the places where CANDU reactor technology was developed. The site fostered the work of two Nobel prize winners (Brockhouse and Cockcroft). It has long supplied most of the world's medical isotopes. It is also the location of the worst nuclear leaks in Canadian history. The largest of these ran at level 5, on par with the Three Mile Island incident in Pennsylvania. Like many of these places, the name of the lab stirs a brooding uneasiness in the local psyche. The lab sits in the Western Quebec Seismic Zone, where the largest recorded earthquake was likely an 8 on the Mercalli scale (roughly 7 or larger on the Richter scale).
On 28 March 1974, the Members of the Ontario Legislature debated the safety of Chalk River, asking the government about the dangers of accidents and terrorism at nuclear plants. Comments from MPP Frederick A. Burr (Sandwich-Riverside) (Ontario Legislature Hansard pp. 502-505) contain several eye-opening statements, the relevance of which go well beyond Chalk River:
We come then to the possibility of a major accident at a nuclear plant. Keep in mind that the nuclear fission promoters plan in the next 30 years 100 new nuclear power plants in Canada — all the size of the one at Pickering.
The Atomic Energy Commission in the United States plants to license about 1,000 large nuclear power plants in the next 30 years, a plan that would produce the radioactive equivalent of one million Hiroshima bombs every year — plus 600,000 lbs of plutonium 239 annually. Just one pound of plutonium — which has a half life of 24,360 years —escaping into the environment and inhaled eventually by human beings, could cause several billion cases of lung cancer.
Is it any wonder that many atomic scientists are appalled by the consequences of unsuccessful containment of radioactivity? Dr. Hannes Alfven, the 1970 Nobel laureate for physics, says: "In a full-scale fission programme, the radioactive waste will soon become so enormous that a total poisoning of our planet is possible". That is in the bulletin of the Atomic Scientist of September, 1971.
Soon afterwards, in the December, 1971, issue of Nuclear News, the director of the AEC's Oak Ridge national laboratory, Dr. Alvin Weinberg, said: "Technical deficiencies in a plutonium economy, if unremediable, could mean catastrophe for the human race."
In Science, Feb. 25, 1972, the former director of the AEC's Argonne National Laboratory, Dr. Albert Crewe, after discussion of the medical foresight, the engineering skill and the administrative controls required by nuclear technology, summarized as follows: "Should any of these three lines of defence fail, then the entire population of the world would be in serious danger."
Mr. Speaker, we spank little children for plaving with matches. What should we do to those human beings who are foisting upon us the unthinkable hazards of nuclear power? Let us return to the consideration of the possibilities of a major accident at a nuclear plant as described by Gordon Edwards, a mathematician at the University of British Columbia, to whom I am indebted for this and some other sections of my remarks. He says: A single, relatively small, 100 megawatt reactor, after one year of operation contains more radioactive cesium, strontium and iodine than all the nuclear weapon tests ever conducted.
In his famous Brookhaven report of 1957, he says: The AEC indicated what the results of a single major accident at a relatively small reactor 40 miles from a city might be: 3,000 to 4,000 deaths immediately from radiation poisoning; 50,000 deaths later on from radiation-induced injuries; up to 150 square miles of land contaminated— not to mention contamination of water supplies and evacuation of half a million people.
The Brookhaven report goes on to say that the probability of such an accident occurring is so low as to be almost inconceivable. This is a most unscientific statement, as the probability of most accidents is so low as to be almost zero.
Gordon Edwards asked: How do you compute the probability of an accident? Do you include or do you exclude the possibility of sabotage? Do you include the possibility of war? Do you exclude the possibility of an undeclared war? What would happen if an old-fashioned conventional bomb were dropped on a reactor? Do you include the possibility of an airplane crashing into a reactor? Remember, Pickering is going to be the site of a huge airport as well as the site of the huge reactor. As recently as November, 1972, we witnessed the spectacle of a band of hijackers threatening to crash a plane into a nuclear installation at Oak Ridge.
