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The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) has accepted the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for the proposed in-situ decommissioning of the Whiteshell Reactor 1 (WR-1). The EIS, first submitted by Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL)in 2017, has now passed the regulator's completeness check and entered the final technical review stage. The technical review process is expected to take about a year, after which the Final EIS will be submitted. A final decision on the project will be determined by CNSC after a public hearing.

The WR-1 research reactor achieved first criticality in 1962 at the Whiteshell Laboratories (WL) site in Pinawa, Manitoba. The reactor, with vertical fuel channels, was moderated by heavy water and cooled using an organic liquid. It reached a maximum of 60 MWt and was used until 1972 as a test reactor for a proposed organic-cooled Candu power reactor. It was subsequently used for irradiation, experimentation and heating the Whiteshell site until its closure in 1985.

CNL proposes to decommission WR-1 using an in-situ technique, which it says will minimise risks to the health, safety and security of the public, workers and the environment. This will provide a safe, secure and effective disposal solution for the existing contaminated building, much of which is below ground level. The proposed technique will involve pouring a specially engineered grout into the reactor to lock contaminants in place. A protective cover at the surface will channel water away from the site and protect it from the elements.

The WL site is a former nuclear research and test establishment. It encompasses an area of 4,375 hectares and a number of facilities including WR-1, shielded facilities, a radioactive waste management area, and various research laboratories and support buildings. WL operated for approximately 40 years before decommissioning of the site began in 2003 after it received approval of its overall decommissioning framework. This involved completion of an environmental assessment and the subsequent issuing of a site decommissioning licence by the CNSC. Since then, redundant buildings have been demolished, and new facilities for waste handling have been planned and constructed. CNL plans to complete the decommissioning of the site by 2027.

The next major step in the plan is the decommissioning of WR-1, which CNL describes as “one of the largest and most complex facilities on the site”. Other current projects include the research & development complex decommissioning; the environmental assessment follow-up programme; and the wider WL decommissioning project.

Completed Projects on the site include: the shielded modular above-ground storage (SMAGS) facility; the waste handling & clearance facilities; the caesium pond; the liquid waste retrieval and disposition (mixed liquid waste, active liquid waste tanks 1&2, WL tanks); the non-nuclear buildings decommissioning; the shielded facilities decommissioning; the underground research laboratory decommissioning; the site utility systems reconfiguration; and the nuclear services reconfiguration.

CNL said acceptance of the EIS by CNSC was a milestone that had been reached after an estimated 35,000 hours of work by the team. This included putting together a 4500-page package of 23 documents, along with over 650 references. "Since it was first submitted, the project team has been working on responding to information requests from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, engaging with First Nations and the Manitoba Métis Federation, and updating the revised draft EIS to ensure a complete resubmission," CNL noted.

The federal environmental assessment of the proposed decommissioning project, which is required under Canadian environmental law, began in 2016 and the draft EIS was open to public comments in late 2017. A revised version was submitted in July 2022. CNL explained that, over the course of the Environmental Assessment, it had come to understand the key areas of interest and concern from the public, Indigenous Peoples, and federal and provincial agencies. "CNL has addressed comments from stakeholders and Indigenous communities and incorporated this feedback into the revised draft EIS," it said.

The document will now undergo a second technical review by the Federal, Provincial, and Indigenous Review Team (FPIRT). CNL acknowledged that there may be a number of further information requests and comments from the FPIRT review.

Image (top left): Cutaway of the Whiteshell Reactor (courtesy of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories)

Image (bottom right): The Whiteshell Laboratories site in Pinawa, Manitoba (courtesy of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories)

Date: Wednesday, 25 January 2023
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