Analysis: Generations saddled with Pinawa nuclear burial (June 2016)

The decommissioning plan for the Pinawa nuclear site has suddenly changed. The overly optimistic scheme to restore this beautiful Whiteshell environment to its original state has stalled. Manitobans for generations to come will have to deal with a rotting hulk of radioactive concrete because the reactor itself will not be taken apart and moved off-site.

In the same way officials at Chernobyl and Fukushima have entombed their damaged reactors in concrete, the defunct WR1 nuclear reactor near the Whiteshell appears to be headed for the same fate. Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), which operates the site, refers to the plan as “in-situ,” which essentially means leaving all the underground reactor parts where they are and covering them up with “grout” or concrete.

The original detailed decommissioning plan established in 2013 was to remove the reactor vessels and primary heat transport system. The altered “in-situ” plan, soon to be approved by officials in Ottawa, appears to be motivated in part by the desire to speed up the process to save money and most likely because the reactor components are so radioactive.

Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL) had plans for “greenfields” (land accessible to the public) for the Pinawa site but these have reached a proverbial brick wall. Pipedreams and high hopes have always been the hallmark of the nuclear industry, but as Tokyo photographer Jan Nakasuji stated in the Japan Times when commenting on the Fukushima nuclear crisis (which followed the 2011 earthquake and tsunami): “Human beings succeeded in gaining nuclear power by using highly developed technologies. But when that power gets out of control, people can only take simple and primitive measures to fix it.”

The WR1 was a research reactor that was started in 1965 and ran until 1985, but not without major leaks and accidents. The reactor experienced the failure of a valve in 1979 that resulted in more than 2,700 litres of radioactive oil being released into the Winnipeg River. In 1980, close to 700 litres were released.

The most significant event, however, was a cracked fuel rod, which proved to be a near-catastrophic event resulting in an extensive radiation release within the containment area. This could well be the reason for sealing the lower components as they may be too hot to handle. A full public disclosure of this accident has yet to be made.

Significant decisions are being made by CNL, an offshoot of the federal Crown corporation AECL, which is dismantling both the Pinawa and Chalk River nuclear sites under the nuclear legacy liabilities program. Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr (responsible for AECL) recently referred to this arrangement as a government-owned, contractor-operated model, and it doesn’t appear his department wants much to do with it.

To date, $1.4 billion has been spent to end the risks and liabilities of AECL which, ironically, created many of these monumental boondoggles in the first place. Manitoba has the High-Level Radioactive Waste Act that prevents the permanent disposal of nuclear waste. Perhaps it is time Premier Brian Pallister let AECL and CNL know they will be breaking the law by entombing their reactor, and threaten to fine them the required penalty of $1 million per day.

Essentially, it has become too difficult and expensive to dismantle and dig up the radioactive waste at the Pinawa site, and the result is the province will wind up with a de facto nuclear waste facility.

Yet-to-be-born Manitobans will be saddled with the responsibility for monitoring this sarcophagus. The WR1 and its concrete tomb will be around a lot longer than King Tut’s grave.

Dave Taylor is a freelance writer and an instructor at the University of Winnipeg.

Winnipeg Free Press, By: Dave TaylorPosted: 06/11/2016 4:00 AM, as posted at

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