As a matter of fact, Mr. Speaker, the nuclear installation was evacuated but the hijackers changed their minds for which we should all be very thankful. But it could happen accidentally, too.
All this does not begin to consider the very real possibility of a large industrial accident occurring within the plant as a result of mechanical and/or human failure. Accidents have occurred at Chalk River, resulting in the release of 10,000 curies of fission products; at the Enrico Fermi plant between Toledo and Detroit leading to a partial meltdown of the core and fears of explosion; and at the Windscale plant in Great Britain which spewed out vast quantities of radioactive debris; and at others.
In 1970 there was a close call at the huge Hanford reactor and a failure at the Oak Ridge research reactor. The latter involved an almost imbelievable combination of three separate human errors, two installation errors and three design errors. According to my mathematics, Mr. Speaker, that is really eight human errors.
There is another danger after the fuel has served its purpose — the very serious problem of waste disposal. Where this involves transportation to a disposal site, we have the eventual, inevitable railway or highway accident to face. Another problem is that plutonium, the essential ingredient for making atom bombs inexpensively, will almost certainly become a black market item. When one thinks of the possibilities for terrorists and demented persons, this one reason alone should force the abandonment of the entire nuclear programme involving plutonium 239.
On Oct. 10, 1972, Sen. Mike Gravel, who is leading the call for a nuclear moratorium in the United States, summed up the matter briefly as follows: I would point out that nuclear safety involves far more than just the reactors. Necessarily involved are the nuclear fuel reprocessing plants; nuclear waste storage and burial practices; radioactive transport practices; anti-sabotage measures; plutonium processing hazards; routine leakage of radioactive poisons all along the line; plutonium diversion prospects; and the preservation of national security.
When the radioactive fission products and plutonium are shipped out of the power plants where they are produced, nuclear safety problems spread far and wide. Man cannot get rid of long-lived radioactivity once he has created it. He can move it around but it will always be somewhere. Some of it will have to be kept out of the environment for more than 100,000 years.
Because humans are fallible, careless and sometimes demented (and he might have added, Mr. Speaker, venal, malicious and stupid) it is unreasonable to assume that we shall achieve a miraculous 99.99 per cent success in the radioactive containment operation, year in and year out. Furthermore it is reckless to count on some special immunity for nuclear facilities when it comes to earthquakes, sabotage or war.
Because the literature handed out by the Canadian Nuclear Association and the public relations division of Ontario Hydro is prepared by persons skilled in public relations —which often means in deceiving people or in brainwashing the public — it is not surprising that the publication handed out in Pickering entitled "Nuclear Power and Our Environment in Canada" should give scarcely a hint of the immense dangers involved. Consider page 12 where we find: One Canadian scientist's reply to the question, "Is it safe to develop nuclear power?" was, "Safer than not developing it." He meant that if we do not use nuclear energy we will have to use other means to provide power and thus compound our pollution problem.
Perhaps the PR men are not really dishonest; perhaps, in fact probably, they are just ignorant of the several other pollution-free methods of harnessing energy without depleting our unrenewable, polluting, fossil fuel resources. Because of their ignoring the alternative forms of energy, they are preparing the public to support politically the dangerous and irrational pohcies of the relatively few people who have now become the nuclear establishment. The PR men's job is to build prestige for the nuclear establishment.
Report No. 3 of Task Force Hydro goes about this task with great vigour, especially in the name-dropping passages from pages 17 to 28. First of all it blithely assumes that nuclear power is the only alternative to fossil fuel, and having killed off all the good guys — that is by eliminating from its terms of reference the genuinely clean and perpetually renewable forms of energy power, namely, solar, wind, wood, geothermal sea-thermal, tidal and organic methane — it berates the present obvious air polluting disadvantages of fossil fuel power plants and touts, all-out, the nuclear power plant. In other words, it carries out a mock battle with the other bad guys — the fossil fuels — and ignores the existence of the really good guys whom I have listed.
