Gordon Edwards and Erika Simpson 12 February 2011
Last Friday the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) endorsed the Bruce Power proposal to transport 16 radioactive steam generators from its nuclear generating station by land to Owen Sound harbour where they will be loaded onto a cargo ship, transported through the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway, and across the Atlantic to Sweden.
There, most of the steel will be melted and mixed with recycled scrap metal. Those metal parts that are too radioactive to be mixed with clean recycled metal will be shipped back to Halifax and then trucked to Bruce Power for permanent storage close to Lake Huron’s shores.
Many municipalities and experts in Canada and the United States, including some vociferous American senators, are expressing strong opposition to the newly-endorsed plan. Plans are afoot to vigorously protest the shipments as 16 school-bus-sized radioactive hulks are carried along the St. Lawrence Seaway, possibly beginning this April.
The hearing in Ottawa to consider a licence for these shipments was quietly set up to take place one day last year, Sept. 29. But so many experts and representatives of non-governmental organizations demanded time that another crammed day of hearings was held.
Evidently a comprehensive environmental assessment was required. Not to have done so seriously compromises the trust in good governance that is essential for any environmental assessment to be a respected tool.
This shipment will set a precedent as the first transport of radioactive wastes through the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence. The new plan drastically changes the actions that were previously planned for these steam generators.
Under a 2006 environmental assessment prepared by Bruce Power and approved by the CNSC, the generators were declared to be radioactive waste that could not be recycled and would therefore be stored at the Bruce station in the Western Waste Management Facility owned and operated by Ontario Power Generation as low-level radioactive waste. They would be stored on the surface until 2043, and underground thereafter.
We appreciate that non-radioactive steel is recyclable; however, the largest waste quantities will be associated with the pressure-tube, calandria-tube and steam generator replacement, and these replaced components cannot be recycled because they are radioactively contaminated.
There was an acceptable plan for managing these wastes approved in 2006. Yet five years later, Bruce Power wants to transport these components halfway across the world. Although the radioactive metal cannot be recycled directly – since there is no market for radioactive metal – it can be diluted with non-radioactive metal and sold as “clean” scrap without any indication that it contains radioactive waste materials. Surely such a proposal deserves wide public debate.
Do we want to encourage the unnecessary export and import of radioactive debris from defunct nuclear reactors? This requires due deliberation at the highest political levels.
Great concern is already being expressed worldwide about the deregulation of radioactive metals, and the alarming increase in radioactively contaminated scrap metal. A 2006 report by the UN’s Economic Commission for Europe contains 46 pages of recommendations on monitoring proposed procedures for dealing with scrap radioactive metal. The steel manufacturers’ association is denouncing the practice of contaminating scrap metal with radioactive waste materials, and states its members will not knowingly handle radioactively contaminated scrap metal.
The environmental record of the Swedish company, Studsvik, also needs to be taken into account. More time is needed to obtain and examine reliable documents about the company’s environmental record, which appears not reliably good according to experts, such as Russian nuclear physicist Oleg Bodrov.
The accident scenarios that would have the most radiological impact would be the dropping of a waste container or steam generator. CNSC says their containers “are designed to survive a four-metre drop with minimal loss of contents”. What does “minimal” mean? Are the steam generators designed to withstand a a 400-metre immersion in the event of a shipping accident?
Accidents can happen. Like the Gulf of Mexico, the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River are a tremendous resource and an economic engine for North America. We should not support proposals that potentially threaten these precious waterways, the source of drinking water for almost 40 million people, especially when there are alternatives.
Gordon Edwards is president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility.
Erika Simpson is the vice-chair of Pugwash Canada and teaches international politics and international security in the department of political science at the University of Western Ontario.