The Port Hope Area Initiative is the largest environmental cleanup effort in Canadian history. Ottawa is spending $1.28-billion to contain 1.7-million cubic metres (m³) of low-level radioactive waste in Port Hope and Port Granby.
When you hear numbers like that, it’s hard to wrap your head around what they mean. Why does the project cost so much money? Just how much waste is 1.7-million m3? Where did all this waste come from? Where is it going?
The answers to those questions start back in 1932.
Short history of the nuclear industry in Port Hope
Eldorado Nuclear Limited (ENL) brought the nuclear industry to Port Hope. In the late 1920’s/early 1930’s, ENL discovered a mine in the Northwest Territories that contained uranium ore, the first such discovery in Canada. Radium can be extracted from uranium ore. It was in high demand for its ability to treat cancer.
By 1932, ENL needed a place to refine the uranium it was mining. Extracting usable radium from the uranium ore required the use of chemicals that were hard to come by in the north. The hub for chemical production at the time was southern Ontario, thus a refinery was built on Lake Ontario.
ENL chose Port Hope by pure happenstance. The small community had a wheat seed-cleaning plant not in use at the time, so ENL leased the mill in 1932, and purchased it a year later. By 1933, Port Hope had become the centre for radium refining in Canada. It would continue to refine radium until world War II.
In 1942, the Government of Canada ordered Eldorado to refine uranium. The U.S. needed a vast amount of uranium as part of the Manhattan Project, the name given to the building of nuclear weapons. The Port Hope facility’s primary role was to refine uranium ore and then ship it to the U.S.
Because of the facility’s importance – and the growing market for refined uranium – the federal government took over Eldorado, making it a Crown corporation.
Eldorado would continue refining uranium and selling it to the U.S. and other countries until the 1960’s. Then, the U.S. stopped buying Canadian uranium.
Searching for new markets, Eldorado turned to nuclear energy. By the end of the 1960’s, the first nuclear plants in Canada were opened. They had CANDU reactors, which use a specific kind of fuel (uranium dioxide, aka uo²). The Port Hope Conversion Facility became the leading refinery for this fuel.
The nuclear energy industry blossomed in Ontario in the 1970’s. That same decade, concerns over radioactive waste and how it should be stored starting cropping up all around the Port Hope region.
From the 1930’s to 1970’s, Eldorado’s Port Hope Conversion Facility produced low-level waste. (“Low-level” simply refers to the level of radiation found within contaminated materials.)
Most commonly, low-level waste was a result of discarded soil, rock, and liquid generated when uranium or radium are extracted from uranium ore. However, it also included items such as rags, clothing, tools, and lab equipment that may have come into close contact with the radioactive materials.
This waste was stored on site or even discarded for public use, free of charge. Parks, ravines, and even people’s homes were built using radioactive waste. This became so commonplace that even now it’s hard to determine just how many homes reused this waste. The Port Hope Area Initiative suggests there is 572,000 m³ of waste in the Port Hope’s Harbour, the Highland Drive Municipal Landfill, and residential properties.
Between 1976-1981, efforts were made to reduce the level of radioactive waste in Port Hope.
More than 100,000 tons of contaminated soil was transferred to Chalk River Laboratories, northwest of Pembroke. Cleanup stopped when it wasn’t clear where the remaining waste should go: a long-term solution was needed. Meanwhile, there were public concerns about the safety of digging up and transporting contaminated soils within the town itself.
In 1982, the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Office (LLRWMO) was established to manage historic waste in the Town of Port Hope and across Canada. Finding space to store the remaining 1.2 million cubic metres of radioactive waste – and 450,000 m³ in Port Granby – became the LLRWMO’s responsibility.
However, no other cleanup efforts were made between the 1970s and 2000. Lake Ontario Waterkeeper investigated the Port Granby waste site, just west of Port Hope, in 2001 and found toxins flowing directly from the dump into Lake Ontario. That same year, Ottawa announced $260-million for a cleanup.
The Port Hope Area Initiative (PHAI) was created to oversee the cleanup, transportation, and storage for the waste in Port Hope and Port Granby. Canadian Nuclear Laboratories is implementing the PHAI on behalf of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), a federal Crown corporation.
The current cleanup plan
The Port Hope cleanup plan means moving all of the waste in Port Hope to the Welcome Waste Management Facility, located just south of the 401, between Brand and Baulch Rd.
96% of all low-level nuclear waste in Canada is located in the Port Hope area. There is an estimated 1.2-million m³ of nuclear waste in the Port Hope municipality alone. Here’s a breakdown of the main sites where waste is found:
450,000 m³ of waste at the existing Welcome Waste Management Facility.
572,000 m³ of waste in the Port Hope’s Harbour, the Highland Drive Municipal Landfill, and residential properties.
150,000 m³ of legacy waste at the Cameco Port Hope Conversion Facility (PHCF) as well as waste from building demolition associated with Cameco’s Vision in Motion project.
51,250 m³ of waste from contaminated industrial waste sites including the Port Hope Centre Pier, Lions Park, and the municipal sewage treatment plant.
The Port Granby cleanup plan involves moving 450,000 m³ of waste one kilometre north of the existing dump site to a new site where the waste can be contained.
One of residents’ main concerns is air quality during the excavation and transportation of the waste. Moving waste around the region has, historically, spread contamination and sparked concerns about inhaling freshly-unearthed radioactive dust.
Transparency is another concern. A full list of the contaminated sites has not been released, but the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has gone on record saying they will be testing 5,000 properties for possible contamination.
Accountability is a concern because of the project’s price-tag. The community wants to know that every dollar spent is going to remediation and that, once complete, the Port Hope environment will be restored.
For more than a decade, residents have been actively participating in Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and other regulatory processes. We’ve included a very short summary of concerns here, but we encourage people to watch this week's hearings or read residents’ submissions for a true understanding of the diversity of perspectives and concerns.
Since 2001, the price tag for the cleanup went from $260-million to $1.28 billion for the cleanup of both Port Hope and Port Granby. This is by far the largest pledge announced for an environmental cleanup in Canadian history. It is supposed to be completed by 2022.
Note: The history of the nuclear industry in Port Hope is complicated. There are conflicting sources and some gaps in the timeline. The details of the Port Hope cleanup are also changing as the project goes on. Please use the comment section below to share corrections, suggestions, details, or clarifications.