OTTAWA — Nuclear officials are preparing to secretly transport a toxic stew of liquid bomb-grade uranium by armed convoy from Chalk River to a South Carolina reprocessing site.
The “high priority” mission marks the first time authorities have attempted to truck highly-enriched uranium (HEU) in a liquid solution, prompting nuclear safety advocacy groups on both sides of the border to sound the alarm for greater government scrutiny.
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) has confirmed the plan to the Citizen. It follows Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s commitment at last year’s global nuclear security summit to return HEU inventories to the United States to lessen the risk of nuclear terrorism.
Officials with CNSC and Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., which operates Chalk River Laboratories, say federal law prohibits publicly releasing details about the mission, including the number of transport truck trips involved, the routing through Eastern Ontario and the timing.
But documents filed with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) suggest many truck trips will be required and could begin in August.
The 24,000-litre waste tank is largely unknown outside the nuclear establishment, but within the industry in Canada and internationally, it is a source of persistent unease.
The double-walled, stainless-steel vessel contains 17 years’ worth of an intensely radioactive acidic solution from the production of molybdenum-99, a vital medical isotope produced by irradiating HEU “targets.”
The liquid must be carefully monitored, mixed and warmed to prevent it from solidifying and — in a worst-case scenario — potentially achieving a self-sustaining chain reaction of fissioning atoms called criticality.
The energy and heat from such a chain reaction could potentially rupture the tank, release the solution into the environment and endanger anyone nearby. There would be no danger of a nuclear explosion.
At Savannah River, the liquid is to be taken to a complex known as H-Canyon and down-blended in to low-enriched uranium fuel for U.S. power and research reactors.
- Related article: U.S. to Receive Canadian HEU Waste via NTI