PARLIAMENT HILL, Ottawa—Canada’s only privately owned nuclear utility is facing fury from environmentalists over a plan to send decommissioned nuclear generators to Sweden to be partially recycled.
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) gave Bruce Power license to ship the 16 bus-sized steam generators last month on a route that will see them traverse the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway before crossing the Atlantic.
But the plan has outraged environmentalists who say it represents a dangerous precedent in shipping nuclear waste. The heads of both Bruce Power and the CNSC say the shipment is more than safe and allege anti-nuclear groups are creating alarm through misinformation.
Michael Binder, CEO of the CNSC, told a Parliamentary committee on Tuesday that by the time the shipment gets all its approvals it will have passed a rigorous review.
“This will be the safest shipping of any hazardous material I can think of,” he said.
Weather will delay the shipment until spring, but lawyers for environmental groups hope to delay it longer through an injunction to stop the last license needed for the Canadian portion of the route. Other approvals are still needed from the United States, United Kingdom, and Sweden, but due to a similarity of regimes, those approvals are expected to pass.
However, the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility says the shipment sets a dangerous precedent, representing the first time radioactive waste will be exported or imported from a refurbished Canadian nuclear reactor. If approved, more would follow, including Bruce Power’s other 48 generators.
We are prepared to do whatever is necessary in the coming months to stop this.
— Mike Delisle
“We are going to have a highway of nuclear garbage,” Gordon Edwards, the group’s president, told reporters on Parliament Hill Tuesday morning.
“We are talking about a whole new ball game in the history of nuclear power. Up until now, we have always been told that nuclear waste will be sequestered and isolated safely from the environment. Now we are being told that nuclear waste will be recycled into consumer goods. This is completely unacceptable.”
It will also be the first time radioactive waste from Canadian nuclear reactors will have been introduced into the world’s scrap metal market.
Sweden’s Studsvik Inc. facility has exclusive technology to melt down the generators and separate the most contaminated waste. Bruce Power was under obligation to store the generators indefinitely in large specialized buildings. With processing, the radioactive waste will be reduced and stabilized, condensed enough to fit into a building sized for a single generator and then shipped back to Canada. The rest will be sold into the scrap metal market and could end up in consumer products after being diluted with ten times more additional metal.
The Steel Manufacturers Association, a group of 36 North American companies, has said its members will not accept such scrap, but it is almost impossible to trace. As a result, some steel manufacturers have begun installing sophisticated detection systems to sniff out radioactive material.
Studsvik signed a $34 million contract with Bruce Power in 2009 and was to start treating 16 generators last year before the shipment was delayed.
Binder said the shipment is nothing unusual except the material cannot fit in internationally approved containers and so required a special permit.
“This is routine activity with no safety issues,” he told the committee.
In his presentation to the committee, the CEO noted Canada shipped 7,000 tons of yellowcake uranium—uranium concentrate powder used to make nuclear fuel bundles—along the St. Lawrence Seaway in 2009, not to mention medical isotopes and other radioactive substances transported by planes. The only difference between those shipments and this one is the size of the packages, he said.
He also noted that the 65km of tubing inside each generator is housed inside a 5cm thick steel shell which functions as an extremely effective container and that only 4 grams of contaminated material exists within the tubing of each generator.