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Federal judge allows transport of liquid nuclear waste from Ontario

Shipments of liquid nuclear waste from Canada could start crossing the Peace Bridge this month.

A U.S. District Court judge in Washington, D.C., ruled Thursday that the U.S. Energy Department satisfied all of its requirements for transporting about 6,000 gallons of the liquid nuclear material from a medical research laboratory in Chalk River, Ont., to a reprocessing facility in Aiken, S.C.

The shipments – an estimated 100 to 150 truckloads over the next four years – could be routed across the Peace Bridge and through downtown Buffalo, according to federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission documents.

The shipments are part of the U.S. effort to repatriate its nuclear material.

A cask of highly-radioactive nuclear material would be carried on the back of a flatbad tractor-trailer like this one during transport between Ontario and South Carolina, according to plans. (Department of Energy image)

Transports of the waste were supposed to start last September but seven environmental organizations filed a lawsuit to stop them.

The Sierra Club, Beyond Nuclear and five other groups called the shipments “mobile Chernobyls on steroids." The groups said trucking highly radioactive liquid over highways was not only unprecedented but also dangerous, and it had not been lawfully evaluated by the federal government.

U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan found otherwise.

Chutkan found the Energy Department within its rights when it said hauling highly-radioactive liquid is no more hazardous than doing so in solid form.

Relying on past case law from the U.S. Supreme Court, Chutkan found the court could only overturn the Energy Department’s decision if “the record shows a clear error of judgment” or if the department failed to provide a “hard look” during its evaluation.


Read Judge Chutkan's Memorandum Opinion


“A review ... shows the agency did, in fact, give a hard look to a wide range of factors, evidence and statistical analyses regarding environmental impacts in numerous different scenarios,” Chutkan ruled.

So the federal agency properly concluded a new environmental impact statement is not required, she said.

The “Department of Energy has not acted arbitrarily or capriciously or made a clear error in judgment by deciding that its planned transport of highly-enriched uranyl nitrate liquid was not a substantial change from the actions evaluated by past environmental impact statements,” Chutkan ruled.

Opponents criticized the decision but called an appeal unlikely.

“We are deeply disappointed with this ruling that denies environmental protection to us from this unprecedented high-risk shipment of dangerous liquid nuclear waste that will probably be shipped over the Peace Bridge and through our community,” said Lynda Schneekloth, chair of the Sierra Club’s Niagara Group.

Schneekloth, a University at Buffalo professor emeritus of architecture, lives within two miles of the Peace Bridge.

Liquid nuclear waste shipments over Peace Bridge could start in September

Last August, Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, put the Department of Energy and the Department of Homeland Security “on notice” about the “hazardous condition” being created by planned shipments.

Earlier this week, a Republican bill approved in the House included language from Higgins requiring the Department of Homeland Security to conduct risk assessments on the transportation of nuclear and radiological material.

It’s unlikely it will have any effect on at least the initial transports, which are imminent.

The bill now goes to the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee. A similar bill passed last year but was not considered in the Senate.

“We continue to fight for appropriate environmental and safety assessments as the Department of Energy plans, for the first time, to move this hazardous material through our community,” Higgins said in a news release Wednesday.

Higgins did not comment Friday on the judge's ruling.

Department of Energy officials declined to comment Friday.

The radiological liquid to be shipped is what’s left over from a process at Ontario’s Chalk River Laboratories. A key radioisotope was extracted from highly-enriched uranium for use in medical applications, including the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

The residual material is what is supposed to be transported to the Savannah River Site nuclear facility in South Carolina.

One of the possible routes for armed convoys includes the Peace Bridge.

Trucks would then travel south on the Niagara Thruway to the mainline Thruway and then on to Erie, Pa., and south from there.


A metal cask, which could carry four separate containers of 15 gallons of radiological material. (Department of Energy image)Each truck would haul a single cask.

Inside a cask would be four stainless-steel containers each containing about 15 gallons of liquid nuclear material, according to Energy Department documents.

Opponents said the acidic solution of “radiotoxic” isotopes like cesium-137, strontium-90 and plutonium-239 have the potential to result in catastrophic damage to the environment as well as humans and wildlife in the event of an accident or an act of terrorism during the nearly 1,100-mile trip.

“This liquid is among the most radiotoxic materials on earth,” said Gordon Edwards, a mathematician with the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility.

Schneekloth said the waste should, at a minimum, be solidified in Canada prior to transport.

“All of our lives are put at risk ... by the government who is supposed to protect life, health and public safety,” Schneekloth said.


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