Hmmmm… I wonder what Obama wants with all that nuclear “waste”.
Nuclear officials are preparing to secretly transport a toxic stew of liquid bomb-grade uranium by armed convoy from Chalk River, Ont., to a South Carolina reprocessing site.
The “high priority” mission marks the first time authorities have attempted to truck highly-enriched uranium (HEU) in a liquid solution, prompting nuclear safety advocacy groups on both sides of the border to sound the alarm for greater government scrutiny.
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) has confirmed the plan to the Ottawa Citizen. It follows Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s commitment at last year’s global nuclear security summit to return HEU inventories to the United States to lessen the risk of nuclear terrorism.
Officials with CNSC and Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., which operates Chalk River Laboratories, say federal law prohibits publicly releasing details about the mission, including the number of transport truck trips involved, the routing through Eastern Ontario and the timing.
But documents filed with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) suggest many truck trips will be required and 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,” says Tom Clements, a South Carolina campaign co-ordinator for Friends of the Earth and former executive director of the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington.
Small amounts of HEU in solid form have long been exported, without incident, by the U.S. to Canada for the production of medical isotopes at Chalk River’s NRU reactor.
What’s different this time is the HEU to be transported for reprocessing at the U.S. government’s Savannah River Site is in liquid form and believed to originate from Chalk River’s controversial Fissile Solution Storage Tank, or FISST.
The 24,000-litre waste tank is largely unknown outside the nuclear establishment, but within the industry in Canada and internationally, it is a source of persistent unease.
The double-walled, stainless-steel vessel contains 17 years’ worth of an intensely radioactive acidic solution from the production of molybdenum-99, a vital medical isotope produced by irradiating HEU “targets.”
The liquid must be carefully 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 potentially rupture the tank, release the solution into the environment and endanger anyone nearby. There would be no danger of a nuclear explosion.
Not surprisingly, FISST is under constant surveillance by the International Atomic Energy Commission for any hint of an accidental atomic chain reaction.
Taken out of service around 2003, FISST is believed to be near-full and sitting inside a thick, in-ground concrete vault in a building two hours northwest of Ottawa. In the years since, HEU-bearing liquid waste produced during isotope production has been solidified and placed in secure storage.
The FISST’s chief ingredient is an estimated 175 kilograms of HEU containing 93 per cent uranium-235, the isotope that sustains a fission chain reaction. Also present are plutonium, tritium, other fission products and mercury. About 20 kilograms to 45 kilograms of HEU is considered sufficient to construct a small nuclear weapon or a Hiroshima-sized bomb.