Shipping Radioactive Waste Through the Great Lakes

The apparent lack of public concern about the proposed shipment of huge amounts of radioactive waste scrap metal from the Bruce Nuclear Plant from the Port of Owen Sound, through the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway and on to Sweden for recycling is unfortunate. As one of the only 15 people who showed up at a Bruce Power open house in Owen Sound earlier this week suggested, it’s a huge precedent to ship radioactive waste through the Great Lakes. If the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) approves a transport Licence, which appears likely, it will be the first time this has ever happened. Of course, municipal leaders, nuclear watchdogs and environmental organizations are sounding the alarm, trying to awaken a typically complacent public to the dangerous implication.

It matters not that the scrap steam generators Bruce Power wants to ship to Sweden are classed as low-level radioactive waste, or that almost certainly they would arrive safe and sound. What matters is the precedent, and what it says about this area’s priorities.

Do we want to be known as the centre of Canada’s nuclear industry, and all that entails? Or do we value our natural environment above all? The shipment of any amount or any level of radioactive nuclear waste through the Great Lakes via our local highways and Owen Sound is a step in the first, and wrong, direction. As well, it’s a further, troubling step in the movement of radioactive waste off-site, away from where it is produced.

Low and medium level nuclear waste is already transported across Ontario from other nuclear sites in the province to the Western Waste Management Facility at Bruce Nuclear where there are plans to build a deep geological storage site for such waste. And that will open the door to the possible development at Bruce of a deep geological storage site for high-level nuclear waste in the form of highly radioactive used nuclear fuel. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) has made that possible by recommending to the federal government that such a facility does not have to be located deep in the hard, igneous rock of the Canadian Shield, that it could be developed in an area of sedimentary rock, such as the underlies much of southwestern Ontario.

Many of us, myself included, will more than likely be long gone before that happens; but future generations may shake their collective heads and wonder why on earth the general public of today didn`t take far more interest in where the nuclear industry was headed in this area, why we didn`t subject it to far more rigorous public scrutiny, but instead put our faith in verbal or written commitments made by the industry itself, or in the federal safety commission.

We should be grateful to Gordon Edwards, President of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, for reminding us that in an environmental assessment document regarding the reconstruction of nuclear generating units at the Bruce site, Bruce Power said old steam generators would not be shipped off-site, that they would be stored at the Western Waste Management Facility. A similar promise was made by Bruce Power in a presentation to the joint council of the Saugeen Ojibway Nations.

Bruce Power applied to the CNSC in April for a licence to transport 16 used generators through Owen Sound thos fall. In its latest update on the process on its website the commission reminds us of its commitment to “protect the health, safety and security of the public and the environment. We will not issue a licence for any activity, including the transport of radioactive material, unless it is done safely.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) received a transport licence application from Bruce Power on April 1, 2010. The company proposes to transport 16 steam generators by ship through the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway to Sweden for recycling in the fall of 2010.

Further to several media reports highlighting concerns about the proposed shipment, the CNSC wishes to ensure that the facts are presented properly and in the appropriate context.

The CNSC’s mandate is to protect the health, safety and security of the public and the environment. We will not issue a licence for any activity, including the transport of radioactive material, unless it is done safely.

The commission goes on to explain that In general, low risk licences like this one are issued by Designated Officers (DO) rather than by the Commission Tribunal. The rigour of the technical review is the same in each case and the decision is based on the recommendation of CNSC staff.

But then, reading between the lines, the commission appears to be leaning heavily towards approving the transport licence with such comments as the following:

By their nature, steam generators are not radioactive. They have become contaminated during their service life. The contamination level is low and confined to the inner parts of the generators. Each and every generator is welded shut and sealed.

This would not be the first time used steam generators from nuclear power plants are shipped to Sweden for recycling. More generally and to put such shipments in context, it should be noted that radioactive materials, such as medical isotopes and radioactive sources used in industrial applications, are shipped across Canada and around the world on a regular basis.

Those concerned by Bruce Power’s proposed shipment of used steam generators can be confident that no licence will be issued unless the regulator is convinced that the shipment will be completed safely, without unreasonable risk to the health, safety or security of Canadians or the environment.

That`s all very nice. But the commission misses the point. The issue is not whether or not the steam generators can be shipped safely; they almost certainly can be. The issue is the long-term future of nuclear energy in this area, the precedent the shipment would set in that regard, and the consequences for the area.

At the very least Bruce Power`s application should be subjected to formal public hearings as part of the commission`s approval process. Time is running out. But the lack of public interest in the informal open houses held by Bruce Power has given that company, and perhaps the commission, the opportunity to say there`s no great public concern. And that is unfortunate.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2010.

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