Uranium convoy heading your way?

Chalk River Laboratories, run by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, near Chalk River, Ontario. Photo: Padraic Ryan, CC some rights reserved

When it comes to weapons-grade uranium, there’s general agreement such material should be kept out of the wrong hands.

How to make sure that happens is another story entirely – including frequent debate about transportation and storage concerns – your basic NIMBY conflicts, writ large.

So, consider this a heads-up: sometime soon an armed convoy of trucks carrying depleted uranium may be trundling down roads between a nuclear facility in Chalk River Ontario and a reprocessing site in South Carolina.

For obvious reasons, specifics about transporting highly-enriched uranium (HEU) are not being publicized. As the crow flies, though, such a journey could easily involve cutting across New York State.

Here’s the story as reported in the Ottawa CItizen this week by Ian MacLeod:

…a 2011 federal government memo says the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) considers it unnecessary to hold public sessions that would allow citizens to ask questions and comment on the HEU repatriations to the U.S. The CNSC declined to comment on the memo Tuesday.

Documents from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission say an “expedited” approval is being sought for transport of the liquid HEU. It is believed to be the first time such a highly radioactive solution has been transported by road in North America and, according to U.S. commission documents, could happen as early as August.

Other U.S. commission documents show March 1 is the U.S. target date for approving transport of the spent fuel rods to the Savannah River Site. 

Filing for the National Post Ian MacLeod also reports:

“This does seem to be an unprecedented, cross-border shipment of liquid high-level waste and, for that reason alone, it needs the highest order of environmental review on both sides of the border,” says Tom Clements, a South Carolina campaign co-ordinator for Friends of the Earth and former executive director of the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington.

(More technical information regarding this complex subject is discussed in both articles.)

The National Research Universal (NRU) reactor at Chalk River is operated by the Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL). According to the AECL, the facility does not generate electricity:

The NRU reactor was built for three purposes: to be a supplier of industrial and medical radioisotopes used for the diagnosis and treatment of life-threatening diseases; to be a major Canadian facility for neutron physics research; and to provide engineering research and development support for CANDU® power reactors.

The National Research Universal (NRU) reactor in Chalk River crops up in the news now and again, most recently when a shut down imperiled normal supplies of medical isotopes.

But getting back to the potential convoy in question, this strikes me as a tough call. Two friendly nations are co-operating in pursuit of a mutually-desired goal: safe handling and disposal of dangerous material. No one has invented teleportation yet, so the conveyance choices consist of plane, barge, truck or rail. Each has potential problems.

How should any public right to know be weighed next conflicting needs of secrecy and security?

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12 Comments on “Uranium convoy heading your way?”

  1. tootightmike says:

    One reasonable concern that must be answered is whether our homeowners policies will cover us in a worst case, traffic accident. Another would the concern over a terrorist attack sort of threat, and I’m pretty sure my policy expressly DOES NOT cover such damages.
    Do our governments have some sort of policy that would re-locate and re-build an entire town that might be polluted by a random catastrophy? How about a river and all affected parties downstream?
    I understand the need for secrecy. Handled properly such a transport will pass by un-noticed like so many other hazardous loads through town. The daily trains that run through Potsdam and Canton carry truly frightening chemicals, every day, and several times per day, and in the event of an accident, dead is dead.
    So is there some assurance that we’ll all be safe and happy in the event of a mishap, or are we, along the route, involved in this risk too?

  2. Of course the convoy has to be secret, for security reasons.
    This shows up the inherent secrecy that must surround all things nuclear – and also shows that the nuclear industry fits comfortably only with a police state – it is inherently undemocratic

  3. mervel says:

    tootight is correct we have to do these sorts of things if we are going to have nuclear technology, but are we given any assurances of protections from the losses we would suffer from an accident? I wonder if homeowners policies cover us from the parade of toxic chemicals that go through Canton and Potsdam everyday on those trains?

  4. mervel says:

    I find it fascinating how we go crazy over fraking or a large concentrated beef plant or a casino or Walmart, but sit happily by as CSX transports extremely toxic materials everyday right through our neighborhoods and nuclear materials above just go right through with hardly a peep of protest.

