Roads To Hell: Nuclear Waste on the Move

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“It was an awesome spectacle,” the Austrian physicist Otto Frisch wrote in 1979, recalling the world’s first atomic explosion, the ‘Trinity’ test at Alamogordo, New Mexico, 44 years earlier. What most struck him was not the lethal radiance of “what has become so well known as the mushroom cloud” but the fact that “without a sound, the sun was shining” in the pre-dawn desert gloom, a “complete silence” followed “minutes later” by a “bang,” very “loud though I had plugged my ears, and followed by a long rumble like heavy traffic very far away. I can still hear it.”

AWPC & friends blockade Parliament Square on Trident vote day, 14 March 2007

Aldermaston Women’s Peace Camp(aign) & friends blockade Parliament Square on Trident vote day, 14 March 2007 (Photo via AWPC)

Seven decades later, the literal traffic generated by the mega-business of mass destruction can still be heard, though it takes specially trained ears to catch the atomic ‘rumble.’ In Britain, for example, the citizens’ activist group Nukewatch endures arrest, surveillance and harassment to monitor and report on the frequent transport of nuclear warheads 500 miles by truck-convoy from the Aldermaston Nuclear Weapon Establishment in southern England (scene of the massive, iconic peace marches of the 1960s) to the Royal Naval Armaments Depot at Coulport in West Scotland.

As Nukewatch concedes, it is opposed to the convoys “mainly because they are part of a system of weapons of mass destruction” – the so-called ‘independent British deterrent’ of 192 hydrogen bombs (each capable of destroying a major city) on 64 submarine-launched American Trident missiles – but also because “communities potentially affected” in the event of accident or terrorism “should be aware of their existence and the risks they pose.” Not just the public but local authorities are kept in the dark about the transports, which, since 2004, now also take place (without breaks for the drivers) at night.

 

Trident

The issue flickered on the fringes of a debate in the House of Commons on July 18 on replacing, at a total cost of at least £150 billion, the four aging Vanguard submarines.

Special nuclear materials convoy, Aldermaston.

Special nuclear materials convoy, Aldermaston. (Photo via AWPC)

The government motion, guaranteeing the country’s ‘status’ as a nuclear-weapons state deep into the 21st century, was passed by 472 votes to 117. Opposition was led by the Scottish National Party (SNP), elected in 58 out of Scotland’s 59 ridings in 2015, aghast at the blatant contradiction between renewing Trident and honoring Britain’s commitment under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) not just to reduce but eliminate its arsenal. SNP MP Owen Thompson, referring to “the nuclear convoys that regularly travel through my constituency,” argued that “if we do not have the nuclear weapons, we do not need the nuclear convoys, and we can reduce the risk to our communities.” The lone Green MP, Caroline Lucas, also linked the government’s “immunity to reason” on disarmament to the “blinkered approach of accidents and threats” in relation to “convoys taken out on our public roads…and which go through small villages, sometimes up to a dozen times a year.”

SNP MP Mhairi Black noted a further example of the ever-present, if rarely visible, threat: the transportation of nuclear waste. Speaking to a House almost emptied of English MPs, Black observed that the busy railway station in her constituency sees the frequent passage of ‘spent’ (highly radioactive) nuclear fuel rods “not in the dead of night but during the day when people are standing on the platform waiting to go to work. If a mistake was made and an accident [or terrorist incident] happened, it would be the equivalent of a dirty bomb”. Black’s deeper point was that the waste and the warheads are intimately related, as the rods come from reactors producing the fissile material, uranium and plutonium, needed for the bombs travelling the highways (and byways). “I put it to the government,” she concluded, “that they, and their obsession with nuclear weapons, are one of the greatest threats facing my constituents.”

 

Meanwhile, here in Canada…

Another potential radioactive ‘road to hell’ can be found much nearer home. In April 2010, on the fringes of a UN Nuclear Security Summit, President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced what was billed as a major non-proliferation initiative: the return of American highly-enriched uranium–in volatile, rarely transported liquid form–from the Chalk River Laboratories in Ontario to the Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina, to be solidified and rendered unusable for military purposes.

Why Canada, a major producer of uranium, needed American supplies to make medical isotopes at Chalk River is unclear. Stranger still, an anonymous Canadian official insisted that “Canada has its own secure system for storage” and that the Harper-Obama deal was intended only as “a signal to the rest of the world that the United States very much encourages.” In order to reduce the risk of terrorist attack or theft of nuclear material, then, it was decided to transport a large amount of bomb-ready uranium– believed sufficient to produce a small number of Hiroshima-scale (15 kilotons) atomic bombs–over 1,700 kilometres by road.

Chalk River laboratories.

Chalk River laboratories. Photo by Padraic Ryan GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons

Though the plan is to complete the shipments by the end of 2018, it is not clear how much material, if any, has already made the journey. The whole program is shrouded in such secrecy that not even private notification is given to local authorities along the route, making effective emergency response planning impossible. Last year, the Niagara Region Council voted to oppose the shipments, “joining,” as Councillor Bill Hodgson told CBC News, “a chorus of concern from various jurisdictions and municipalities.” In 2014, US Congressman Brian Higgins (Democrat-New York) introduced legislation requiring the Department of Energy to hold public hearings and issue an Environmental Impact Statement, something federal authorities – like their Canadian counterparts – have ruled out. “Without a comprehensive review and plan,” Higgins warned, “they are setting us up for a mobile Chernobyl.”

 

Open for business

In August this year, amid rumors of imminent shipments, environmental groups led by the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit in US federal court seeking to enjoin the Department of Energy “from permitting, allowing or causing the import and transport of inherently dangerous, highly radioactive liquid waste,” an “unprecedented” proposal in clear violation of the National Environmental Policy Act. The whole scheme, the plaintiffs insist, is taking a gratuitous gamble with “among the most radioactively hazardous materials on Earth,” poisons “more easily dispersed into the environment in liquid form than in solid form, in the event of a breach of containment during transport.” To compound the folly, both American and Canadian officials have openly characterized “the option to down-blend the waste on-site” at Chalk River as “viable and acceptable.”

The lawsuit suggests a shocking hidden motive behind the scheme: “the economics of keeping” the Savannah River’s “aging nuclear processing” facility “open for business by insisting on return of…radioactive wastes from countries which pose no proliferation concerns.” If true, President Obama himself has either been duped into, or is complicit in the use of, non-proliferation as a rhetorical smokescreen for propping up a failing enterprise. And the Canadian government, likewise, has either been deceived or is playing along with the charade.

These various British and North American ‘roads to hell,’ alas, can be found in all the other nuclear-weapon states (Russia, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea); in all other states where nuclear weapons are based or pass through; and everywhere uranium and plutonium is produced, transported and dumped. Such risks are part of a vast nuclear-industrial complex menacing modern life in ways most of us know nothing about. The root of the evil, of course, is the Bomb itself. Until that is grasped, the ‘heavy traffic’ heard by Otto Frisch, in that false dawn 72 years ago, will continue. Until disaster strikes.

 

Sean Howard

 

Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton. He can be reached here.

 

 

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