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Emergency crews in the dark as nuke shipments begin

By Allan Benner, The Standard

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories in Chalk River, near Petawawa

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories in Chalk River, near Petawawa

The first of up to 150 truckloads of liquid nuclear waste was shipped from Canadian Nuclear Laboratories in Chalk River, Ont., to a disposal site in South Carolina a month ago, likely travelling through Niagara on its way there.

And Niagara emergency personnel are concerned about being left in the dark about the shipment of highly radioactive material.

Tom Clements from U.S. nuclear watchdog group Savannah River Site Watch said he has confirmation that the first shipment of 232 litres of highly enriched liquid nuclear waste took place between April 17 and 22.

The shipments, planned to take place during the next two years, are part of a 2010 agreement between Canada and the U.S. to repatriate the spent highly enriched uranium fuel used in the creation of medical isotopes at the plant located north of Petawawa, costing the Canadian government about US$60-million.

Although the route taken by the transport trucks has not been disclosed due to security concerns, past reports indicated the trucks would travel along the QEW crossing into the U.S. at the Peace Bridge – the most direct route to the Savannah River Site about 1,700 km away.

Clements said the document confirming the shipment was published online May 12 by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB), a U.S. federal agency. The same document went on to state that a device used to protect workers was not providing adequate radiological shielding after the shipment arrived in the South Carolina.

But learning those trucks could be rolling along Niagara’s highways without prior warning is a concern for Niagara emergency responders, who would likely be the first on the scene in the unlikely event that one of those trucks was involved in a collision.

“I raised this issue last year, saying we heard they were coming and we didn’t have any information from the province, the feds, anybody,” said Lincoln fire Chief Greg Hudson. “We have 16 km of QEW, and I assume it’ll be coming down the QEW, but even that I don’t know.

“My concern was really, in the unlikely event that something happened, I just didn’t want to put our first responders in danger.”

Hudson said he has been assured that the storage containers “are bulletproof and they go through all these tests and everything else, and I have no doubt that they do.”

Testing the containers includes dropping them from a height of nine metres, crushing them with a 500-kilogram mass, burning them for 30 minutes in an 800˚C fire, and submerging them under up to 200 metres of water for an hour.

Nevertheless, Hudson said he’d “at least like to know what these things look like.”

He said it would be helpful to have a description of the transport truck hauling the material, to give emergency responders an idea of what they might be dealing with just in care they find one of those trucks crashed on the highway.

“I’m sure there’s better coordination with the police. If something were to happen I’m kind of relying on my counterparts with the police to give us the heads up if something were to happen,” Hudson said.

Other local emergency services expressed similar concerns.

Niagara Regional Police Const. Phil Gavin said local police were not notified about the shipment.

And although local police certainly understand the reasons for secrecy, he said they should be kept in the loop.

“There are obvious security issues that would support limiting information getting out,” he said. “We would share in the matter as Niagara is the region it passes through on a provincial highway.”

U.S. environmental groups launched a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Energy last year, hoping to stop the shipments. A U.S. court, however, ruled against the lawsuit in February, giving the green light to the shipments.

After the launch of that lawsuit last year, Gavin said police have equipment to deal with hazardous materials, as well as officers who are specially-trained for the job.

However, he said responding officers should ideally be informed about highly dangerous substances being transported through the area.

“We do not know how the notification processes will work. We trust that the respective agencies responsible for the safe shipping and handling of these materials will adhere to best practice when it comes to safety and notifications,” he said. “It would be our goal to provide our members with knowledge and training to best mitigate any risks to themselves.”

It’s a concern that was shared by Niagara Emergency Medical Service Chief Kevin Smith – community emergency management coordinator for the Niagara Region.

Although emergency services should be “built on just being prepared for anything,” Smith said they also try to be “as informed as possible, so we can anticipate and prepare for any adverse events.”

“That is the ideal state and it’s something we should be working towards,” he said at the time.

But the timing and route of the shipments is considered confidential information by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

Asked if police were informed about the recent shipments, CNSC spokesman Aurèle Gervais referred to a document published on the organization’s website that says applications for CNSC transport licences must include a transport security plan. And those transport plans must include arragnements for communication between the carrier and emergency personnel, such as the police.

Details of that plan, however, are “prescribed information and therefore, not available to the public.”

Hudson said he understands the reason for secrecy regarding the shipments.

“It’s a balancing act,” he said. “What’s the greater risk? Is there a greater risk in this day and age of security aspects and someone getting a hold of this for who knows what, or is it a risk of having an accident and this stuff spills? It’s a bit of a risk management scenario and I guess security aspects is what they’re most concerned with.”

Kevin Kamps from Beyond Nuclear, one of the groups that launched the lawsuit, said the issue with the inadequate shielding at the South Carolina disposal site is the most recent in “a growing list of mishaps” associated with the project.

“If they were to somehow screw up in transit, you could have a serious incident,” Kamps said.

“Workers will be most at risk because of how close they have to get, whether it’s the truck driver or inspectors or border officials, innocent passersby, residents along the route or people who may travel next to the truck or be stuck in traffic especially at the border. It can be a long wait at times.”

He said there are concerns about first responders being informed about shipments on the U.S. side of the border too.

Although the DOE is required to alert U.S. state governors when shipments are passing through their jurisdiction, the notification could end there.

“It could certainly not go down to local emergency responders who would only find out about the shipment when needed, which is kind of a problem. They’d be responding to a high level radioactive waste incident,” he said.

“They justify it saying it’s a security precaution, but it keeps everyone in the dark.”

ABenner@postmedia.com