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The Canadian Nuclear FAQ  

by Dr. Jeremy Whitlock


To The North Renfrew Times regarding a guest editorial the previous week (appended below) about the proposed Near Surface Disposal Facility (NSDF) at CNL Chalk River Laboratories.

(published in the 2020 January 15 edition)


Fear Mongering

To the Editor,

Re: “Chalk River - the radioactive runaround”, letter by G. Edwards, 2020 Jan 8;

Some significant misunderstanding is evident here.

Radioactive waste in Canada is characterized based on its hazard, not an ad hoc assessment of its total “becquerel” count (radioactivity), or half-life, or alluring accounts of past problems. All of these, however, are prime tools for those who seek to spread fear about radiation.

We should take this fear-mongering very seriously since fear of radiation has killed and harmed many more people since the dawn of nuclear technology, than radiation itself. Those who spread this fear do not (hopefully!) have this intent in mind, but they certainly bear some responsibility for the consequences.

The radioactive waste planned for disposal in Chalk River’s NSDF is low-level, meaning that it that doesn’t require heavy shielding and its hazard has generally disappeared after 300 years. This is not according to a CNL spokesman’s opinion on Facebook; this is Canadian regulatory policy. It doesn’t matter whether the material is cobalt-60, or uranium, or whatever – all materials are found in all levels of waste.

CNL’s reference to “50 years” for cobalt-60 is the standard 10-half-lives often quoted for anything radioactive to be basically gone (specifically, less than 0.1% of its initial concentration). Put another way, the maximum dose allowed for NSDF waste packages (handled remotely) is 2 mSv/h, which is roughly one-year’s natural background dose in Canada delivered over one hour (or, in terms of man-made sources, one-third of the dose delivered by an X-ray GI procedure). After 50 years, if this package contained only cobalt-60, the dose would be 0.1% of this, or 0.002 mSv/h – roughly the dose rate when you fly at 35,000 feet.

The use of “becquerels” in public discussion should be avoided, and treated with suspicion when encountered. To wit:

  • Every day approximately one TRILLION becquerels of radioactivity flows within the Ottawa River past the future site of the NSDF at Chalk River Laboratories - on its way to Ottawa, Montreal and eventually the Atlantic Ocean (part of its natural inventory).

  • Every year Toronto’s Sick Kids Hospital handles a BILLION becquerels of unshielded radioactive materials, mostly by people with little knowledge of this fact: these radioactive materials are the patients of the hospital.

On a more serious note, confusion over “becquerels” (and other terminology) was part of the communications nightmare in the aftermath of Fukushima that led to thousands of unnecessary deaths – not from the radiation itself (which was minimal), but from actions taken by well-intentioned people believing their lives to be in danger. The responsibility for this sad commentary, over a century after the discovery of radiation, lies equally with those in the technical world who fail at communicating to the public, and those in the public who exploit this confusion.


Jeremy Whitlock
Vienna, Austria

Original editorial to North Renfrew Times (2020 January 8) from Mr. G. Edwards:

Point of View

Chalk River - the radioactive runaround


In a Facebook post – accurately quoted in the North Renfrew Times of December 31, 2019 – Mitch MacKay of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories flatly contradicts himself.

Defending the proposed radioactive megadump at Chalk River (which CNL likes to call a “disposal facility”) Mr. MacKay says, on the one hand, that “The NSDF will contain only low-level radioactive waste”; then a few sentences later on, he says “In fact, about 98 per cent of the total radioactivity contained in the NSDF is represented by cobalt-60.”

There is no way on earth that any knowledgeable scientist would regard cobalt-60 as “lowlevel” radioactive material when present in such enormous amounts – 90 quadrillion becquerels of radioactivity!

Cobalt-60 is one of the most powerful and intense gamma radiation emitters known to science.

It requires very heavy shielding and is extremely dangerous.

In 1984, New York Times reported an incident involving tiny silvery pellets of cobalt-60 “that looked like cake decorations” accidentally ending up in a metal scrapyard in Juarez Mexico.

Each tiny little pellet delivered a radiation dose of 25 rads per hour at a distance of two inches, or 219,000 rads per year.

The maximum dose permitted for an atomic worker is 50 rads per year. Exposure to 400 rads of gamma radiation in a short time (e.g. 16 hours with one of these pellets in a shoe or pocket) will kill half the people so exposed.

The cobalt-60 pellets were melted down and mixed in with other scrap metal. The result was over 400 tons of dangerously radioactive steel reinforcement rods being shipped to construction sites in seven different states of the USA, as well as thousands of radioactive table legs intended for restaurants and cafés throughout North America.

In a Winnipeg café, the table legs had to be retrieved as dangerous nuclear waste.

The New York Times said the incident was “recognized as potentially the worst spill of radioactive material in North American history.”

The Washington Post reported that the contaminated metal would not have been detected were it not for a confused truck driver hauling radioactive scrap taking a wrong turn into Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratories and accidentally triggering radiation alarms.

The total amount of cobalt-60 involved in the 1984 accident was 400 curies, equivalent to 14.8 billion becquerels.

The amount of cobalt-60 that CNL plans to put in the Chalk River megadump is 6,000 times greater. This is hardly “low-level” radioactive material! Mr. MacKay writes that “CNL does everything in its power to help the public understand the facts about the NSDF, and has held dozens of public engagement opportunities to talk about this environmental remediation project in an open and transparent manner.”

Not so, apparently.

Mr. MacKay tells us that cobalt-60 is very short-lived, with “a half-life of only 5.3 years” and so “in little more than 50 years... the cobalt-60 will be essentially gone.”

The truth is that even if all 90 quadrillion becquerels of cobalt-60 were dumped at Chalk River today, 53 years later the amount of cobalt-60 remaining will be 90 trillion becquerels.

That is still six times greater than the amount of cobalt-60 involved in the 1984 cobalt-60 scrap metal incident, one of the worst radioactive releases ever experienced.

“In terms of how many people were potentially exposed and the duration of their exposure, it could [have been] the most serious radiation accident’’ in North America, said Karl Hübner, a radiation accident expert at the Oak Ridge Associated Universities in Tennessee.

Perhaps we should offer a big thank you to Mr. MacKay for so clearly illustrating the duplicitous language surrounding CNL’s claims about the proposed Chalk River megadump.

It is not all “low-level” waste that is planned for the dump, the dump does not conform to international standards, and there will remain significant quantities of many highly dangerous materials in the dump for hundreds of thousands of years.

CNL likes to call its dump a “disposal facility,” but the word “disposal” has no scientific definition. Humans have never successfully disposed of anything that is indestructible.

The alternative to abandonment is rolling stewardship – see for the documents “Rolling_Stewardship.pdf” and “Five _Principles.pdf”.

Gordon Edwards, PhD, is President of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility. He says he has served as a consultant on nuclear issues to governmental and non-governmental organizations for over 40 years.

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