Activists fight trucking of highly radioactive waste to U.S. as Canada ends medical isotope production by Ian MacLeod, October 13, 2016, Ottawa Citizen
OTTAWA — Medical isotope production using weapons-grade uranium is about to cease in Canada, ending decades of world dominance supplying life-saving nuclear medicine, but leaving a toxic legacy and heated environmental controversy.
In recent days, a coalition of more than two dozen Canadian and American environmental, nuclear safety and other organizations has formally called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Barack Obama to halt — or at least postpone — the shipment by road of 23,000 litres of highly radioactive liquid waste, the byproduct of medical isotope production, from Eastern Ontario to South Carolina for reprocessing.
Nothing like it has been attempted before. The operation is expected to take a few years, with 100 to 150 armed convoys of trucks hauling the material 1,700 kilometres through some of the continent’s most populous areas in specially designed steel casks to a U.S. Department of Energy plant in Aiken, S.C.
Canada has agreed to pay the U.S. $60 million to transport and recycle the highly enriched uranium (HEU). The ultimate intent is to blend it into low-enriched uranium fuel feedstock for U.S. commercial nuclear power reactors.
At the 2012 global nuclear security summit in Seoul, then-prime minister Stephen Harper committed Canada to returning all HEU inventories to the U.S. by 2018 to lessen the risk of nuclear terrorism. He followed up at the 2014 summit, announcing the end of isotope production using HEU by Oct. 31, 2016.
The move ended long-standing questions about Canada’s commitments to the spirit of non-proliferation, but means domestic production of the most widely used medical isotope in the world, molybdenum-99 (Mo-99), is to cease in 18 days at the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) at Chalk River, Ont., 160 kilometres northwest of Ottawa.
The 59-year-old National Research Universal (NRU) reactor, the oldest operational research reactor on the planet, will be permanently shuttered in 2018. In the meantime, its Mo-99 production facility will remain in standby mode, should production at other global facilities falter.
Prolonged NRU safety shutdowns in 2007 and 2009 upended the global supply of medical isotopes and shook confidence in Canada’s future ability to supply the market, pushing other nations and suppliers to increase their capacities and for the medical isotope producers to become more efficient. The latest projections from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development show a reliable supply of Mo-99 through at least 2017.
“Natural Resources Canada will continue to work with Health Canada to ensure the stable supply of medical isotopes for Canadians,” Alexandre Deslongchamps, spokesman for Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, said in a statement Thursday. Canada has committed $60 million to developing technologies to produce medical radioisotopes without nuclear fission, with some expected to become ready for market in 2017-18, pending regulatory health approvals.
What remains, however, is how to safely dispose of the HEU-bearing liquid. The existence of the solution, stored in a fortified and monitored fissile solution storage tank (FISST), was largely unknown until a 2011 Ottawa Citizen report. But in the industry in Canada and internationally, the FISST has been a source of persistent unease.
The liquid must be constantly monitored, mixed and warmed to prevent it from solidifying and — in a worst-case scenario — potentially achieving a self-sustaining chain reaction of fissioning atoms called criticality. The energy and heat from such a chain reaction could rupture the tank, release the solution into the environment and endanger anyone nearby. There would be no danger of a nuclear explosion.
The liquid must be constantly monitored, mixed and warmed to prevent it from solidifying and — in a worst-case scenario — potentially achieving a self-sustaining chain reaction
Soon after the Citizen report, Harper agreed to moving the FISST contents to the U.S. But the process has been slowed by regulatory approvals and public and political opposition.
U.S. activists are seeking a federal court injunction preventing the Department of Energy from moving ahead until an environmental assessment is completed and an environmental impact statement made public, after the U.S. government refused previous demands.
Canadian activists call for the same. But the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission says a technical assessment report of the cask designs included an environmental assessment performed under the Nuclear Safety and Control Act. It is posted on the CNSC website for public comment.
The agency says the cask’s design was approved only after surviving, “stringent testing that simulates both normal and hypothetical transport accident conditions. This includes a nine metre free-drop test, puncture testing and an 800 C thermal test, all without loss of shielding and containment.”
The CNSC also has issued CNL, the private partnership that replaced Crown corporation Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., with licences to transport and export the material. Similar approvals are under way in the U.S.
But critics want a full and open environmental assessment process.
“Whereby an environmental impact statement is prepared and circulated in accord with a scoping document prepared by the (Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency), preferably with public hearings, but at least with a detailed consideration of impacts and alternatives allowing for comments from other Ministries and the public,” Gordon Edwards of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility said Thursday. [Emphasis added]