A profoundly hidden arrangement to ship weapons-grade nuclear waste from a government lab northwest of Ottawa to the United States is attracting anger in a portion of the southern Ontario and American communities along the potential route.
Radioactive waste from the previous Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. research center in Chalk River, Ont., a major yet diminishing world supplier of medical isotopes that is presently running by a private consortium, is set to be transported in fluid structure to a site in Savannah River, S.C., for processing and disposal. The route could take it through Ontario’s fruit-rich Niagara Region, or perhaps even through the border crossing at Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., into Michigan, according to a lawsuit attempting to stop the shipments. The lawsuit was filed in a U.S. federal court a month ago by a coalition of American environmental and nuclear watchdog groups.
The shipments could begin as early as this month, the U.S. groups believe.
According to the U.S. lawsuit, the arrangement is for around 150 shipments by truck to South Carolina, a minimum distance of almost 1,700 kilometers from Chalk River, which is 180 km northwest of Ottawa. Every shipment would convey four 58-liter steel containers set inside a bigger steel and lead tube, conveying liquid radioactive waste including isotopes of cesium, iodine, strontium and plutonium.
The waste would also contain a modest but dangerous quantity of highly enriched uranium, which can be used to make a nuclear bomb, the lawsuit states. The waste is a byproduct of making molybdenum-99, a medical isotope used in diagnostic tests of organs and other body parts. The Niagara area’s regional government passed a motion last year opposing the shipments.
One problem raised by opponents is that, for security reasons, the route through Canada and the timetable for shipments are being kept under tight secrecy, so secret that local emergency responders have been kept in the loop.
“We were really joining a chorus of concern from various jurisdictions and municipalities along this route,” said Bill Hodgson, a regional councillor, and resident of Lincoln, Ont. “We kind of oppose the idea of transporting, certainly, liquid waste, and if you must transport the waste, then it should be put into a solid form before you start putting it on trucks and driving it across our roads and bridges.”
“There would be no notice given, but of course it would be our first responders, my friends, my neighbours, working in our volunteer force and in our emergency services, that would be exposed… in case there was an accident,” Hodgson said, adding that even his local fire chief only found out through the media.
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the federal nuclear safety regulator, affirmed the steel tube outline a year ago to transport the nuclear waste, yet full environmental assessments have not been directed in either Canada or the U.S., opponents complain. Natural Resources Canada did not give back a request for comment, but rather the nuclear safety commission concluded in its report a year ago that an accident including the nuclear waste shipments would be “extremely unlikely”.
Indeed, even in such a situation, the commission said its own analysis and that of the U.S. Department of Energy are that “the doses to the most exposed individuals remain low and well below the emergency regulatory dose limit for nuclear energy workers and the public.”