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Great Lakes Nuclear Waste Shipment Stirs Accident Fear

Mon, 09/20/2010 - 8:09am
JOHN FLESHER, AP Environmental Writer

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Environmentalists and some local government officials are protesting a Canadian power company's proposal to haul 16 scrapped generators with radioactive components across three of the Great Lakes on their way to a recycling plant in Sweden.

Bruce Power Inc., based in Kincardine, Ontario, is seeking a license from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission for the shipment. It would depart from a port on Lake Huron's Owen Sound and also traverse Lakes Erie and Ontario and the St. Lawrence River before reaching the Atlantic Ocean.

Commission staffers have recommended approval, saying the shipment would pose little if any threat to human health or the environment. But complaints and questions from the public led the panel to schedule a hearing for Sept. 28-29 in Ottawa.

If the Canadian government grants the license, Bruce Power also will need approval of the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration because the ship would enter U.S. territory, an agency spokeswoman said Friday.

Bruce Power, whose 4,700-megawatt power plant 155 miles northwest of Toronto is the largest in North America, says the generators have been welded shut to prevent radioactive leaks. Each is the size of a school bus and weighs about 100 tons. They would be ferried aboard a 387-foot ship.

"We have as much of a stake as anybody to make sure this is done safely," spokesman John Peevers said. "It would not be good business for us to do this if we thought it was risky."

Opponents include environmental groups, an organization representing Great Lakes cities, and American Indian tribes. They say even the remote possibility of an accident that would release radiation is too big a gamble for the lakes, which provide drinking water to some 40 million people.

"The bar should be set extraordinarily high when it comes to the largest supply of surface fresh water in the world," said Joel Brammeier, president of the Chicago-based Alliance for the Great Lakes. "The biggest danger is that we set a precedent for treating the lakes as a highway for extremely hazardous cargo."

Each generator has about 4,200 metal tubes that contained hot water. Steam from the water powered whirring turbines that produced electricity. Thirty-two of the boilers were taken out of service and placed in a storage building during a 1990s retrofitting project, Peevers said.

Bruce Power last year awarded a $37 million contract to Studsvik, a Swedish company, to melt down the generators and sell the metal as scrap. About 90 percent of the material can be recycled. The rest will be too radioactive and will be sent back to Bruce Power for permanent safekeeping.

The company plans two shipments of 16 generators each.

Peevers said the amount of radioactive material in each generator is small — less than an ounce — and the cargo is classified as low-level waste, as opposed to the highly contaminated fuel rods that contain spent uranium in nuclear plants.

The only reason Bruce Power needs a license is because the generators cannot fit inside approved containers for radioactive cargo, he said.

A report by the Canadian commission's staff concluded that "the environmental and human health risk from a release due to a credible accident during loading and transport would be very low."

Yet the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, which represents municipalities in the region, says the amount of nuclear waste in the proposed shipment exceeds by 50 times the International Atomic Energy Agency's radioactivity standard for a single freight vessel on the lakes.

The cities group says the commission hasn't released enough information about how it assessed potential ecological damage. The analysis "appears to be based on a best-case scenario instead of a worst-case scenario," said David Ullrich, director of the cities group.

For example, he said the study considered only the possibility of accidents on the open lakes instead of connecting channels such as the Detroit River, which runs between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. Their combined population is 1.1 million.

Nearly 40 people have signed up to speak at the public hearing and nearly as many have submitted written statements, said Aurele Gervais, spokesman for the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. He said the panel would be objective, despite its staff's support of the shipment.

Mike Bradley, mayor of Sarnia, Ontario, fears a decision has been made and the hearing will be a formality. The shipment would pass close to his city, which is on the St. Clair River across from Port Huron, Mich.

"It's like one of those old Wild West things — 'we're going to give you a trial and then hang you,'" he said. "But they need to get the message that we want this thing stopped. We were told the Titanic wouldn't sink. We were told the BP drill rigs were safe."

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