The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s recent approval of a special licence for Bruce Power to ship scrap steam generators to Sweden for recycling this year is evidently just the first step, and maybe not the biggest one, to it actually happening.
Other similar, official regulators in the U.S. and Sweden must also give the shipment the green light, and that may not be a foregone conclusion, even without the international controversy that has suddenly erupted in the wake of the commission decision. I think it’s fair to say, no matter what happens if and when the generators ever get shipped through the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway and then into the Atlantic Ocean, the situation has turned into a public relations disaster for Bruce Power, as well as for Canada and its nuclear safety commission. Now suddenly we are the country that wants to ship its nuclear waste overseas. That this waste is being described in the overseas media as “highly radioactive” is “highly” something in its own right: It’s highly inaccurate, and highly unfair.
I say that as someone who previously in this space has come out against the shipment through The Great Lakes of any kind of nuclear waste – high, medium, or low – because of the precedent it sets, as well as any risk to the environment or human health. It is a promise made years ago, and a commitment broken, that nuclear waste would be safely stored here at home, in temporary storage facilities, and someday permanently, in deep underground repositories in the Canadian Shield or some other suitable rock formation. Bad enough that low-level nuclear waste, and eventually high-level, is already being shipped on Ontario highways and through Ontario communities on its way from Darlington to the Western Waste Management Facility at the Bruce Nuclear site.
The fact that facility is nearly at capacity is one of the reasons why it’s a good thing to ship the scrap steam generators to Sweden, Bruce Power told the safety commission in its application for the transportation licence. The 16 generators already taking up storage space are invariably described as each as big as a bus.
So, assuming Bruce Power is not making money selling radioactive scrap metal to a company in Sweden, the underlying issue in the controversy now giving Canada yet another bad name on the international environmental stage is the lack of at-home, in-Canada storage of nuclear waste.
But fair is fair. It’s simply wrong for the Nuclear Free Nuclear Authorities, a coalition of municipal governments in the U. K. to describe the scrap generators as “highly radioactive waste.” The group is urging the U.K. government to prevent the ship carrying the “contaminated cargo” from passing close to the coast of Northern Island and Scotland. The Scottish government has already said it will seek assurances from Canada that the cargo can be safely shipped. Norway is also worried.
Meanwhile, closer to home the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, with members on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border, has earned the ire of local municipal leaders in the Grey-Bruce area, and the nuclear safety commission, for including inaccurate information in a recent media release that criticized the commission’s decision. It spoke of the possible shipment of “1,600 tonnes of radioactive equipment,” and the danger of “an accidental spill of radioactive material.”
Bruce Power and the commission both pointed out there would be no radioactive liquid to “spill.”
Bruce County Warden Mike Smith accused the Cities Initiative of misrepresenting its nuclear-friendly members, including Bruce, Grey and Huron counties, as well as a number of local municipalities.
The safety commission took the unusual step late last week of holding a special media briefing in response to “fear-mongering” and “misinformation.”
“The CNSC would never jeopardize the health, safety or security of the public or the environment,” commission officials said. They might as well have said they’re infallible. They’re not, of course. In a round-about sort of way that motherhood comment could actually be construed as offensive to nuclear watchdogs and others who have concerns about nuclear safety and the way it’s being regulated in Canada.
There’s a risk associated with any amount of radiation, whether it’s of the natural, “background” variety, from medical equipment like x-rays, or nuclear power plants, including those that operate within the regulatory limits.
But fair is fair. I accept the Safety commission’s position that the risk associated with the shipment of the scrap generators is “negligible,” and that the level of radiation is about equal in each to the level found in heart pacemakers, and way below the regulatory level for annual public exposure.
But, again, that’s not the point. The point is the precedent it sets. Canadian nuclear waste should not be shipped out of this country. It’s our problem and nobody else’s.
Originally published in The Sun Times in 2011.