US Judge Allows Trucking of Radioactive Chalk River Waste to South Carolina

In my October column, “Roads to Hell: Nuclear Waste on the Move,” I reported on legal efforts to block shipments of highly-radioactive liquid waste from the Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories in Ontario to the Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina, a journey of over 2,000 kilometerss passing the Great Lakes and other major waterways.

Chalk River laboratories.

Chalk River laboratories.

On February 2, a US federal court rejected the claims of the plaintiffs – an alliance of seven US environmental organizations led by the Sierra Club – that the shipments should be delayed pending a full environmental impact statement (EIS) by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The lawsuit argued further that the radioactive waste, much of it suitable for use in nuclear weapons or radiological ‘dirty bombs,’ could be safely ‘blended-down’ – solidified and stored – on-site at Chalk River. The technical feasibility of such an in-house option has been openly acknowledged by Canadian officials, and in February 2016, Indonesia received approval from the DOE to down-blend similarly-toxic radioactive waste previously scheduled for shipment to Savannah River.

Without intervention by either the US or Canadian governments, trucking of the 23,000 liters (6,000 gallons) of liquid waste can begin at any time, and is expected to continue – in secret, under armed escort, and without the notification of local authorities en route – over a four-year period. Responding to the ruling, the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility (CCNR) insisted that the seven plaintiffs, joined by “dozens of other organizations on both sides of the border,” will “continue to challenge the plan to transport such dangerous” material in such a volatile state over such long distances without any independent review of the “consequences of a spill” or public “discussion of alternatives.” (CCNR press release, 3 February 2017.)

On 30 September, 2016, the co-chairs of the Great Lakes Executive Committee (GLEC) – Michael Goffin (Canada) and Cameron Davis (US) – appealed to then-President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to “refrain from beginning the series” of shipments “until proper notification has been circulated to stakeholders and the GLEC has had a chance to formulate advice to the two governments on this proposed transport of nuclear waste, in keeping with its mandate.”

Goffin and Davis forwarded to the leaders a letter from over two dozen US and Canadian NGOs detailing the grave risks involved. “Never before in North America,” the letter noted, “has liquid waste of this nature, containing virtually the entire spectrum of fission products found in irradiated uranium, been transported over public roads and bridges. … [We] fail to understand why this unprecedented transport of highly radioactive liquid waste has not been subjected to any public environmental assessment process in Canada or the USA…so that other governmental departments and the public can provide input on the potential environmental impacts, as well as on alternative waste management approaches that could make the transports unnecessary.”

Neither the president nor the prime minister took any action in response to the appeal.

Featured image: Nuclear waste being shipped by truck to New Mexico from DOE facility in South Carolina. (Photo courtesy ENERGY.GOV, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Sean Howard


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



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