By Arianne Peterson and John LaForge
Spring 2017 Quarterly
On February 22, both the Iroquois Caucus and Anishinabek Nation in Canada declared their opposition to plans to transport more than 5,812 gallons of extaordinarily radioactive waste in liquid form through their territories. The US Department of Energy (DOE) plan, backed by Atomic Energy Canada Limited and Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, intend to send 100 to 150 truckloads of waste, over the course of four years, roughly 1,300 miles from Chalk River, Ontario to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina using public roads and bridges.
The never-before-attempted long range transports of high-level liquid waste are set to start this spring, following US District Judge Tanya Chutkan’s Feb. 2 ruling in favor of the DOE and against a challenge brought by a coalition of environmental groups led by Beyond Nuclear. The exact shipment routes for the waste are being kept secret due to terrorism concerns, but the convoys must pass over at least one waterway directly tied to the Great Lakes—the drinking supply for 40 million people. The waste liquid is so extremely toxic that just one quart of it, evenly dispersed, is enough to contaminate the entire drinking water supply of Washington, DC (a reservoir of just over 140 million gallons) above the safe drinking water standards of the Environmental Protection Agency.
“We assert inherent ownership of the water and jurisdiction within our regions and traditional territories,” said Patrick Madahbee, the Grand Council Chief of 40 Anishinabek First Nations. “We will stand with our Iroquois allies to protect the drinking water. Water is the lifeblood of Mother Earth. Why would we put our precious resource in jeopardy? A spill into any of the waterways would have a tremendous impact on the Great Lakes. Millions of people would be affected—on both sides of the border.”
The weapons-grade waste material, which originated in the US and has been made almost 17,000 times more toxic and more radioactive through processing in Canada, will be “down-blended” at the Savannah River Site into a form that cannot be used for weapons. But critics point out that the process can be done onsite in Canada without putting dozens of communities and the Great Lakes environment at unnecessary and repeated risk of contamination.
The 6,000 gallons are so radioactively volatile that they cannot be shipped all at once, but sent in small, radioactive containers. The total has so much uranium-235 that combing it in a large shipment would risk a “criticality” accident—the uncontrolled chain reaction of nuclear fission—that would look like a bomb blast.
So much gamma radiation is expected to be emminating from the casks that extra long tractor-trailers are intended to separate drivers from the deadly hazard.
“The Iroquois Caucus is well aware that liquid of a very similar nature has been routinely solidified and stored at Chalk River since 2003,” Kahnawà:ke Grand Chief Joseph Tokwiro Norton explained.
The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples mandates that states ensure no storage or disposal of hazardous materials shall take place in the lands or territories of indigenous peoples without their free, prior and informed consent. The Anishinabek Chiefs in Assembly in 2010 passed resolutions opposing the exporting and storage of nuclear waste by either land or water across the Anishinabek Nation, and Canada is a signatory to the UN Declaration.
The indigenous governments are joined by more than 22 municipal councils in the Niagara Peninsula that have passed resolutions opposing the transports.
Seven plaintiffs had urged the court to either suspend the shipments or require a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) in compliance with US environmental law, because such highly radioactive material has never before been transported over public roads in liquid form. But the February ruling deferred to the DOE’s earlier claims that transport of this deadly waste in liquid form poses no more dangers than hauling it in solid form—even without an EIS.
Mary Olson, Director of Nuclear Information and Resource Service’s Southeast Office, one of the plaintiffs, said,“Even without any leakage of the contents, people will be exposed to penetrating gamma radiation and damaging neutron radiation just by sitting in traffic beside one of the transport trucks.”
—Dr. Gordon Edwards, “Radioactive Roads: Transportation of Highly Radioactive Liquid Waste,” Feb. 21; Anishinabek News, Feb. 22; Iroquois Caucus, Feb. 22; WBFO News (Toronto) Feb. 21; and Aiken Standard, and BeyondNuclear.org, Feb. 3, 2017