Bruce Power Radioactive Shipment: What Could Possibly Go Wrong? Right?

Gale Courey Toensing
4/5/11

After an outpouring of opposition from American Indians and Canadian First Nations, Bruce Power, Canada’s first private nuclear generating company, announced March 29 that it will delay the shipment of radioactive-contaminated steam generators through the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River while it consults with indigenous nations on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border.

The Indian nations were not the only entities objecting to Bruce Power’s proposal. Earlier in March, two environmental organizations filed the first of what promises to be many legal challenges to the plan to ship radioactive waste through the largest body of fresh water in the world. The Canadian Environmental Law Association and Sierra Club Canada jointly filed in the federal court of Canada March 4 to stop Bruce Power’s controversial proposal to ship 16 school bus-sized decommissioned steam generators—each weighing 100 tons and containing nuclear waste—through the Great Lakes and up the St. Lawrence River on their way to Sweden, where they are to be recycled at Studsvik. Studsvik, which signed a $34 million contract with Bruce Power in 2009, is a private commercial facility that provides advanced technical services to the international nuclear power industry in such areas as waste treatment, decommissioning, engineering and services, and operating efficiency.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) announced on February 4 that it had approved the transportation application from Bruce Power, the source of more than 20 percent of Ontario’s electricity. CNSC gave the company a special dispensation from regulations covering the amount of radioactive materials allowed on inland Canadian waterways.

That waiver distressed many environmentalists. “Major policy changes in the handling of nuclear waste should not be made in an ad hoc fashion,” John Bennett, the executive director of Sierra Club Canada, said in the media release announcing the legal action. “Municipalities, First Nations, organizations and individuals all demanded to be heard on the shipping of 1,600 tons of nuclear waste through the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River, but their concerns were ignored.”

Bruce Power CEO Duncan Hawthorne said he believes the company held adequate consultation with all the parties. “Throughout this process, we have tried to communicate meaningful information to legitimate, interested parties. As far as we’re concerned, we’ve successfully met our regulatory obligations, but have not yet met our own standard of providing information to some of those legitimate groups, particularly the First Nations and Métis,” Hawthorne said in his March 29 statement. “For that reason, we have chosen to delay the shipments to allow that information flow to take place.”

Bruce Power still needs more licenses from various governments, including the U.S. and the U.K. (the U.S. and Canada share jurisdiction over the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway), before it can start shipping this radioactive material, but hopes that this spring the 16 generators will be transported by trucks some 54 miles from the Bruce Power site in Kincardine, Ontario to the port of Owen Sound, Ontario where they will be loaded into the cargo hold of the MV Palessa, a 390-foot-long, multi-purpose cargo ship sailing under an Antiguan flag, and begin their journey across the Atlantic.

But opposition to the plan is growing. Native nations on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border say an accidental spill could be catastrophic and object that the plan was developed without their consultation, in violation of both federal laws and the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The nations are joined in their opposition by the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, a binational coalition of more than 70 mayors from Quebec, Ontario and the eight Great Lake states, as well as more than 50 nongovernmental organizations, other groups and individuals.

The Great Lakes ecosystem is home to 20 percent of the world’s fresh water—the largest reserve of fresh water on earth, providing not only drinking water and fish, but spiritual nourishment for millions of people. Approximately 55,000 First Nations citizens and more than 20 million Canadians and Americans live close to the shoreline of the Great Lakes, and upwards of 40 million rely on the Lakes for their drinking water.

Union of Ontario Indians (UOI) Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee, speaking for 39 member communities of the Anishinabek Nation in Ontario, said the commission’s green light to ship nuclear waste ignores the rule of law and violates both the letter and spirit of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Canada endorsed in November 2010. “The Supreme Court [of Canada] has stipulated the requirement for consultation and accommodation with First Nations,” Madahbee said. “First Nations have to be accommodated on activities that could have an impact on our traditional territories. The U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples says handling of hazardous materials in our territories requires our free, prior, and informed consent.”

The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, whose territory abuts the St. Lawrence Seaway on the south shore of the river, also complained about the absence of consultation. “As a practical matter, and to my knowledge, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe was never consulted or notified of any aspect of this planned shipment,” said Tribal Chief Mark Garrow, one of St. Regis’s three-chief council. “The tribe became aware of this scheme only after the media picked up the story and other Native governments objected.”

