Accident. Fire. Terrorism.
Sometime this summer, high-level, weapons-grade radioactive waste is expected to pass through New York State – maybe through the Buffalo Niagara region – on flatbed trucks traveling from Ontario to a South Carolina facility. Local environmental activists are concerned about the inherent risks in the transport and that the public is unaware that it could be coming.
That’s why local members of the Sierra Group and others rallied in downtown Buffalo on Wednesday afternoon, calling on Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to block the planned transport of the materials over New York’s roadways from Chalk River Laboratories northwest of Ottawa to the U.S. Department of Energy’s nuclear reprocessing facility at the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C.
“This is unprecedented that liquid nuclear waste such as this will be trucked across bridges, through communities without any public review,” said Lynda H. Schneekloth, a University at Buffalo professor and chairwoman of the Sierra Club’s Niagara Group. She said her group became aware of the planned shipments only a few weeks ago following a series of articles published by the Ottawa Citizen.
The newspaper reports state that more than 6,000 gallons of “nitric acid solution containing highly enriched uranium” would travel in specially engineered casks south from Chalk River in one to two heavily guarded truck convoys at a time. Those trips, to occur weekly during summer months, would require an estimated 76 shipments in all – about a four-year process, according to the newspaper.
Maureen Conley, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, confirmed to The Buffalo News on Wednesday that the agency received an application from Georgia-based NAC International requesting it approve its design for packaging the liquid waste for transport by Aug. 1. Each shipment, she said, would carry up to four containers containing 17 gallons each of the liquid nuclear waste.
“It is still under review,” Conley said of the application.
Conley said the purpose of the shipment is to return weapons-grade nuclear material to the United States.
“It’s part of the program to bring this stuff back here,” she said. “We’re trying to bring all this stuff under our security.”
The activists aren’t buying that.
“The nonproliferation excuse is being used to make it sound very patriotic,” said Diane D’Arrigo, radioactive-waste project director of the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, a network for citizens and environmental activists.
“The travel is such an enormous danger, and it’s completely unnecessary,” said Gordon Albright, a professor at York University in Toronto.
Conley said that maintaining safety is paramount in such an endeavor and that there are requirements regarding the issues of accidents, fires and terrorism. “In order to be certified, the design has to go through all sorts of testing,” Conley said.
Those include puncture and drop tests, accident testing, fire testing to 1,475 degrees and several others. “They have to show the packaging can withstand all those,” she said. “I can just say, it will be well-protected.”
The exact route that the convoy would take is unknown and is believed to be protected in the interest of national security. That bothers the activists, who say the public has a right to know if they’re being exposed to potential harm.
Possible routes could include entering the United States at:
• The Thousand Islands Bridge accessing Interstate 81, a 1,159-mile total journey over an estimated 18 hours, 22 minutes.
• The Lewiston-Queenston Bridge accessing the Niagara Thruway, 1,162 miles over an estimated 19 hours, 13 minutes.
• The Peace Bridge accessing the Niagara Thruway, 1,158 miles over an estimated 19 hours, 8 minutes.
If, as activists demand, shipments are kept off New York’s roadways, the next-quickest avenue would appear to be through the Windsor-Detroit area – a trip of 1,248 miles and roughly 20 hours, 38 minutes.
Officials in Cuomo’s press office did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday.