How prepared is Halifax in the case of a radiation leak?

Thursday night’s radiation scare at a Halifax container terminal has raised questions about the type of hazardous materials that pass through the port and what would have happened if there was a radiation leak.

Four canisters carrying radioactive material were dropped 6 metres at Halifax container terminal

Firefighters responded to an accident aboard a ship at the Fairview Container Terminal at the port of Halifax late Thursday, March 13, 2014, but later determined there was no leak of radioactive material. (The Canadian Press)

Thursday night’s radiation scare at a Halifax container terminal has raised questions about the type of hazardous materials that pass through the port and what would have happened if there was a radiation leak.

Shortly before 10 p.m. AT, the bottom of a large container carrying uranium hexaflouride released, dropping four canisters of the radioactive material six metres to the ground.

Luckily, the canisters — designed for drops of up to 16 metres — held strong and didn’t leak any of the toxic material, according to authorities.

But some are asking, what would have happened if there was a leak?

Barry Manuel, Halifax Regional Municipality’s Emergency Management Office co-ordinator, is confident if a radiation leak had happened, the city could have been able to handle it.

We ship everything imaginable through the port ...  but to comfort anybody and everyone they're very stringently regulated.- Calvin Whidden, senior VP of Cerescorp

He said his office has experience dealing with all kinds of emergencies including the crash of Swissair Flight 111, the chaos surrounding the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S., as well as fires and floods.

The Halifax area EMO practices for such emergencies every month.

“We exercise the entire group and often that's where we get our growth, by having everyone in the same room together or outdoors in the same event, going through the normal process to see what works or what we can do better,” said Manuel.

He said there are evacuation plans in place should the city need to be evacuated. If needed, his office would use the media, social media and police to alert residents. He said the HRM has identified 700 potential shelters in the case of such an emergency.

Dangerous goods always coming through Halifax

What exactly comes through the many containers at the Ceres container terminal is on the minds of many.

Shawn Quinn, president and chief consultant of Dangerous Goods Atlantic based out of Dartmouth, has been involved in more than 10,000 shipments of dangerous goods.

Canisters like these are designed to withstand a lot of abuse to prevent harmful substances from leaking out. (CBC)

He said they’re coming through the city all the time. So-called dangerous goods run the gamut from industrial chemicals, to highly corrosive material, to the things people can purchase at a hardware store.

“Things that we go and pick up every day, such as your car battery, can of paint for your home, tank of propane for your barbecue. Are they moving through the port? Some of them, yes,” he said.

Calvin Whidden, senior vice-president of Cerescorp, the company that operates the terminal, said there are nine classes of dangerous materials that are shipped through Ceres terminal at Fairview Cove.

“We ship everything imaginable through the port. There are nine classes of dangerous material — they’re all handled, but to comfort anybody and everyone, they're very stringently regulated," he said.

Millions of tonnes of cargo come through Halifax. Those who deal with dangerous goods say the extensive regulations to protect the environment and the people who live and and work here.

“I can tell you that the port is safe,” said Quinn.

George Malec, with the Halifax Port Authority, also said regulations are stiff.

“The federal government has put in quite serious regulations around the movement of dangerous goods in all Canadian ports,” he said.

What is uranium hexafluoride?

Uranium hexafluoride is used primarily for nuclear power. The material is enriched to be used in nuclear reactors. Canada doesn't have any uranium enrichment facilities, the shipment was bound for South Carolina, by road.

Derek Lister, the research chair of nuclear engineering at the University of New Brunswick, said it's actually very unlikely there could have been a leak.

"It's uranium in a chemical state — which is intermediate between the uranium ore that comes out of the ground, and the final fuel which is a solid ceramic — very hard, very dense," he said.

Lister said only a very small amount of radiation escapes the container — uranium hexafluoride itself has a low level of radiation. The containers also go through rigorous testing.

“That is probably the number one reason why there was no leak, why there was no radioactive readings other than what was naturally occurring in the port at that time. As unfortunate as the incident was … I’m almost 100 per cent certain the reason behind it that there was no leak, or no spill or accidental release of the dangerous goods themselves was because the packaging did exactly what it was designed to do,” said Quinn.

The containers are also set on fire and immersed in water during testing. All this is key, since uranium hexafluoride can react with moisture and become toxic.

The two shipping companies moving the uranium, ACL Cargo and RSB Logistics, declined to comment.