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Bruce Power has applied to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission for permission to ship 16 radiation-contaminated steam generators from its facility in Tiverton, Ont., to Sweden for re-processing. ((Courtesy of Bruce Power))

A Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission hearing begins Tuesday into an Ontario nuclear power plant's request for permission to ship radioactive waste through the Great Lakes and across the Atlantic Ocean for processing in Sweden.

The request to ship 16 school bus-sized radiation-contaminated steam generators is part of a plan by Bruce Power, a private nuclear utility that generates about a fifth of Ontario's electricity, to refurbish its nuclear generating plant on the shores of Lake Huron.

The CNSC is scheduled to hear from a number of individuals, non-governmental organizations and municipal officials concerned about the risks of shipping radioactive waste through the Great Lakes.

If the request is approved, Bruce Power intends to have a Swedish firm reprocess and remove the non-radioactive parts and concentrate the remainder, said Duncan Hawthorne, the utility's chief executive officer.

"If you can imagine that the steam generators are the size of a typical yellow school bus and imagine that the amount of radioactive material is the size of a ChapStick," Hawthorne told CBC News. "Effectively, I would turn a school bus that I would have to store for 100 years into a ChapStick."

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The original plan called for the generators to be stored on-site in Tiverton, Ont., in a giant cement bunker called the Western Waste Management Facility. But the company says space is an issue and considers on-site storage the worst-case option from an environmental standpoint.

In 2005, Bruce Power applied for and received permission from the nuclear safety commission to refurbish its nuclear facility in Tiverton. But last April, the utility asked the commission for a change to its refurbishment licence. 

The utility now wants Studsvik, a Swedish company that specializes in decommissioning nuclear power plants, to reprocess their contaminated steam generators. Studsvik will separate the radioactive metal from the metal that isn't radioactive. It will sell the clean metal on the scrap metal market and send the radioactive material back to Canada for storage in a oil barrel-sized container.

Group fears Great Lakes precedent

Some of those living along the waterways said they aren't satisfied with Bruce Power's assurances over safety, said Sarnia, Ont., Mayor Mike Bradley.

"Forty million Americans and Canadians take their freshwater, their drinking supplies from the Great Lakes," said Bradley, whose city is one of dozens of municipalities along the route the generators will be shipped that depend on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway for drinking water. "All we need is one incident to bring about a major catastrophe on the Great Lakes."

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Bruce Power workers load a steam generator onto a flatbed truck. ((Courtesy of Bruce Power))

Bruce Power's CEO brushed off worries about the water.

"There would be a greater radiological impact of someone with a pacemaker falling over the side of a boat and drowning," Hawthorne said. "He would introduce more radioactive material into the lake than one of our steam generators."

But Gordon Edwards, the head of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, told CBC News the nuclear industry is good at coming up with "silly scenarios, like eating a banana is more dangerous than being beside a nuclear reactor."

"The fact of the matter is when you talk about these steam generators, you talk about a lot of corroded material which is contaminated with dozens of different radioactive materials," Edwards said.

He added he's also worried that this shipment is more about setting a precedent. 

"We fear that this is just going to be the beginning of a lot of traffic on the Great Lakes of radioactive waste," Edwards said.

If the shipment is allowed, the generators will travel over land from Tiverton to Owen Sound, Ont., across the southern end of the Bruce Peninsula. They will be loaded on a cargo ship in Owen Sound, travel around the Bruce Peninsula, through Lake St. Clair, Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence Seaway and across the Atlantic Ocean to Sweden.

The CNSC hearing is to last two days and will consider 41 oral submissions and 38 written submissions. The commission is expected to make a decision within 30 business days following the hearing.