Local delegates head to Nebraska to get a snapshot of what decomissioning a reactor looks like in-situ

The Hallam reactor near Lincoln Nebraska

By Don Norman
Candian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) will be taking a group of First Nation, Metis and local community representatives to Hallam, Nebraska April 3rd – 5th. Hallam Nebraska is home to the one of the first decommissioned nuclear reactors using the in situ method. This is the method that is being proposed for the WR-1 reactor at the Whiteshell site.

“We are going down in time to witness their annual site inspection and learn about how the site is performing,” said Mitch MacKay, Manager, Whiteshell Closure Project Stakeholder Relations with Canadian Nuclear Laboratories. “CNL thought it was a good opportunity for our local communities to experience and interact with the technique CNL is proposing for the management of the liabilities here at the Whiteshell Laboratories site.”

The delegation heading to Nebraska include: Lac du Bonnet MLA, Wayne Ewasko; Patricia Mitchell and Oral Johnston of Black River First Nation; Gordon Bluesky and Buddy Prince of Brokenhead First Nation; and Marilyn Courchene and Vince Fontaine of Sagkeeng First Nation. In addition, the delegation will include representatives from Wabaseemoong First Nation, the Manitoba Metis Federation, the Whiteshell Community Economic Regeneration Partnership; and Whiteshell Closure Project Public Liaison Committee (PLC is comprised of representatives from across the region with a purpose to provide a forum to share information and discuss the health, safety, environmental and regulatory issues within the scope of the Whiteshell Laboratories Closure Project).

CNL has faced significant criticism from environmental groups for changing what was originally planned for the site, which was to remove the core and dispose of it elsewhere. Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) conducted its first environmental assessment for completing the decommissioning of the Whiteshell site, in 1999. That Report called for the complete removal of the WR-1, facilities, associated systems and components. Waste from the removal would be removed, classified, segregated and placed in interim storage on site. The below-grade concrete structure would largely remain in place.
At that time, AECL had little experience in decommissioning sites and as time progressed, it became apparent that the risks with moving and disposing of radioactive material were greater than if they were entombed and left on site.

AECL tasked CNL (as the contractor which manages and operates the Whiteshell site on its behalf) to find solutions to safely and efficiently decommission and close the site. CNL proposed the in situ decommissioning of WR-1 as the approach which was most appropriate to protect the environment, reduce occupational health and safety risks, and reduce the cost and timeframe of decommissioning WR-1.

So, the idea of bringing these groups to Nebraska is to quell some of the fears that people have of the in situ method. CNL believes that the entombed reactor in Nebraska provides a good example for understanding the in situ method and performance. “The Hallam reactor is considerably bigger because it was a power reactor and a different design,” explains McKay. “This means that there is significantly more radioactivity encased at the Hallam site.” The facility sits at a similar depth from the surface and soil conditions are relatively the same. However, proximity to a body of water is different, WR-1 sits about 500 metres from the Winnipeg River. The Hallam site does not sit in the same proximity to a similar body of water, but there is an aquifer in the Hallam region that sits at about 45 metres below ground level.

“All these groups (the delegations heading to Nebraska) have been engaged on the project and have shown interest in learning more about the in situ proposal,” says McKay. “The idea would be that these representatives would return and have an opportunity to share their experiences with their respective communities.”
“This is a unique opportunity because we will be at the site when they are conducting their annual inspection,” McKay continued. “The group will be able to see and ask questions about the performance of the site. At the same time some local representatives will be there so the group can get a perspective on what it is like to have this facility in the community.”