Activists hope to keep radioactive waste out of local drinking water

Photo by Sue Suchyta

Ed McArdle of Melvindale is the conservation committee chairman of the Southeast Michigan Group of the Sierra Club, which, along with other watchdog groups, is opposed to the proposed shipping of radioactive steam generators from Owen Sound, Ontario, via the Great Lakes and Detroit River to Sweden.

The thought of burying tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste next to Lake Huron, the only source of drinking water for millions of people downstream, is beyond comprehension.’
— Robert Burns

Sunday Times Newspapers

Two alternatives for dealing with 16 decomissioned radioactive steam generators from an Ontario nuclear power plant may put southeastern Michigan’s drinking water at risk of plutonium pollution.

A plan was announced earlier this month to ship the generators now at the Bruce Power Plant through the Great Lakes and the Detroit River on the way to Sweden for recycling. And while that has some environmentalists concerned, they also say the original plan — storing the generators on site — could put the drinking water source for millions at risk.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission announced Feb. 4 that it would issue a license to ship the generators to Sweden, but before that can happen, permission also must be obtained from Transport Canada, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the United Kingdom, Norway and Denmark.

Transport Canada spokeswoman Maryse Durette said last week that as long as regulations are being followed regarding the transport of dangerous shipments, her agency would defer to the decision of the CNSC.

All 16 generators first would travel about 44 miles by truck and trailer from Bruce Power to the public port of Owen Sound, a one-hour trip. They then would be loaded onto a ship over three to four weeks before heading through Lake Huron, the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair, the Detroit River, Lake Erie, the Welland Canal, Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence Seaway and the St. Lawrence River on their way to the Atlantic.

They would pass through the territorial waters of the United Kingdom, Norway and Denmark before reaching Sweden’s Studsvik Harbor for offloading. Officials say it is unlikely that any shipments will occur this winter or early spring.

The Bruce Power Website says 10 percent of the steam generator material cannot be recycled, and that it would be returned to Canada as low-level waste using the established road and marine transportation network.

Activists are concerned about the risk inherent with the possibility of an accident or storm damage to a ship that could drop any of the generators – which weigh about 100 tons and are the size of a school bus – into one of the Great Lakes or even the Detroit River.

“It’s unlikely to happen, but it’s a possibility, and why take the risk?” said Ed McArdle of the Sierra Club for Southeast Michigan, a volunteer environmental group. “Then, depending on where … a spill actually happens, it gets into the potential drinking water supply or at least into the ecosystem and … accumulates in fish.

“We already have some radioactive contamination in the Great Lakes,” McArdle said. “And so this would just add more to it.”

The Bruce plant was constructed in stages between 1970 and 1987 by Ontario Hydro. Bruce Power, a private sector consortium, entered into a long-term lease in June 2000 to run the facility and began doing so in May 2001.

Bruce Power is the largest nuclear facility in North America, and the second largest in the world after Kashiwazaki-Kariwa in Japan.

The original plan was to store the contaminated steam generators at the site of the Ontario Bruce Power plant in specially lined and protected storage facilities on site. That, however, may not be an ideal option.

“I am less concerned about the shipment of used contaminated generators out of the Great Lakes, as long as proper precautions are taken, than I am with the planned use of the Bruce Pennisula nuclear site being used as Canada’s new long-term nuclear waste storage facility,” said Riverkeeper Robert Burns of the Friends of the Detroit River.

The Friends is a nonprofit group funded mostly by grants that works on issues that might negatively impact the river’s water quality and its natural habitats.

“The thought of burying tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste next to Lake Huron, the only source of drinking water for millions of people downstream, is beyond comprehension,” Burns said.

McArdle said while Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission officials say the radiation is very small, nuclear facilities can contain at least 14 different isotopes, five of which are plutonium – “one of the most toxic substances known to man,” he said.

The public reacts to oil spills, McArdle said, because they can be seen, whereas nuclear waste accidents cannot. He said plutonium’s half-life is about 14,000 years, which “might as well be forever.”

“You may not die right away, but it may cause more leukemia down the line,” McArdle said. “It gets in the drinking water, builds up in the food chain.”

Sierra Club officials say U.S. Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow already have sent strongly worded letters to the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, which oversees Great Lakes nuclear transports, urging a thorough review.

The senators also called for a National Environmental Policy Act full assessment. The Michigan Sierra Club signed the letter as an official intervener, which members say would give it standing for any legal action if the proposal is approved.

“Safety is the No. 1 priority at the U.S. Department of Transportation,” spokeswoman Julia Valentine said, adding that the DOT needs to approve the shipment even with Canadian approval. “We will conduct a thorough review of the Bruce Power Co.’s application to ensure that all safety and environmental concerns are addressed before making a decision regarding the shipment, she said. “PHMSA is responsible for granting or denying the approval. PHMSA will work closely and seek recommendations from other federal agencies including the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Coast Guard during the process.”

Officials in Riverview declined comment on the situation pending more information.

In Wyandotte, Melanie McCoy, general manager of the city’s Department of Municipal Services, said, “I am not the expert on the nuclear shipping, but I do know it is a challenging situation. I think we need to monitor the process and have faith, yet follow the regulatory agencies that control the shipments.”