In its enthusiasm, report No. 3 fails to mention the huge quantities of energy needed to support the whole nuclear reactor scheme itself, the energy needed to mine uranium, the energy needed to refine uranium, the energy needed to produce heavy water, the energy required in reprocessing spent fuel, the energy required to build the nuclear reactors and to operate the generators, the energy required to transport spent fuel, and the energy- required to entomb forever the radioactive wastes. ...
Task Force Hydro does take a brief look at the issue of radioactivity. Paragraph 5 reveals the absurdity of attempting to establish a so-called "safe level" of radiation. The International Commission on Radiological Protection has merely reached a consensus on a limit it is willing to recommend. The last sentence of the paragraph is an honest assessment — as far as it goes. And I quote: It should be noted, however, that since there is in effect no safe [in italics] threshold of radiation, there is an inherent difficulty in establishing protection standards.
That's what it says. To be completely honest, the sentence should have added the words, "and still remaining in the nuclear reactor business."
So I shall repeat the basic sentence as amended to give the completely honest assessment. "Since there is in effect no safe [italicsl threshold of radiation, there is an inherent difficulty in es.tablishing protection standards and still remaining in the nuclear reactor business.'
The propaganda sheet continues, "Is it safe?" and answers: Nuclear power reactors have been in operation in the United States and Britain since the 1950s and in Canada since 1962. There has not been one single, fatal accident in any of them.
Now actually, an Idaho reactor exploded in 1961, killing three workers and discharging radioactivity into the atmosphere. Fortunately for others, the reactor was in an unpopulated part of the state. On Dec. 13, 1950, the Chalk River plant had an accident with an explosion, killing one and injuring five others. Only a small amount of material was involved in the explosion. According to reports, and I quote: "Only through good luck, 45,000 lb of the same material in an adjacent room did not detonate."
On Dec. 12, 1952, the NRX reactor at Chalk River suffered a "power surge" accident. Very high radiation was involved for workers — between 20 and 100 roentgens an hour. An engineering magazine said at the time: If 100 people were to receive a total body radiation of 400 roentgens, at least 50 would definitely have received a lethal dose. For this reason the normal health tolerance is limited to 300 milliroentgens per week per employee. However, had we attempted to apply this standard when working on this accident, we would have very quickly run out of manpower. One wonders about the health status of these workers now, 21 years later.
On May 23, 1958, an NRU reactor at Chalk River suffered what was called a "power burst" as a result of a fuel rod failure. Very wide contamination occurred inside the plant. It took 600 men, including men from the armed forces, over two months to clean it up. Mr. G. C. Laurence, former member of the Atomic Energy Control Board, said it was very fortunate that no one was hurt or suffered an overdose of radiation in that accident. I quote: The material damage, however, was an impressive reminder of the latent energy and of the radioactive substances that could be released by accident. I was chairman of a small committee that inquired into the causes of that accident and it made me very dissatisfied with the reactor safety philosophy that prevailed then.
On May 3, 1973, the Wall Street Journal referred to a recent accident at the Virginia Electric Power Co. atomic plant in which two men were killed. This "recent" accident may be the same one that took place at the Surrey Plant in Virginia in July, 1972. On that occasion, two workmen were inspecting sets of malfunctioning valves when yet another valve exploded and killed them.
In 1998, the government approved the establishment of an emergency radio service to broadcast an alarm in the event of a major disaster at Chalk River (see the decision here). There is a timeline of Chalk River events here.So the statement, Mr. Speaker, that there has not been a single fatal accident at nuclear power reactors in the United States, Britain or Canada is simply not true. This propaganda, which I picked up at Information Canada last week, should be withdrawn. It deceives the public, as of course it is intended to do. As long as the public thinks that nuclear power is safe and clean, the public will accept it. When the public realizes that it has been deceived, that may be another story. This government must come clean with the public.
