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editorial: Government must focus on ensuring the safe transportation of nuclear waste

Now that trucks loaded with nuclear waste have been cleared to travel from Ontario to South Carolina, it is up to public officials to make dead certain that all reasonable steps have been taken to ensure safe transportation of these toxic chemicals.

A federal judge ruled earlier this month that the government had taken the necessary steps to comply with laws governing the repatriation of nuclear materials that originated in the United States but were used in Canada for medical treatments. That likely put an end to challenges posed by environmental groups opposed to the plan.

Now that it has been approved, the material will be trucked to a reprocessing facility in Aiken, S.C., from a medical research laboratory in Chalk River, Ont. The possible routes include, but don’t require, crossing the Peace Bridge and heading south along the Niagara Thruway through downtown Buffalo.

Some security plans are already in place and are at least moderately reassuring. The liquid waste would be transported in metal casks, each one holding four 15-gallon containers of liquid nuclear waste. Only a single cask would be transported per flatbed truck. The entire repatriation project is expected to require up to 150 truckloads, taking four years to complete. Each truck would be accompanied by an armed convoy.

Additionally, it is critical for drivers to undergo deep background checks to verify both their driving records and any suspicious history. Weather and road conditions need to play a role in planning.
Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, included language in a House measure requiring the Department of Homeland Security to conduct risk assessments on the transportation of nuclear and radiological material. The bill was approved by the House and now goes to the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Even if approved, it is unlikely to take effect in time to cover initial shipments of waste to South Carolina.

It’s not a terrible thing that this waste is being returned to the United States. It is in our national interest, after all, to ensure that dangerous material such as this is handled safely and securely. Canada, no doubt, could do the job, but it originated in this country, giving us a special responsibility for its ultimate handling.

Nevertheless, the concerns are valid. The lawsuit by the Sierra Club, Beyond Nuclear and five other groups – which called the shipments “mobile Chernobyls on steroids” – was important in that it at least ensured the government had followed the law in pursuing a policy that, whatever its appropriateness, includes risks that are both obvious and potentially deadly.

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