Are Safeguards Adequate at the Bruce Nuclear Site?

Worse has happened, and is still happening, to Lake Huron and the other Great Lakes than the spill of “mineral oil” into the lake from the Bruce Nuclear site after a recent transformer fire there. 

The Wednesday, April 20, 2005 issue of The Sun Times ran a front-page, follow-up article about the Bruce Nuclear fire and spill. Coincidentally, that same day there was room on Page 2 for another story that in the greater scheme of things should raise more concerns about ongoing threats to the health of the Great Lakes. It appeared under the headline “Study finds ships’ ballast tanks dangerous even when empty” and was based on a five-year U.S. study that found “ocean-going freighters that claim to be empty of ballast water before entering the Great Lakes routinely carry dangerous foreign organisms, including saltwater algae, invertebrates and deadly bacteria.”

The study was done by the University of Michigan and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Samples were taken from 42 ships that entered the Great Lakes through the St. Lawrence Seaway. Researchers found two-thirds of the ships carried potentially deadly organisms in ballast water tanks that were supposed to be empty and clean, including cholera and cryptosporidium.

“Those organisms can escape when ships take on and unload ballast water while in Great Lakes harbours. Ballast water is stored in huge tanks below deck to keep ships stable and is added or dumped based on cargo load,” said the Associated Press article, datelined Muskegon, Michigan.

It noted in 1993 cryptosporidium from an unknown source contaminated Milwaukee’s drinking water system, killing more than 100 people and making 400,000 others ill. Zebra mussels, an alien species of shellfish brought into the Great Lakes in the ballast water of visiting ocean freighters, have caused major problems for municipal water systems. The article said “181 other species imported to the lakes threaten to drive out some native species at the base of the Great Lakes food web, endangering a multi-billion dollar fishery.” I presume that means the sport as well as commercial fishery on both sides of the border, including right here in Grey-Bruce. And that sounds like an opportunity for local sportsmen’s clubs and the two First Nation communities in our area to join forces and raise public awareness about an issue of considerable urgency to the local environment and economy.

The study’s authors said, “immediate action is needed to stem the flow of exotic organisms and pathogens entering the lakes in freighters’ ballast tanks.” They suggested the development of improved ship management or “treatment processes” to ensure contaminated offshore ballast water does not end up in the Great Lakes.

I don’t mean to belittle the valid questions and concerns raised by the recent fire and spill at the Bruce Nuclear site. In a perfect world accidents don’t happen, especially at nuclear-powered electrical generating plants. Here in the real world of Grey-Bruce where we’re all neighbours of Bruce Nuclear most people put a lot of trust and faith in the idea that appropriate systems and safeguards are in place to prevent accidents, especially catastrophic ones. What happened last Friday, and to some extent may still be happening out on the waters of Lake Huron, was not catastrophic. Above all, it was not radioactive.

But it was a red flag, a healthy reminder that accidents happen at nuclear plants despite “the best laid plans of mice and men,” to quote Robert Burns. And in the aftermath of the incident everyone associated with the operation of the Bruce site, including Bruce Power, federal and provincial regulators, public health officials, and we the neighbours, have good reason to ask this question: How could such a thing happen? By that I mean how is it still possible for a large quantity of water contaminated with oil to drain into Lake Huron from the Bruce site through “surface” drains? And, just to be clear, we’re talking roadside ditches here. I find it astonishing that a site as technologically advanced as the sprawling Bruce Nuclear property, but a site with well-documented sources of contaminations (conventional landfill and construction landfills) is still served by open ditches draining into the lake.

In other respects the Bruce Nuclear site has multiple layers of safeguards, especially where the threat of radioactive contamination is involved, to prevent a catastrophe. And yet it still employs a surface water drainage system that can only be described as primitive.

Surely it’s time the site had an appropriate storm water management system, one which would capture and fully contain surface run-off, either as a result of precipitation or fire-fighting, in suitably designed retention ponds where it could be sampled and tested before being allowed to go any further.

The installation of that sort of system would no doubt be a major, expensive project. Whether or not it happens remains to be seen. But the officials I talked to this week made it clear there will be serious discussions about what can be done to prevent any similar spill into the lake from happening again. “That will happen for sure,” said Ontario Ministry of Environment spokesperson Mark Rabbior.

Bruce Power CEO Duncan Hawthorne said such transformer fires are rare, and the surface drains that carried some of the leaked oil and firefighting water to the lake are not in the immediate vicinity of the transformer that caught fire. But there are lessons to be learned from such events, however rare, and the need for additional drainage safeguards is something Bruce Power will certainly be looking into, he said. “I expect as a result of his accident we’ll do something different,” Hawthorne said, suggesting the possibility of small retention walls around transformer buildings.

Provincial Environment officials from the Owen Sound office were on the scene early this week, among other things, looking for signs of shoreline contamination. A dead fish found near the mouth of the Little Sauble River has been given to the Ministry of Natural Resources for analysis to determine the cause of death.

Dr. Hazel Lynn, Medical Officer of Health for the Grey-Bruce Health Unit, issued a public advisory Tuesday warning people to avoid boating and other recreational activities in the “oil sheen” between MacGregor Point and Kincardine. “The mineral oil . . . could cause more respiratory irritation and, possibly, more severe effects if drawn into people’s lungs,” she said.

Bruce Power also consistently referred to “mineral oil” to describe what had been spilled. For the record, mineral oil is petroleum-based, a by-product of the distillation of crude oil to produce gasoline. It has many uses, industrial and even medicinal. Mineral oil is often used as an animal laxative. It can still be bought for similar human use over the counter in pharmacies. And it can be used as electrical insulating oil. The product spilled from the Bruce transformer is made by Imperial Oil and called Voltesso 35. “All Voltesso brand electrical insulating oils are manufactured from quality petroleum base stocks, blended with selected additives. As with all petroleum products, good personal hygiene and careful handling should always be practiced. Avoid prolonged contact with the skin, splashing into eyes, ingestion, or vapour inhalation,” says the Product Data Sheet for Voltesso on the Imperial Oil Website.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2005.

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