First Chalk River Incident (12 December 1952)
The Chalk River reactor was not set up as a power plant, although it was used to investigate the development of nuclear power. Conceived as a plutonium generator, Chalk River research initially involved the refinement of materials for nuclear weapons during World War II. On 22 July 1947, the experimental 42-megawatt reactor, NRX, one of the most powerful research reactors in the world, opened. On 12-13 December 1952, shutoff failure combined with error led to hydrogen explosions, damage to the core, rods being exposed to the air, and a partial meltdown, which resulted in radiated water leaking into the basement of the reactor until it was one metre deep. It was collected and pumped to a sandy area where it could cool and the radiation dissipate. Wiki:
The fission products from approximately 30 kg of uranium were released through the reactor stack. Irradiated light-water coolant leaked from the damaged coolant circuit into the reactor building; some 4,000 cubic meters were pumped via pipeline to a disposal area to avoid contamination of the Ottawa River.Former President Jimmy Carter was in charge of the US Navy team sent to assist in cleanup operations, which took several months. This incident was ranked level 5 on the Nuclear Event Scale. The NRX reactor was decommissioned in 1992.
Second Chalk River Incident (24 May 1958)
In the 1950s, Canada developed medical isotopes by creating atoms with extra neutrons, first in the Chalk River NRX reactor, then in the more advanced and powerful National Research Universal reactor, also at Chalk River. The latter was activated in 1957. These isotopes are used in the treatment of cancer worldwide. But the newer NRU reactor soon suffered its own accident.
Wiki: "Due to inadequate cooling a damaged uranium fuel rod caught fire and was torn in two as it was being removed from the core at the NRU reactor. The fire was extinguished, but not before radioactive combustion products contaminated the interior of the reactor building and, to a lesser degree, an area surrounding the laboratory site. Over 600 people were employed in the clean-up."
The NRU reactor went back into operation in August 1958.2005 Incident
A core meltdown at the NRU reactor was narrowly averted 2005. According to Bellona:
2007 Shutdown and ReopeningA defective vaporising valve was named as the reason of the accident. According to the documentation the valve had not been tested since 1972. The reactor was launched back in 1957 and its lifetime can be considered critical at the moment. Earlier the nuclear safety regulators pointed out to the inappropriate storage of the radioactive materials at Chalk River, where cobalt, cesium-137 and mercury was damped to the trenches without decontamination, ITAR-TASS reported.
In November 2007, the NRU reactor was shut down for routine maintenance. The cause for the shutdown was not a leak, but a discrepancy between regulation codes and the functioning of the reactor. The result was a worldwide shortage of medical isotopes and a Canadian political standoff. This case reveals how complicated and entangled the private and public administration of nuclear materials and energy can be.
Federal Government fired the head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (January 2008). Video Source: CBC via Youtube.
The problems at Chalk River have long been obscured by the back and forth debates of Canadian politics and Canada's murky world of political appointments in semi-independent government agencies. The Conservatives accused nuclear watchdogs appointed under the former Liberal government of using Chalk River as a talking point and engendering a political crisis when they shut down the NRU reactor due to safety concerns relating to the plant's ability to withstand a major earthquake. The closure created a worldwide shortage of medical isotopes and left the Conservative government facing international criticism.
In December 2007, the House of Commons overruled the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and forced the plant to start up again, implying that the closure was ordered on political grounds, not due to safety concerns. The Prime Minister fired Linda Keen, the head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission hours before she was due to testify before a parliamentary commission. This prompted a storm in the media and the House of Commons over the next two years over the precise safety concerns in the plant and the need to produce medical isotopes. Everyone has a different story.
Liberal Opposition MP David McGuinty questioning Canadian Government about Chalk River leaks. February 2009. Video Source: Youtube.
In December 2008, the reactor suffered small leaks, although the details are sketchy:
On Friday evening, December 5, 2008, AECL discovered a very small heavy water leak that was confined to the NRU. AECL reported the event to the CNSC on Saturday, December 6, 2008. Any water resulting from the leak was placed in storage tanks before being sent to the Waste Treatment Centre at the Chalk River Laboratories. This leak has stopped and has not reoccurred. There was evaporation of some heavy water resulting in a small release of tritium through normal ventilation which was well below regulatory limits.
Atomic Energy of Canada officials referred to the leak as being due to "unanticipated technical challenges." A Canoe.ca report (27 January 2009) continues:
An internal report to federal nuclear regulators shows radioactive tritium was released into the air during the incident at the Chalk River reactor on Dec. 5.
