A growing number of voices are raising alarm over a secretive, unprecedented series of liquid radioactive waste shipments from Chalk River’s nuclear facilities to a South Carolina processing plant. While routes are not publicized, two of the only roadways that meet the designated requirements for the journey are Highways 17 and 416.
In March, Carleton Place’s emergency management committee received a provincial fire marshal memo describing imminent shipments of 23,000 litres of bomb-grade, highly enriched uranyl nitrate liquid (HEUNL). Fact sheets were provided to ensure “communities know how to prepare for – and respond appropriately to…transportation incidents involving radioactive materials,” according to the memo, which said the shipments “pose a minimal risk to public health and safety due to strict packaging and safety standards.”
But according to Dr. Gordon Edwards, president and co-founder of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility (CCNR), a 42-year-old research organization documenting the nuclear industry’s often under-publicized hazards, the province is not telling first responders or the public the whole story. (Notably, the Lanark County emergency preparedness handbook, distributed in May, addresses a range of threats, but includes no mention of roadside nuclear accidents.)
“Nuclear authorities in both Canada and the U.S. have disguised the true nature of this liquid,” says Edwards, who has provided consulting services on nuclear-related issues to provincial, territorial, national, and international bodies, including the Auditor General of Canada. “In fact, uranyl nitrate is only one of dozens of radioactive compounds in the liquid, which is 17,000 times more radioactive than uranyl nitrate alone. Such high-level radioactive liquid has never been transported over public roads anywhere in North America. If spilled, two ounces of this liquid is enough to ruin the drinking water supply of a city as large as Washington, DC.”
Noting the shipments have not been subject to an environmental impact statement in Canada or the U.S., Edwards says the uranium involved is the same material used in the 1945 Hiroshima atomic bomb. He also warns that many of the radioactive materials being transported are “the same stuff you find in the melted cores of the Fukushima and Chernobyl reactors.”
Edwards has questioned the safety of casks transporting the liquid materials, which were designed 30 years ago to transport solid waste only. While documenting the radioactive release hazards posed by a vehicle fire, Edwards also studied potential crash impacts. Safety standards require the cask to withstand the shock of a 30-foot drop, but most bridges to the U.S. are far higher, while the cask’s cavity, with a thin two-inch stainless steel body, would not survive a sideways impact of only 12.5 miles per hour.
Last fall, over 40 organizations, including the Sierra Club, Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, and Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County called on Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama to cancel the shipments, citing the devastating impact of a spill on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River ecosystems.
Members of the Niagara Regional Council have expressed similar opposition, while recently the Anishinabek Nation and Iroquois Caucus jointly issued a pointed statement declaring that they had not been consulted as per Aboriginal title and treaty rights, warning that the “potential for long-lived contamination to the environment and to all living entities is too great.”
The shipments are rationalized under the Global Threat Reduction Initiative to account for and secure nuclear weapons materials, but Edwards says far safer means are available. Given that liquid waste has been routinely solidified and rendered far less dangerous on-site at Chalk River since 2003, Edwards also points to a 2011 federal report calling for the “down-blending” of the liquid waste. Over three months during 2016, Indonesia carried out just such a down-blending of similar liquid material, preventing the need to transport it to the U.S.
Carleton Place Fire Chief Les Reynolds confirmed materials his office received did not discuss the consequences of a liquid radioactive waste spill. “There’s been very little information,” he said, adding he is never provided notice of any such shipments through the area.
While Reynolds says his team’s response to dangerous chemical spills is to secure the affected area and call in Ottawa HAZMAT teams, “I would expect that this stuff is properly encased and protected. Having said that, anything can happen. A propane tank is a very strong vessel, and yet we all know under certain conditions they can turn into a travelling bomb. I’m not overly concerned because I guess I’m trusting that the people who do know what they’re doing are taking the necessary precautions.”
Edwards’ experience monitoring the nuclear industry provides him with no such reassurance, citing recent welding failures in equipment associated with transport casks as well as an April, 2017 U.S. Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board report on the first HEUNL shipment that revealed an unexpected hot spot in unloading equipment that was “not providing adequate radiological shielding.”
“Sending a hundred more shipments carrying 23,000 litres of this stuff down the highway is like rolling a pair of dice a hundred times,” Edwards cautioned. “Sooner or later our luck may give out and we will roll snake-eyes.”
This story first appeared in the June issue of Hometown News. Read more of the June issue online.