Ian MacLeod / Ottawa Citizen – 2013-03-25 01:59:07
(March 22, 2013) — OTTAWA â€” Activists are mobilizing on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border to block a proposed plan to secretly transport truckloads of intensely radioactive liquid waste through Eastern Ontario to South Carolina.
â€œSecurity is important, but we need to have a good discussion about whether or not this is a good idea,â€ said John Bennett, executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada.
â€œOver the years, the nuclear industry has not always been correct or totally honest about what the options are. There needs to be some outside scrutiny of this.â€
Pending final federal approvals, about 23,000 litres of nitric acid solution containing highly enriched uranium (HEU) is to be transported under armed guard from Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.â€™s Chalk River nuclear laboratories to the U.S. governmentâ€™s Savannah River Site in South Carolina for reprocessing. A U.S. official says the Crown corporation has agreed to pay the $60 million cost.
The proposed plan follows Prime Minister Stephen Harperâ€™s commitment at the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul to return additional U.S.-origin HEU inventories to the U.S. to lessen the risk of nuclear terrorism.
The liquid is a lingering byproduct from Chalk Riverâ€™s life-saving medical isotope production, which irradiates fresh HEU from the U.S. inside the NRU research reactor.
The potentially volatile solution contains an estimated 161 kilograms of HEU and has been stored for about a decade inside a fortified vessel known as the Fissile Solution Storage Tank, or FISST. But the tank is full and concerns about minor internal leaks, nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism have convinced the government to repatriate the toxic stew to the U.S.
About 50 large steel-encased, lead-shielded casks, each weighing about 23,000 kilograms and containing a few hundred litres of the solution, would move in heavily armed convoys along the Hwy. 17 portion of the Trans-Canada Highway through Renfrew County and to one of seven Canada-U.S. border crossings in Ontario and Quebec, according to documents filed with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
It is believed to be first ever attempt in Canada or the U.S. to move liquid HEU along public roadways.
The chief concern is not that the armed shipments of weapons-grade uranium could be hijacked, since each is to be relatively small and removing HEU from the solution is a highly sophisticated process.
The real fear is a spill caused by an accident or sabotage.
Canadian authorities say they are prohibited by law from acknowledging the mission, which could begin as early as this summer. As such, they say, public hearings to discuss and debate environmental and safety concerns are out of the question.
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) has yet to receive an application to transport HEU in liquid form to the U.S.
â€œIf and when it does, the CNSC â€¦ would perform a thorough review under its normal process in order to ensure the safety of the public and the environment, and that adequate measures are in place to ensure the security of the shipment,â€ a spokesman said in an email Friday. â€œTransportation of radioactive materials including liquids takes place safely and routinely, on a daily basis in Canada and around the world.â€
The CNSC is, however, reviewing an application from NAC International, an established U.S. nuclear transport company, to approve the design of a modified nuclear cargo container known as NAC-LWT. U.S. documents show the company plans to transport the liquid HEU in its NAC-LWT casks.
But a swelling chorus of opposition demands that senior Canadian and U.S. officials reconsider before the plan wins final licensing approvals from regulators in each country.
â€œMoving HEU nearly 2,000 kilometres from Chalk River to the Savannah River Site in the United States puts people and the environment at an unacceptable risk,â€ Maude Barlow, national chairperson of the Council of Canadians, said in a statement.
â€œThe shipment of HEU would need to pass through Eastern Ontario, cross international waters, enter numerous indigenous territories and cut through communities in six U.S. states. The impacts of any release of radioactive materials would be catastrophic, especially if it resulted in the contamination of our waterways.â€
The council, along with the Sierra Club, the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility and the South Carolina chapter of Friends of the Earth have organized letter-writing campaigns directed at Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, Transport Minister Denis Lebel and Michael Binder, CNSC president. The Sierra Club said Friday almost 1,000 emails have been sent to Binder in the first four days of the campaign.
The groups believe one option may be to cement, or vitrify, the FISST solution and dispose of it at Chalk River, greatly reducing its risk. Cementation is currently used to help neutralize the HEU-laden liquid byproduct from medical isotope production.
But AECL officials in December 2011 said the â€œunique characteristicsâ€ of the FISST solution, which has been in the tank since at least 2003, requires extensive research and preparation before any vitrification could be considered.
The Sierra Club says another option is to simply make the cross-border transport plan public.
â€œWe donâ€™t expect go to a hearing and have the route drawn out and the timetable presented in public, thatâ€™s not what weâ€™re talking about here,â€ said Bennett.
â€œIf youâ€™re asking people somewhere to take the risk, because it is a risk no matter how you measure it, people should be aware that theyâ€™re being asked to take that risk and thatâ€™s why the government should be consulting with municipalities along the route and First Nations and the general public.
â€œInstead of having 25 eyes on (each) convoy, youâ€™ve got 10,000 on it looking for suspicious characters.â€
Meanwhile, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Feb. 28 certified the same NAC-LWT containment cask for a separate Chalk River mission.
It calls for several thousand spent fuel rods, also made from U.S.-origin HEU and used to drive Chalk Riverâ€™s NRU and NRX research reactors since the 1960s, to be trucked to the Savannah River Site.
About 26 separate shipments over four years would begin late this summer, again pending final approvals from regulators, according to 2012 documents from the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration.
Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.