Only a few months after the end of a lawsuit opened the doors for the U.S. Department of Energy to start shipments of high-level, liquid radioactive waste from Canada to Savannah River Site, the first shipment emitted radiation from containers meant to protect workers from radiological exposure.
In a weekly inspection report released Friday by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, a container used to transport the material from the shipping cask into the processing facility was reportedly discovered to be “hot.”
“Hot” is a term used to describe an environment or an area in which radioactive emissions are present and does not mean that a physical leak of materials occurred. The shipments contain highly enriched uranium from medical isotope production at Chalk River in Ontario .
“Each container of HEU is pulled from the shipping cask into a shielded “pig” that provides radiological shielding for H-Canyon personnel,” the report stated. “After loading a pig, radiological protection (RP) identified an unexpected hotspot on the side of the pig indicating that the pig was not providing adequate radiological shielding.”
According to a Department of Energy spokesman, when the shipping casks arrive, they are placed into the “pig” containers, essentially lead-lines buckets, to allow the material to be moved while providing additional shielding for workers.
“The unprecedented truck shipments of high-risk, highly radioactive liquid waste have stoked controversy and concern since the proposal was first revealed four years ago, leading to a federal lawsuit by an environmental coalition last August,” said Kevin Kamps, spokesman for Beyond Nuclear.
Beyond Nuclear was a leading group in that lawsuit aimed at stopping the shipments. The lawsuit, which was dismissed by a judge in February, asked the Energy Department to conduct a full environmental assessment on the highly radioactive waste, transported in liquid for the first time.
The DOE had previously completed an environmental assessment for transportation of highly enriched uranium, but in solid form. The coalition thought that wasn’t good enough and initiated a lawsuit, but the judge disagreed. Now that the first shipments have arrived, coalition members say they wonder if their fears haven’t already been realized.
“Unfortunately, the incident with the handling the Canadian waste on its arrival at SRS gives the H-Canyon team a black eye for flubbing the very first shipment after years of costly preparation,” said Tom Clements, director of SRS Watch and member of the coalition.
The lawsuit alleged the forecast route from Chalk River in Ontario to SRS would cross a number of waterways that provide millions of people with drinking water. Considered the most likely border crossing by the coalition, the Rainbow Peace Bridge in Buffalo, N.Y., is a tourist attraction listed as a high-risk terrorism target by the Department of Homeland Security. The potential crossing site brought action from Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., who introduced legislation to try and force the DOE to study issues and potential hazards with the radioactive liquid shipments.
The Energy Department said the containers are not only certified by government regulatory agencies, but are also subjected to inspections.
“The material is shipped to the SRS facility in NRC certified containers, within an NRC licensed shielded Cask. The shipping cask must meet stringent radiological screening release limits before they can be sent from the facility at Chalk River. All shipments are subject to a further radiological survey prior to entering the United States,” the Energy Department said in a release.
The DOE noted shipments are also subject to “intensive” radiological screenings when they are received at SRS. The DOE spokesman said all workers were wearing protective equipment when the emission was discovered because of potential hazards. He said no workers were in danger.
According to the supplemental analysis of the material and planned shipments, completed by the DOE in 2015, there are approximately 6,000 gallons to be shipped in 100-150 shipments. The material would be processed through H-Canyon, the nation’s only active, full-scale nuclear chemical separations facility.
That process would recover the remaining highly enriched uranium left behind during creation of the medical isotopes. The remaining waste will be pumped into high level radioactive waste tanks already holding 35 million gallons of radioactive sludge and salt waste. But, the DOE said because the material is already liquid, very little waste will be produced.
The DNFSB did not report any physical leakage of material and the DOE confirmed there was no leak. There are currently no indications of radiation being emitted from the outside of the shipping containers, and nothing near the trucks was exposed during the shipment.
The shipping casks are designed to withstand accidents up to 20 times more severe than the average car wreck. Each cask is certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for being placed in service.
The DOE did not make public the schedule of shipments due to safety concerns, but shipments of highly enriched uranium are expected to continue. Clements called for an update from the Department of Energy at the next Citizens Advisory Board meeting May 23-24 in Augusta.
Reach Thomas Gardiner at (706) 823-3339 or firstname.lastname@example.org.