Weapons-grade nuclear waste shipments to U.S. prompt outcry

A highly secretive plan to ship weapons-grade nuclear waste from a federal lab northwest of Ottawa to the United States is drawing ire in some of the southern Ontario communities along the potential route.

Trucks expected to carry casks containing highly enriched uranium and radioactive isotopes

Weapons-grade nuclear waste from a federal lab in Chalk River, Ont., is to be transported to South Carolina. The facility makes medical isotopes and used to be run by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. but is now operated by a private consortium. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

A highly secretive plan to ship weapons-grade nuclear waste from a federal lab northwest of Ottawa to the United States is drawing ire in some of the southern Ontario and American communities along the potential route.

Radioactive waste from the former Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. laboratory in Chalk River, Ont., a major but dwindling world supplier of medical isotopes that is now run by a private consortium, is set to be transported in liquid form 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 possibly even through the border crossing at Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., into Michigan, according to a lawsuit trying to stop the shipments. The lawsuit was filed in a U.S. federal court last month by a coalition of American environmental and nuclear watchdog groups. 

Gracia Janes, a Niagara-on-the-Lake resident and activist, says there has been no public input on any plans to potentially transport the liquid waste through her region. (CBC)

The shipments could begin as early as this month, the U.S. groups believe.

"I'm concerned about the safety issue," Gracia Janes, a Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., resident and environment convener for the National Council of Women of Canada, said in an interview with CBC's French-language service Radio-Canada. 

"It is not, in this kind of quantity and this kind of toxic brew, being shipped anywhere, probably, in North America. It's the first of its kind, and it's going to be taking place over our highways and near our rivers and streams."

Kept secret from emergency personnel

The plan is for about 150 shipments by truck to South Carolina, a minimum distance of nearly 1,700 kilometres from Chalk River, which is 180 km northwest of Ottawa. Each shipment would carry four 58-litre steel containers placed inside a larger steel and lead tube, carrying liquid radioactive waste including isotopes of cesium, iodine, strontium and plutonium, according to the U.S. lawsuit. 

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.

The Peace Bridge between Fort Erie, Ont., and Buffalo, N.Y., is considered a leading potential route the nuclear waste would take on its way to the U.S. South. (David Duprey/Associated Press)

"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."

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 haven't been kept in the loop.

"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, approved the steel tube design last year for transporting the nuclear waste, but full environmental assessments have not been conducted in either Canada or the U.S., opponents complain.

Natural Resources Canada did not return a request for comment, but the nuclear safety commission concluded in its report last year that an accident involving the nuclear waste shipments would be "extremely unlikely." 

Even in such a scenario, 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." 

With files from Radio-Canada