A ruling in an ongoing legal case could determine if and when shipments of high-level, liquid nuclear waste begin to make their way across roadways from Ontario, Canada to Savannah River Site.
The lawsuit was filed in August against the U.S. Department of Energy by a coalition of nuclear watchdog and environmentalism organizations. The coalition includes Beyond Nuclear along with local Savannah River Site Watch and the Sierra Club, which has chapters in the Augusta area.
According to court documents, the judge’s ruling could be issued soon. The ruling needs to come before Feb. 17 if the coalition hopes to keep these shipments at bay. Agreements between the coalition and DOE will keep the shipments on hold until that date.
The coalition is trying to prevent the U.S. government from accepting the waste, known as target residue material, and bringing several hundred shipments totaling about 6,000 gallons to SRS. The proposed route would cross into the U.S. near Buffalo and traverse six states by the time it lands in South Carolina.
That route has fired up lawmakers in several places, including both New York and South Carolina. Representative Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., has spoken out against the shipments and called them reckless.
According to reports from The Buffalo News, Higgins said, “From an environmental standpoint, a public safety standpoint and a national security standpoint, the notion of moving highly radioactive liquid waste between Canada and the United States, and taking it across the Peace Bridge, is reckless and irresponsible.”
The Peace Bridge crosses the U.S.-Canadian border over the Niagara River at Buffalo. Higgins, the ranking member of Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Counter terrorism and Intelligence, said the bridge and Niagara River Corridor are classified as high-impact terrorism targets and should be treated that way.
Former S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley, now U.N. Ambassador, voiced her opposition to bringing the material in. She continually took a stance against the Energy Department bringing materials in and repeatedly said she refused to let South Carolina become a “nuclear dumping ground.”
The lawsuit was recently heard in federal court in Washington, D.C. Diane D’Arrigo is a representative with the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, one of the coalition organizations, and she was in the courtroom.
“Our lawyers took the approach of challenging the lack of an environmental impact statement which is a violation of [the National Environmental Protection Act]. The DOE has always done analysis on its solid shipments and solid shipments have become the de facto waste transportation policy. This will be the first high-level radioactive material ever shipped by the DOE,” D’Arrigo said.
The material was used for development of Molybdenum-99, a medical isotope. It contains some U.S. origin highly enriched uranium and is part of an international agreement. The U.S. is expected to take the material back, but according to coalition members, there is no need to keep it in liquid form.
Director of SRS Watch Tom Clements said Chalk River and other facilities that have used the material have been able to turn the same liquid material into solid form. The coalition said waste transportation in solid form is still dangerous, but the liquid material presents dangers unlike the solid material; the basis for its lawsuit requesting an environmental impact analysis.
D’Arrigo said, “This is reprocessing waste. High level liquid waste from defense nuclear activities removes the plutonium and uranium, but since they only removed the molybdenum, the uranium and plutonium are still in there. It has such high radioactivity, calling it HEU [Highly enriched Uranium] or target residue material it misleads people.”
D’Arrigo said the DOE lawyers argued that the shipping containers are the “Fort Knox” of transportation containers. She noted that she spoke with emergency management departments along the proposed route and none of them have the needed equipment to handle an emergency. She said an accident that drops a container would require heavy equipment to be brought in from long distances.
The Department of Energy claims its supplemental analysis of the shipments showed only marginal differences in transporting the material in liquid form when compared to similar solid form shipments.
The DOE is confident enough in its supplemental analysis that construction was completed on a special addition to handling facilities at SRS in 2016. A new truckwell was built onto H Canyon, the nation’s only active nuclear chemicals separation facility.
Typical shipments arrive via train cars and robotics equipment operated by remote move radioactive material into the canyon. The truckwell is an adaptation allowing the trailers to be dropped off in a bay and then brought into the canyon for processing.