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Governments must use four-month delay to reconsider plans for trucking liquid nuclear waste

In at least a temporary victory for appropriate caution, the U.S. Department of Energy has agreed to a minimum delay of four months in plans to ship liquid nuclear waste from Ontario to South Carolina. That will give the governments of Canada and the United States time to assess the potential impact of such shipments and to seek alternatives for the safe disposal of this extraordinarily hazardous waste.

But it should have been done long ago.

Court papers filed in September show that DOE leaders agreed to withhold shipments until after Feb. 17 “in order to ensure compliance with all legal and contractual obligations.” A federal lawsuit challenging the shipments contends that the DOE:

• 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.

If implemented, the program would transport the liquid waste aboard tractor-trailers from Chalk River, Ont., to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. At least 150 tractor-trailer loads would be required to move the material over the course of several years. Each truck would carry a cask housing four stainless-steel containers containing about 15 gallons of liquid nuclear waste each.

The waste includes weapons-grade enriched uranium as well as radioactive isotopes including cesium, strontium, plutonium and others. As risky as the transport of this waste could be, the United States bears a clear responsibility for its safe disposal.

While it was generated at the Chalk River facility from uses in medicine, the enriched uranium originated in the United States. Given the possibilities of accidental discharge or use by terrorists and other criminals, Americans should be fully and painfully aware of their interest in its safe handling.

It is shocking that the Department of Energy would contemplate these shipments in so cavalier a manner, with no regard for the communities involved, for their elected representatives or even for the law. Clearly, it has a responsibility for the disposal of these wastes, but – does this really need to be said? – the obligation, itself, has to be met responsibly. It’s not enough just to push ahead, heedless of critical issues.

It’s clear that the government was failing that basic requirement, and while many people called the DOE out on that failure, it was because of leaders such as Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that the region has this four-month respite.

Over its duration, government planners will need to demonstrate that they are considering all of the issues and options and then planning appropriately for the one that is ultimately selected.

Otherwise, what are we paying them for?

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