Truck shipments carrying high-level liquid nuclear waste over the Peace Bridge and across Western New York’s highways en route to a South Carolina processing facility could start as early as September.
A lawsuit that seven environmental organizations filed this week against the U.S. Department of Energy in federal court in Washington, D.C., aims to stop these “mobile Chernobyls on steroids.”
“It is terrifying for us to hear that the government is willing to endanger the lives of so many by the shipments of this highly dangerous liquid radioactive waste through our community and those of others,” said Lynda Schneekloth, chairwoman of the Sierra Club’s Niagara Group.
Schneekloth, a West Ferry Street resident, lives less than two miles from the Peace Bridge and is one of several parties cited with an interest in litigating against the Department of Energy.
“The experts and risk managers say it is possible to do safely,” Schneekloth said. “But, I live in the real world where accidents happen, where terrorism is possible, where people can be damaged and killed – even if unintentional.”
The suit seeks a restraining order and injunctions against the federal agency from moving forward with plans to transport the liquid N-waste aboard tractor-trailers along a 1,100-mile journey from Chalk River, Ont. to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
At least 150 tractor-trailer loads would be required to get the material from Canada to the southeastern United States over the course of several years.
Each tractor-trailer would haul a single cask housing four stainless-steel containers containing about 15 gallons of liquid nuclear waste each, according to energy department documents.
Plaintiffs say it would be the first time waste in liquid form was transported in such a manner.
“This is a very significant public and environmentally risky venture without precedent,” said Terry J. Lodge, a Toledo, Ohio, trial lawyer who prepared the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges the Department of Energy:
• Failed to provide an environmental impact statement about the plan, which is required by law.
• Circumvented a required public notification and comment process.
• Did not adequately consider reasonable alternatives to the shipments that could include solidifying the waste prior to transport or “downblending” the waste in Canada to render it less radioactive.
“This is some of the most dangerous material on Earth,” said Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility. “This is essentially the same material used in the Hiroshima bomb.”
Edwards added: “There is no reason at all to transport this material in liquid form. This is absolutely unprecedented.”
A November 2015 supplemental analysis by the Department of Energy, however, qualifies the “overall impacts” of transporting the material to be marginal.
“The regulatory approval process ... ensures an extremely low risk of any material being released from a package during normal and accident conditions of transport,” according to the agency’s analysis. “Consequently, the potential for impacts on the public and contamination of surface or ground water are extremely low.”
The waste, which includes weapons-grade enriched uranium as well as radioactive isotopes including cesium, strontium, plutonium and others, was generated at the Chalk River facility from uses in medicine. The enriched uranium originated in the United States.
Federal authorities have maintained it is necessary to repatriate the radioactive material in the interest of non-proliferation and Homeland Security.
Opponents contend, however, the motivation is rather to keep the Savannah River Site processing facility operational.
Over the last two years, Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, has written U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz urging the agency “to undertake a formal environmental impact statement before proceeding” with the shipments and sponsored a Congressional bill that requires a “terror threat assessment” on transporting hazardous materials, which passed unanimously last October but remains stalled in a Senate committee.
According to the plaintiffs, the Department of Energy has ignored requests for the more thorough reviews, opting instead to file a supplemental analysis of its transport plan. That analysis was not subject to prior public review or comment.
Higgins told the Buffalo News on Wednesday that despite his requests – and some spirited meetings between him and top federal energy officials at his Washington office – the agency has yet to relent.
“The Department of Energy is acting in a reckless and irresponsible manner here,” Higgins said. “From an environmental standpoint, a public safety standpoint and a national security standpoint, the notion of moving highly radioactive liquid waste between Canada and the United States, and taking it across the Peace Bridge, is reckless and irresponsible.”
Higgins, who serves as ranking member of Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Counterterrorism & Intelligence, said the Peace Bridge, Buffalo and the Niagara River corridor are classified as “high impact targets” for terrorism, and should be treated as such.
And, Higgins criticized the DOE for basing its findings on data that’s two decades old and hasn’t been proved safe.
“We had a pretty seminal event between then and now – 9/11,” Higgins said.
Officials at the Department of Energy did not respond to several attempts by The News to receive comment.
The agency has 60 days to respond to the lawsuit.