Madahbee noted that Anishinabek First Nation communities occupy all of the Great Lakes shoreline and a significant part of its basin. “The Great Lakes were never negotiated by treaty and we have inherent and treaty rights to all our waterways. Neither the Nuclear Safety Commission nor Bruce Power can guarantee that a disaster will not happen with this shipment. The spillage of any hazardous waste would infringe on our constitutionally protected rights to fish, hunt and gather lake-based traditional foods and medicines.” He added that Ontario First Nations leaders joined leaders from the Kahnawake and Tyendinaga Mohawk governments and the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, all of which border the St. Lawrence River, and formed a working group that will generate a collective response to the shipping proposal. Possible responses include taking legal action on both sides of the border and in the international arena. A UOI staff member was scheduled to make a presentation at the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in mid-March as a first step toward a formal presentation to the international body’s tenth session at the U.N. in New York in May.

Bruce Power has adopted the slogan, “It’s the right thing to do,” and has set up a website to convince the public that no harm will result from the shipment. “We always believed this was the right thing to do to reduce our environmental footprint,” Hawthorne said on the site. The CEO continued to use the slogan even in announcing the company’s decision to delay the shipment. “While recycling this material is the right thing to do, and our regulator has given us a license to proceed, we recognize there is a level of concern among some groups that we want to address before proceeding,” Hawthorne said in his statement.

In an interview with the Montreal Mirror, Bruce Power spokesman John Peevers further touted the environmental correctness of the plan. “I’m just happy to have the opportunity to tell our story,” he told the Mirror on March 10. “It’s a story of recycling. As a society, we are now used to recycling and re-using. We can take a 100-ton [generator] and turn 90 percent of it back into scrap metal. It’s the right thing to do.”

Meanwhile, the Canadian Environmental Law Association and Sierra Club’s lawsuit is seeking judicial review of the two approvals issued by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. The first allows Bruce Power to transport and export the 16 decommissioned steam generators on a single ship through the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway. The second permit deals with Bruce Power’s proposal to ship the radioactive waste remaining after the “recycling” process is completed in Sweden to Halifax, and then transport it by truck back to Ontario’s Western Waste Management Facility at their site near Kincardine. The rest of the materials will be sold in the scrap metal market and could end up in consumer products after being diluted with other metals.

The lawsuit charges that the CNSC erred in law and jurisdiction when granting these approvals by failing to conduct an environmental assessment under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, which would take into account the amount of contaminants to be transported, among other things. Each of the steam generators contains around four grams of radioactive contaminants, according to a report in the Montreal Star.

While four grams of radioactive waste may not sound like a lot, Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, a Montreal-based organization that opposes the transportation of the generators, said that the acceptable level of plutonium allowed inside the body of an atomic worker is 0.7 micrograms—that’s seven millionths of a gram. He said the cargo’s 64 grams of plutonium is enough to contaminate 52 million people.

Edwards describes the shipment as “radioactive roulette,” and his group has gained support from over 200 municipalities along the route. He said the shipment sets a dangerous precedent, representing the first time radioactive waste will be exported or imported from a refurbished Canadian nuclear reactor. If approved, more shipments would likely follow from Bruce Power’s other 48 generators, according to the Epoch Times. “We are going to have a highway of nuclear garbage,” he told reporters on Parliament Hill during the hearing. “We are talking about a whole new ball game in the history of nuclear power. Up until now, we have always been told that nuclear waste will be sequestered and isolated safely from the environment. Now we are being told that nuclear waste will be recycled into consumer goods. This is completely unacceptable.”

Madahbee said that First Nations leaders and citizens are concerned about more than just the shipments. “We’re not only concerned about the transport of these nuclear contaminated steam generators, but the bigger issue of storage of nuclear waste in our territories. They store this waste at all the production sites and they’re proposing seeding the waste in the rock formations in our territories up north. It’s just so short-sighted. If there was ever a breach it would go right into the water system.”

The women of the Anishinabek communities are the caretakers of the water and have been sounding the alarm for years now, Madahbee said. “In our nation we have a women’s commission and they’ve been warning us about pollution and the impacts industry is having on water. One of our elders, Josephine Mandamin, has actually walked the perimeter around all of the Great Lakes.”

Mandamin began her medicine walk in 2003 and, joined by other Native women, continued every year for several years until she had walked the entire perimeter of the Great Lakes. “We did it for the water, for the earth, for the animals, for the insects, for the trees, for all the two-leggeds,” she said in an interview posted on YouTube. “To remind all those we came across, that the walk was for them. Not us. The walk was for the next generations, we walked with the water for them also. They will know, as Mother Earth knows, that we walked with the water for all of creation.”

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