Atomic Energy of Canada officials running the 51-year-old reactor reported they managed to contain another 800 litres of contaminated water now being stored in special drums. The report states there was no threat to the health of workers at the reactor, and officials say the tritium released into the air posed no significant danger to the surrounding environment. Nonetheless, after a brief shutdown, the reactor has continued to operate at full power, even though Chalk River officials admit they don't know what caused the leak, and say it could happen again. ...
Meanwhile, another part of the reactor has sprung a water leak from a 2.4-inch crack in a weld. That leak has not been repaired since it was first reported more than six weeks ago.
Instead, technicians are simply pumping water into the unit to replace the estimated 7,000 litres a day spewing from the cracked seam.
In answer to written questions from Sun Media, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission said the leaking water from the failed weld has "a very low level of radioactivity" and is not a safety concern.
The water is being dumped into the Ottawa River.
a report of another leak:Atomic energy spokesman Dale Coffin says the crack in the seam could require up to a month of work to repair, "but right now our schedule doesn't allow us to do that."
There's been another small leak of heavy water from the nuclear research reactor at Chalk River, Ont. ... News of the latest leak came as top officials from both the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and Atomic Energy Canada Ltd., were appearing Tuesday at the Commons committee on natural resources. An AECL official told the committee that 11 kg of heavy water was ventilated from the reactor after two tiny pin holes were found in a pipe Sunday morning. The pipe has been patched and will be replaced at a later date. A larger leak at the 50-year-old reactor in December was not reported to the public for weeks, prompting allegations of coverup and suggestions the public had been endangered. ... There was never any danger to the public or the environment, said Binder, the CEO of the CNSC.Chalk River suffered an additional, significant leak in 2009. Heavy water leaked into the reactor vessel in May. On Wiki, a summary of the event indicates that the leak was fully contained:
Binder acknowledged being surprised by the public uproar that followed the revelation of the December leak, and that is why the reporting mechanism has been changed so that even minor events such as Sunday's leak are quickly publicized. ...
Binder said there is about 65 tonnes of heavy water at Chalk River and he likened the 47 kg December leak to faucet trouble in your home.
"You know: drip, drip, drip. It's of the same order of magnitude."
But NDP MP Nathan Cullen said public confidence in the NRU reactor at Chalk River is being damaged. "The cumulative effect of all these leaks, can this not be a death by a thousand cuts?" asked Cullen. "That small leak after small leak after small leak speaks to the public as there being a significant problem."
The reactor's current licence expires in 2011 and AECL and the nuclear regulator said they are in formal communication on exactly what will be required to get an extension.
"In mid-May 2009 a heavy water leak at the base of the reactor vessel was detected prompting a temporary shutdown of the reactor. The leak was estimated to be 5KG ... per hour and determined to be due to corrosion. This was the second heavy water leak since late 2008. The reactor was defuelled and drained of all of its heavy water moderator. No administrative levels of radioactivity were exceeded, during the leak or defuelling, and all leaked water was contained and treated on site.
Political sources say otherwise: the New Democrats claimed that in fact radioactive water was dumped into the Ottawa River and they implied that the government covered up the details:The reactor remained shut down until August 2010. The lengthy shutdown was necessary to first completely defuel the entire reactor, then ascertain the full extent of the corrosion to the vessel, and finally to effect the repairs - all with remote and restricted access from a minimum distance of 8 metres due to the residual radioactive fields in the reactor vessel."
Conflicting reports about when Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) informed the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) about the leak has led to even more uncertainty around how this incident was handled.
Paul Dewar (Ottawa Centre) says his constituents are concerned about the leak, “People in my riding are very concerned about this leak. They want to know why the government said nothing for over a month,” said Dewar. “This does not give the people living along the Ottawa River confidence that this government is looking out for their safety.”
New Democrats are calling on the Minister of Natural Resources to immediately release all details regarding the leak, any potential health effects, and what precautions are now in place to prevent a similar accident from happening again.