  5. Rancid Crabtree says:

    It would be best if some research was done regarding how things are packaged for shipment before assuming you’re in line to die a horrible death if this happens. Depleted uranium is relatively benign compared to household chemicals you use every day. You aren’t going to have a China Syndrome from a traffic accident with depleted uranium. In fact depleted uranium is safe enough that it’s used in anti-tank rounds. No, you don’t want to ingest it, but compared to a gallon of gasoline or your family gas grill tank it’s not even worth worrying over.

  6. mervel says:

    That is an interesting point Rancid.

  7. Rancid Crabtree says:

    Mervel, consider that depleted uranium is used as medical shielding, as armor on military vehicles, as counter weights in civilian aircraft. Depleted uranium is what the truly radioactive materials are transported in sometimes. In fact, DU has been used in dental porcelain for some time. DU main radio active rays are alpha rays which are weak and won’t even penetrate clothing. Again, you don;t want to eat it or grind it up and breathe it in, but it’s usually less of a concern than the radon in your basement or the stuff in smoke detectors.

    DEPLETED URANIUM!!!!! Sure sounds scary, doesn’t it?

    I wonder if any of this is the waste material from that 550 metric tons of yellow cake that Saddam didn’t have that Iraq sold to Canada after the war?

  8. Lucy Martin says:

    Rancid, I’ll just say it: I am not terribly bright about nuclear anything. Dollars to doughnuts, your understanding of the topic surpasses mine.

    But if you read the source article, isn’t there more being shipped here than depleted uranium?

    Now, the same article says there are serious storage issues where the stuff is now. If I understand the quoted expert comments correctly, this _is_ problematic material and that moving it (carefully) is probably a good idea, the better choice overall.

    I agree, there’s a lot of ignorance, fear and hype connected to stories like this. I don’t want to contribute to unfounded reactions.

    But, respectfully, I submit the material in question doesn’t sound quite as benign as your comments suggest!

  9. Lucy Martin says:

    Oh dear. Calling the shipment “depleted uranium” seems to be … my fault.

    Reading back I see I used that description in paragraph three of the blog post.
    I don’t think that’s the most accurate term. I regret any confusion that may have caused.

    As the Citizen article states: “Highly radioactive nuclear reactor fuel rods are to be clandestinely shipped by road from Chalk River to the United States under a non-proliferation effort to rid the Upper Ottawa Valley site of bomb-grade uranium.”

    Again, leaving the material at Chalk River seems to present a greater safety risk than moving it for re-processing. (The risk is not of an explosion, but of wide-spread contamination, should the storage tanks rupture.)

  10. Rancid Crabtree says:

    Okay Lucy, highly enriched uranium and depleted uranium are 2 different birds, in fact one is a bird and the other is a Commodore 64. 2 way different things. I read DU and didn’t see the HEU, so that’s old age for ya. Sorry. HEU in the form of spent rods, or the matrix they re stored in, is still not going to China Syndrome. And I’d have to disagree with part of that story about this being the first time the stuff ash ever been shipped by road. Unless the reporters got things mixed up, spent fuel rods have been shipped by road int he US for decades and you will never, ever even know it was done. They sure don’t go 30KPH either. I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a bit of disinformation being strewn into this story for security reasons. That stuff can surely make a dirty bomb, although the guys building it would be glowing without the proper gear. And that’s the key point here. Believe it or not, I’d say I can be reasonably sure in betting my life this stuff isn’t transported in cardboard boxes secured with duct tape. I have little trust of the US gov’t, but really, they aren’t sending this stuff out on the road in a Rubbermaid tote. Just do a little googling on how this stuff is packaged, if you don’t mind the NSA and FBI and probably 5 other alphabet agencies looking over your shoulder. That stuff is so regulated and double/triple cross checked…it’s staggering and I only know about the very outside of the periphery of it.

    I think we have a far greater chance of a meteor smacking down in the center of beautiful downtown Piercefield than we do of some kid in his F150 smacking this thing and turning I-90 into Chernobyl.

  11. If Clapton is God, Warren Haynes is Jesus says:

    If only Thorium would have “won the day” and thus fueled the nuclear reactors of the world nay these past many years. But then again, we can’t build doomsday weaponry with Thorium. The costs we pay for mankind’s need to kill one another on a mass scale. Such is that nature of the human species.

  12. Rancid Crabtree says:

    There has been talk of alternative source plants. Seems like a great idea to me.

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