Source: Power Source | By Don Hopey / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | August 29, 2016
Approximately 150 truckloads of unstable, liquid nuclear waste may soon roll from Canada through Western Pennsylvania on Interstate 79, unless a federal lawsuit by seven environmental organizations stops them.
The lawsuit, against the U.S. Department of Energy, claims that the first-ever long-distance shipment of weapons-grade enriched uranium in liquid form is very dangerous. The suit also claims that the department failed to conduct a required environmental impact study, circumvented public notice and comment requirements, and didn’t consider safer alternative waste disposal options.
The suit, filed Aug. 12 in Washington, D.C., seeks an injunction to stop the waste shipments, which will originate from the Chalk River Laboratories in southeast Ontario and travel 1,100 miles to the DOE’s Savannah River Site, near Aiken, S.C., for reprocessing and recycling.
The first trucks could pass through Allegheny County as soon as the end of this week. The shipments could continue during warm weather months for two to three years, said Terry Lodge, a Toledo, Ohio, attorney representing the Sierra Club, Beyond Nuclear and five other groups that brought the federal suit.
“We’re looking to hold things up. We’re looking for an injunction to stop these unprecedented shipments of liquid nuclear waste,” Mr. Lodge said “There’s no good reason for it. It’s an environmentally risky plan.”
Mr. Lodge said much safer waste disposal options exist, including solidifying the liquid and leaving it in place at the Canadian nuclear research laboratories, or even solidifying it before shipping.
The DOE’s original plan was to ship the waste in solid form, but that changed in 2013. In a November 2015 “supplemental analysis” of the new liquid waste transportation plan, the DOE determined that it was safe and, even if a severe traffic accident occurred involving a long-duration, high- temperature fire, no “LCF” — latent cancer fatalities — would occur.
The most direct route using interstate highways would bring the waste shipments through Buffalo, N.Y., through Erie, Pa., on I-90 and then through Pennsylvania for approximately 200 miles on I-79, although the DOE could choose to route the shipments on other interstates for security purposes.
The DOE’s plan now is to transport more than 6,000 gallons of the radioactive waste, which weighs more than 6 tons, in very small batches. Each tractor-trailer would carry just four stainless steel canisters, each containing approximately 15 gallons of the material. Those canisters would be secured inside a fortified cask, which in turn would be placed inside a large shipping container.
When the nuclear waste arrives in South Carolina, it would be unloaded, and the emptied containers cleaned and trucked back to Canada for reuse.
The waste — which includes enriched uranium and radioactive isotopes of cesium, strontium and plutonium, among others — was produced during medical research and treatment. The enriched uranium that makes up the bulk of the waste was originally produced in the U.S., and the DOE protocol requires it to be returned for security reasons.
At the Chalk River Laboratories, the waste is stored in a stainless steel tank equipped with a large paddle. Mr. Lodge said the paddle slowly and constantly churns the waste, “which has the consistency of a milkshake,” so that the heavier radioactive isotopes don’t settle and concentrate in a way that could cause an explosive chain reaction.
“We think such a reaction could produce an explosion sufficiently strong enough to blow out the transport canisters,” Mr. Lodge said. “This is the most dangerous liquid radioactive material that’s ever been transported in the U.S.”
In preparation for the shipments, the DOE has held more than 100 training sessions with first responders along the various transportation routes in six states — 26 of those meetings in Pennsylvania.
Neil Shader, a state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman, said the department was notified of the shipments. He said the DEP’s Bureau of Radiation Protection, along with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency and the state police, has been working with the DOE to “evaluate potential response needs.”
Mr. Shader said about 450 local first responders have attended the DOE training sessions since 2013. The training included classroom course work, a 40-hour radiation training class and field training.
“Each shipment will be escorted by the state police and monitored by a special tracking system,” Mr. Shader said. “For security purposes the exact dates and times of the shipments will not be made public. Routes were selected by the federal Department of Transportation and DOE.”
Rebecca Frazier, deputy director of Allegheny County Emergency Services, said that over the last year PEMA, local municipal responders, state police and Allegheny County hazmat teams have all received radiological training needed to respond to an emergency. She said the county will be notified when the waste trucks are nearing the county so response teams can be alerted.
Ruth Miller, a PEMA spokeswoman, said that while shipment of liquid nuclear waste is “unusual,” the agency is “confident that emergency personnel in the commonwealth are more than capable of responding to any potential incident or problem.”
But Kevin Kamps, an activist with Beyond Nuclear, one of the plaintiff groups, said transporting liquid waste raises the risks significantly.
“We’ve been calling the solid shipments of nuclear waste ‘Mobile Chernobyls’ for 20 years,” Mr. Kamps said. “These liquid shipments have never been done before in the U.S., and we’re very concerned about crashes, fires and terrorist attacks. They’re mobile Chernobyls on steroids. They’ve taken waste transport to another level of risk.”
The DOE declined a request to comment for this story, citing the ongoing litigation.