Nuke spill at Chalk River

Report: No health threat after aging reactor released radioactive tritium into the air last month


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A radioactive spill has occurred at the aging Chalk River nuclear reactor west of the capital after the facility was recently cranked up to double its normal output of medical isotopes, used in diagnosing and treating cancer, Sun Media has learned.

The reactor is supplying up to 70% of the world's medical isotopes, and a shutdown could leave millions of cancer and heart patients in Canada and around the globe without critical treatments.

But the radioactive spill and another ongoing leak at the reactor are bound to spark renewed controversy over the safety of the nuclear facility built in 1958.

An internal report to federal nuclear regulators shows radioactive tritium was released into the air during the incident at the Chalk River reactor on Dec. 5.

Atomic Energy of Canada officials running the 51-year-old reactor reported they managed to contain another 800 litres of contaminated water now being stored in special drums.

The report states there was no threat to the health of workers at the reactor, and officials say the tritium released into the air posed no significant danger to the surrounding environment.

Nonetheless, after a brief shutdown, the reactor has continued to operate at full power, even though Chalk River officials admit they don't know what caused the leak, and say it could happen again.

Documents indicate officials at Atomic Energy took four days to report the spill to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

Even then, the spill proved to be five times larger than what the officials initially reported.

They didn't go out of their way to inform the public, either.

A press release about the brief shutdown of the reactor in December made no mention of a spill, only "unanticipated technical challenges."


Meanwhile, another part of the reactor has sprung a water leak from a 2.4-inch crack in a weld. That leak has not been repaired since it was first reported more than six weeks ago.

Instead, technicians are simply pumping water into the unit to replace the estimated 7,000 litres a day spewing from the cracked seam.

In answer to written questions from Sun Media, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission said the leaking water from the failed weld has "a very low level of radioactivity" and is not a safety concern.

The water is being dumped into the Ottawa River.

Atomic energy spokesman Dale Coffin says the crack in the seam could require up to a month of work to repair, "but right now our schedule doesn't allow us to do that."

The reactor is producing almost double its normal medical isotope output to make up for a shutdown of the world's largest producer in the Netherlands, expected to last until spring.

As a result, shutting down the Chalk River facility for a month for repairs -- or even a week -- would likely pull the plug on 6,000 cancer treatments a week in Canada alone.

Last year, Stephen Harper's government fired the country's chief nuclear regulator, Linda Keen, after she ordered the Chalk River reactor shut down to upgrade its safety systems -- notably, water pumps.

The move caused the cancellation of thousands of cancer treatments across the country, and sparked a political furore.

But Keen's subsequent firing also drew political criticism of the government for interfering with the nuclear regulator, possibly putting public safety at risk.

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