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Opposition to Radioactive Shipment Through the Great Lakes Growing

On February 4, 2011, the Canadian Nuclear safety Commission (CNSC) approved Bruce Power’s plan to ship 16 bus-size radioactive steam generators from Owen Sound to Nyköping, Sweden. Bruce Power has contracted Swedish company Studsvik to transport and decontaminate 90% of the steam generators. The scrap metal will be free released into the consumer market. This is the first of several shipments since Bruce Power has 64 steam generators that it plans to ship to Sweden. The decision, which had been expected in December, was released at 4:30 p.m. on a Friday afternoon. The timing of the release speaks to the controversy and opposition to the decision that the CNSC had expected.

Since the decision, opposition to the shipment has grown. The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, the Council of Canadians, the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility and Mouvement Sortons le Québec du Nucléaire immediately issued statements condemning the decision. The Mohawks of Akwasesne, Kahnawake and Tyendinaga released a joint statement last week expressing their opposition to the shipment. The mayors of Sarnia and Montreal have reiterated their resolve to stop the shipment in the media.

The shipment will pass by municipalities along the Great Lakes, Lake St. Clair, Detroit River, Niagara River, St. Lawrence Seaway and Gulf of St. Lawrence. The CNSC’s decision noted that Bruce Power must obtain permits from municipalities along the travel route, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, Transport Canada and the US Department of Transport. Bruce Power must also obtain approval from the UK, Denmark and Norway to pass through their waters. There is no clear shipping date. Last year, the St. Lawrence Seaway began its shipping season on March 25. There are estimates that the shipment will begin in April.

Concern about the shipments is also growing overseas. Organizations in Europe have expressed opposition including the Swedish Environmental Movement’s Nuclear Waste Secretariat, Nuclear Free Local Authorities (UK and Ireland), Green World (Russia), Naturvernforbund/Friends of the Earth (Norway) and Sortie du nucléaire (France). Many European organizations are monitoring developments related to the shipment. The Scottish government has expressed concerns about the shipment’s passage through Scottish waters.

The CNSC held a technical briefing last Friday (February 11) “to correct misinformation on the safety and environmental impact of this shipment.” The CNSC is also holding a technical briefing today for Members of Parliament. The media briefing included questions on public consultation, opposition to the shipment and contents of the steam generators.

Akwesasne Grand Chief Mike Kanentakeron Mitchell has decried the lack of consultation stating, “We were never consulted even though the shipment is planned to pass through our territorial waters.” When a reporter at the media briefing asked about public consultation with the Mohawks of Akwasesne, CNSC’s Executive Vice President and Chief Regulatory Officer,Ramzi Jamal quickly noted that the CNSC had conducted consultations with the City of Montreal and the Mohawks of Akwasesne. Although the Mohawks of Akwasesne had requested a consultation with the CNSC, the CNSC’s presentation does not replace Bruce Power’s obligation to consult with communities. There is a need for CNSC and Bruce Power to consult with communities but these are not one and the same. However, the CNSC seems to think so. The CNSC presentation assures audiences of the safety of radioactive shipments on the Great Lakes and fails to examine possible risks or public concerns. The CNSC presentation advocates for Bruce Power’s plan, even though the CNSC has stated that the presentation was not about the Bruce Power shipment but rather about nuclear shipments in general.

The CNSC’s decision also calls into question what it means to consult with a community or with the public. The CNSC held a public hearing in September 2010. Nearly 80 groups and individuals made written submissions to the CNSC with the majority of them opposing the shipments. Half of the groups spoke at the CNSC’s public hearing. 32 of the interveners made supplementary submissions in November raising further concerns and questions that were not addressed at the hearing. Despite this opposition, the CNSC has approved the plan. This disregard for public concern raises the question of how much input communities have in the consultation process.

Although the purpose of technical brief was to address “misinformation” about the shipments, the CNSC staff side-stepped a key concern about the shipment. In April 2010, Bruce Power applied for a special licence with the CNSC because the shipment failed to meet packaging requirements set out in the CNSC’s Packaging and Transport of Nuclear Substances Regulations (PTNSR). The radioactive levels of the steam generators also exceed legal limits set out by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Regulations for the Safe Transport of Radioactive Material by 50 times.

However, Mr. Jammal failed to mention the latter point at the technical briefing. He emphatically stated that “Those generators, if they would fit into an existing approved package, I’ll be very honest with you, we would not be here. The size of the generator is the issue.” Apparently that is not the only issue. The CNSC staff report (Document 10-H19, page 7) noted thatBruce Power has applied for a licence to transport under special arrangement for the transport of the steam generators because the size of the steam generators makes it impractical to package them, the interior cannot be accessed which does not allow direct confirmation of the estimated internal surface contamination levels, and the total activity in the shipment is estimated to exceed the limits of the regulations for Surface Contaminated Objects material transported onboard a single ship.” (italics added)

There is debate between the CNSC and interveners about how many times the radioactive levels exceed IAEA guidelines. The CNSC has affirmed that the radioactivity of the shipment exceeds IAEA guidelines by 6 times, which is true for limits of ocean-going shipments. However, the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiatives (GLSLCI) noted that radioactivity of a single ship exceeds IAEA guidelines for inland-water shipments (lakes and rivers) by 50 times (or “60 times with revised and increased estimates of radioactivity”). The GLSLCI has noted it is not clear whether the 10 A2 limit applies to inland waterway or inland watercraft. The GLSLCI also noted that an accident with only one generator in Owen Sound Harbour has the potential to exceed Health Canada’s Drinking Water Action Levels by 6 times (if release rate is 100%).

In any case, this shipment sets a dangerous precedent for shipping radioactive waste that exceeds international standards across the Great Lakes. This precedent may influence decisions about highly radioactive waste currently stored on site at the Bruce, Pickering and Darlington nuclear power plants. The government is considering a disposal site in Saskatchewan. This would mean the waste would be transported through the most densely populated areas of Southern Ontario and across thousands of kilometres of Northern Ontario’s highways or shipped by water to Lake Superior. Naturvernforbund (Friends of the Earth Norway) has noted that this shipment is setting a precedent for increasing radioactive metal from Russia to Ecomet S near St. Petersburg.

In response to the CNSC decision, Grand Chief of the Mohawks of Tyendinaga Don Maracle pointed out, “We have an obligation to protect Mother Earth and her inhabitants. We would be derelict in our duties if we turned a blind eye to this dangerous plan.” Although the purported mission of the CNSC is to regulate “the use of nuclear energy and materials to protect the health, safety and security of Canadians and the environment,” it appears the Mohawks of Tyendinaga and other groups are doing a better job with the CNSC’s mission than the CNSC commissioners are.