Authorities in Canada and the United States are preparing to ship approximately 150 truckloads of liquid nuclear waste from Chalk River, Ontario to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The material is a mixture of bomb grade uranium together with a witches’ brew of highly radioactive fission products dissolved in nitric acid.
While shipments of nuclear material between these facilities have taken place for decades, this is the first time that highly radioactive liquid waste will be shipped. Whatever route is chosen, it will inevitably cross the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence and a number of important river systems in the United States, putting the drinking water of millions at risk in the event of an accident that could cause a dispersal of the contents into the environment.
While shipments of solid nuclear material always present a risk, the risk associated with these particular shipments is significantly higher due to the bewildering variety of hazardous radioactive materials and the fact that it is in liquid form. While dangerous, the clean-up of solid material is easy by comparison with a liquid which could quickly make its way into sewers or a river and end up in the water supply of millions in this highly populated area.
A number of groups in the US, including Sierra Club US, have joined forces to launch a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), claiming that the shipment of liquid nuclear waste containing weapons-grade Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) is uniquely dangerous and that the DOE failed to conduct the required environmental impact study, circumvented public notice and comment requirements, and didn’t consider safer alternative waste disposal options.
According to the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, at least two viable alternatives have been rejected: (1) on-site solidification of the liquid waste, a process that has been routinely utilized at Chalk River for many years, or (2) eliminating the weapons-grade uranium by mixing it with depleted uranium on-site (a process known as “down blending”, successfully utilized by Indonesia in recent months). Once the HEU has been down-blended from “highly-enriched” to “low-enriched’ uranium, there is no need to transport it off-site as it is no longer weapons-grade material.
Transporting this material should be the last option considered, not the first. Even the most direct route between these facilities is around 1,750 km and security concerns require them to vary the route taken, some of which are significantly longer. Every kilometer travelled is an unnecessary risk. Sierra Club Canada is working with a coalition of US and Canadian groups to lobby both governments to comply with the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement 2012 requiring that they provide public notice of this potential risk. We also demand that they conduct an environmental assessment and consider alternatives before authorizing the project.
Shipments that were scheduled to begin in September have been delayed.
There is time for the governments to fulfil their duties under the Great Lakes 2012 Agreement and to respond to the demands of Sierra Club and other environmental groups to conduct an independent and meaningful environmental assessment that considers alternatives to this risky proposal.
Peter Smith is a retired professional engineer, with over 40 years experience in the energy industry, and a specific interest in avoiding climate catastrophe by transitioning to renewable sources of energy. Peter is a Director of Sierra Club Canada Foundation and chairs our Nominations Committee.