What to do with almost 70 years worth of Canadian atomic rubbish

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At 3:07 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 12, 1952, the National Research Experimental nuclear reactor, then the most powerful research reactor on Earth, raced out of control, rapidly overheated and then exploded, destroying the reactor core and spewing radioactive gases and debris into the atmosphere.

A flatbed truck used to haul the intensely radioactive core to a nearby burial site was manned by a relay team of drivers, each spending just a few minutes behind the wheel before running away to make room for the next driver, to limit their exposure to lethal radiation.

A portion of the road was buried as radioactive waste. Thousands of litres of radiotoxic water and other contaminated reactor wreckage were put in sandy trenches.

Refuse from that day remains, 59 years later; part of an immense toxic legacy handed down from decades of pioneering research and technological achievement in atomic science and nuclear medicine at Chalk River Laboratories (CRL).

The higher-level waste inventory at Chalk River includes:

• More than 7,400 spent fuel rods, fuel assemblies and related items and units from the operation of the National Research Experimental (NRX), National Research Universal (NRU) and Zero Energy Deuterium-2 reactors. The oldest rods are made from natural uranium, while some from the mid-1960s and beyond contain highly enriched uranium.

• 4,825 spent fuel bundles from the first nuclear reactor to generate electricity in Canada, the Nuclear Power Demonstration (NPD) at Rolphton. (Sixty-one bundles come from reactors at Pickering and Bruce, and from the shut-down reactor at Douglas Point.) The fuel includes irradiated natural and depleted uranium, thorium and plutonium.

• About 300,000 litres of mostly intermediate-level liquid waste, plus a smaller amount of high-level liquid waste, from the production of medical isotopes and Cold War-era fuel processing experiments was stored in underground storage tanks at the end of 2007. All but one of the tanks was built between 1947 and 1960. Natural Resources Canada reports that “aging tanks that contain higher-level radioactive liquid waste are rusting. The tanks are not leaking at this point, but there is evidence of corrosion.” The contents of seven of the tanks has been handled by Chalk River’s waste management centre, but the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission says it is “paramount” that AECL deal with the remainder in a proposed project to cement and solidify the waste for eventual permanent storage by 2019.

Source: Montreal Gazette

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