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WASHINGTON – Shipments of liquid nuclear waste over the Peace Bridge could begin as soon as September 2015, the office of Rep. Brian Higgins said Thursday as the Buffalo congressman demanded that the federal government do a full environmental review of the shipments before they begin.

“Without a comprehensive review and plan, they are setting us up for a mobile Chernobyl,” Higgins warned, referring to the disastrous 1986 nuclear accident in Ukraine.

Higgins, a Democrat, brought the issue of the shipments – known mostly to environmental groups until now – to the floor of the House on Thursday.

He told his House colleagues that more study is needed of a plan to ship liquid nuclear waste from the Chalk River (Ont.) Laboratories nearly 1,200 miles to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River nuclear waste processing facility in South Carolina.

Under the plan, 6,000 gallons of nuclear waste would be transported southward in a series of weekly shipments that could continue for more than a year.

“Unlike spent nuclear fuel, which can be safely transported in solid form, in liquid form it is more radioactive and complicated to transfer,” Higgins told his colleagues. “Most concerning, in the event of a spill, liquid highly enriched uranium would be difficult to contain. A major contamination in the Buffalo Niagara region could potentially result, exacting dire consequences on the Great Lakes, the Niagara Power Project and greater Buffalo Niagara population.”

Higgins also wrote to U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz to demand that a full environmental-impact statement be completed on the proposal – which the department refused to do last year when it approved the shipments. An environmental-impact statement is an in-depth review that, under the National Environmental Policy Act, often takes years to complete.

An aide to Higgins said members of the Sierra Club’s Niagara Group and the Clean Air Coalition brought their concerns about the shipments to the congressman’s office earlier this month.

“It is our understanding that the plan is scheduled to proceed in September of 2015,” the Higgins aide said.

That being the case, Higgins is making a full-court press to try to stop them.

The type of nuclear material transport cask that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission plans to use to ship the waste has never been used before, he said in his letter to Moniz, in which he also noted that any spill of radioactive liquid would be difficult to contain.

“A major contamination on or near the Peace Bridge would have dire consequences for the regional and national economies,” Higgins said in his letter. “Further, the proposed route would take this material through the heart of the City of Buffalo, a densely populated urban area where the consequence of contamination on public safety would be devastating.”

Nevertheless, the Department of Energy downplayed the dangers when it approved the shipments last year.

The DOE analysis in which the shipments were approved did not specify a route, but a route through Buffalo would be the most direct.

The nuclear waste would be transported in small tanks inside a larger cask certified as safe by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and each truck would carry only one cask, the department’s analysis said.

“Use of the small tanks helps ensure safety, including eliminating the potential for criticality” – otherwise known as a nuclear chain reaction, the DOE said.

The greatest risk posed by the planned shipment would be traffic accidents, “but no traffic fatalities would be expected,” the agency said.

In addition, “radiation doses from the most severe accident, a long-duration, high-temperature fire, would not cause an LCF,” or latent cancer fatality, the agency said. The bottom line, according to the report, is that the shipments would result in “no radiological or non-radiological fatalities.”

Environmental groups aren’t buying that conclusion, however. More than 100 such groups, scattered along the route from Northern Ontario to South Carolina, have signed onto a resolution calling for a halt to the planned shipments.

“The high-level radioactive liquid waste contained in just one of the planned shipments is more than enough to ruin an entire city’s water supply,” the resolution warned, adding: “High-level radioactive waste remains extraordinarily radiotoxic for millennia.”

Those are among the reasons why the Sierra Club Niagara Group is among those opposing the shipments.

“The agencies responsible for this material have the highest obligation to protect the health and safety of the public and the environment as well as national security,” Lynda H. Schneekloth, chairwoman of the environmental group, said in a memo to Higgins. “This proposed shipment of liquid high-level nuclear waste seems reckless and irresponsible, and due process has not been followed.”

email: jzremski@buffnews.com