Plan in works to ship bomb-grade uranium from Ontario to U.S. in secret truck convoys

Canadians driving on vacation in eastern Ontario this summer may be sharing the road with shipments of highly radioactive nuclear waste.

The Ottawa Citizen reports the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has confirmed plans to send a shipment of liquid, bomb-grade uranium via truck convoys to South Carolina from the nuclear facility at Chalk River, about two hours north of Ottawa.

Officials wouldn't confirm the route or timing of the secret convoys but the Citizen said documents filed with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission suggest the shipments to the U.S. reprocessing plant could begin in August.

“This does seem to be an unprecedented, cross-border shipment of liquid high-level waste and, for that reason alone, it needs the highest order of environmental review on both sides of the border,” Tom Clements, a South Carolina campaign co-ordinator for Friends of the Earth and former executive-director of the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington, DC, told the Citizen.

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The proposed shipments are in line with a commitment last year by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to return stocks of highly-enriched uranium to the United States to reduce the chance it could be stolen and used by terrorists, the Citizen said.

Small amounts of the substance have been sent north in solid form for many years so it could be used to produce medical isotopes at Chalk River's reactor.

However, the Citizen said this time the material is headed south in liquid form and may originate from Chalk River's controversial Fissile Solution Storage Tank.

The 24,000-litre underground tank holds 17 years' worth of highly radioactive waste material that must be constantly monitored, mixed and kept warm to keep it from solidifying and potentially achieving a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, the Citizen said. While there is no danger of an explosion, experts worry the double-walled steel tank, located inside an in-ground concrete vault, could rupture and cause an environmental catastrophe.

The storage tank has been out of service since 2003 but is thought to be nearly full, the paper reported.

NAC International Inc., a U.S. firm specializing in nuclear packaging and transport, has applied for permission to use its cask system to ship the radioactive liquid from Canada, which safety commission officials say has not been done before.

They want more technical information on the viability and safety of using the casks and told the company that if regulators are satisfied, approval could be expected by May 10, the Citizen said. But officials added several approvals are needed in both Canada and the United States before the trucks can roll.

“No HEU transport is authorized without CNSC approval in order to ensure safety to the public, workers and the environment,” the safety commission said in a statement, according to the Citizen. “Safety requirements must be met in accordance with CNSC and Canada’s Transportation of Dangerous Goods Regulations.

“These containers must undergo stringent testing, which simulate both normal and hypothetical conditions of transport, including free-drop testing, puncture testing and thermal testing.”

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Shipments of nuclear waste historically have spurred protests from environmental groups and even attempts to block its transport.

Thousands of demonstrators disrupted a rail shipment of radioactive waste from German nuclear reactors headed from a French storage temporary storage facility back to Germany for permanent storage in November 2011.