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Radioactive Cargo to Pass by Windsor

By Brian Cross, The Windsor Star July 12, 2010

WINDSOR, Ont. — A plan to ship 16 school bus-sized radioactive steam generators out of Canada via the Great Lakes — and past Windsor — is being attacked as a threat to our drinking water and health.

“Worst-case scenario is this stuff breaks containment and gets spread throughout the Great Lakes basin,” Derek Coronado, co-ordinator of the Windsor-based Citizens Environment Alliance said of the plan to send the decommissioned generators from the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station near Kincardine on Lake Huron to Sweden for recycling.

The Windsor-Detroit area has a large population close to the Detroit River, depending on the river for drinking water, and accidents in this “bottleneck” are not unheard of, he said.

“When you ship radioactive material, it’s a risky business.”

His organization is one of 55 that have signed a petition — along with 200 individuals — opposing the plan and criticizing the lack of public consultation in the approval process.

The criticism is coming from both sides of the border, including from Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley and two Michigan state representatives. Sarah Roberts, whose 24th District winds around the west side of Lake St. Clair, said the plan represents another threat to the Great Lakes, already threatened by pollution and invasive species like the Asian carp.

“We just cannot risk another threat to the Great Lakes, which is also the drinking water for millions and millions of people,” she said Monday.

Windsor Coun. Percy Hatfield, who sits on the Windsor-Essex County Environment Committee, said it would be surprising and disturbing if the plan is allowed.

“This stuff will be floating down past Windsor, right?” he said. “Anything can happen on the Great Lakes, depending on the month. I mean, look at the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

But Murray Elston, vice-president of corporate affairs at Bruce Power, which runs the nuclear plant, said critics have exaggerated the potential dangers. And even if there was a maritime disaster such as a sinking, the decommissioned generators have such a low level of radiation “nothing much would come of it.”

The 110-tonne generators, with 62 kilometres of piping inside that once contained heavy water, are classified as low-level radioactive waste, said Elston, a former provincial Liberal health minister. “I could stand within a two-metre distance of them for two hours and the result would be the equivalent of a chest X-ray.”

He said that although this recycling plan is a new concept here, such materials have been moved around the world without accident.

And he contended that dealing with nuclear waste that would otherwise be stored on site for years is something the public favours.

“It’s something that will cost us some money to do (about $1 million per unit) but we think it is the right thing to do,” Elston said.

“We have to put up with the fact some people don’t want us to do this because they’re anti-nuclear from beginning to end, but ultimately we want to reduce our environmental footprint and this is a good, sound way of doing it.”

Marc Drolet, a spokesman for the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission that must approve the plan, said technical staff are still reviewing the application that was made in April.

In an email, he said the steam generators are non-radioactive pieces of equipment that become slightly contaminated inside with radioactivity through use. He said because of the low level of radiation, they present no risk to the public, the workers or the environment. He said the dose is equivalent to one per cent of the dose from a CT scan.

He said the commission will only issue a licence to allow the transport of the generators if officials are satisfied there is no risk to the public or the environment.

But so far, there’s been no opportunity for people to voice their opposition, said Mark Mattson, a lawyer who’s president of the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, which regularly makes presentations during commission hearings.

“Nuclear waste and radioactive waste and shipping on the Great Lakes is a very, very tricky business,” he said from Toronto. And yet, he said, it seems the company wants the plan approved with little transparency and public input.

The drinking water that comes from the Great Lakes is Canada’s greatest resource, Mattson said. And environmental groups can only speculate what kind of radiation is coming from these generators.

“And if you’re taking radioactive waste across the top of our well water, we want to make sure it doesn’t get into our water.”

Elston disputes criticism the company is avoiding public scrutiny. “We have actually done more outreach and connected with more people than some people have thought we needed,” he said.

He said the firm hopes to move the units in September after the heavy summer traffic subsides on the St. Lawrence Seaway. The generators would be trucked one each day to the port in Owen Sound, and loaded into the hold of a single ship bound for Sweden. He said each unit will be sealed with an epoxy paint to prevent corrosion and contamination.

About 90 per cent of the materials will be recycled by the Swedish firm Studsvik — poured into ingots and sold on the open market in Europe. The remaining 10 per cent comes back to the nuclear plant for long-term storage.

The generators are about 30 years old and were decommissioned as part of a large refurbishment. But shipping the waste off-site doesn’t get rid of the problem — it just shifts it to another jurisdiction, said Keegan. This is not material that should recycled into metals that could be used for consumer products, he said.

“Shipping it through the Great Lakes basin, through the locks of the St. Lawrence Seaway, that’s not acceptable.”

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