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Hot load moves by air instead of truck

SAULT STE. MARIE, Ont. - The federal government has bypassed threats of protests and roadblocks around a shipment of nuclear fuel by keeping off the highway ... and flying it overhead.The mixed oxide ...


SAULT STE. MARIE, Ont. – The federal government has bypassed threats of protests and roadblocks around a shipment of nuclear fuel by keeping off the highway … and flying it overhead.

The mixed oxide fuel (MOX) containing about 119 grams of weapons-grade plutonium was shipped by truck from Los Alamos, N.M., but was loaded on to a helicopter for the trip across Ontario to a test facility at Chalk River, where it arrived at 11 a.m. Jan. 14.

The controversial shipment is part of an experiment to see if material once used to make weapons could become a viable fuel in reactors. And it was originally going to be moved by truck.

In the end, the decision to ship the fuel by air was that of the federal government, says Larry Sewchuck, spokesman for Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL). “It was always our intent to truck it,” he says. “Going by air didn’t make the shipment any more safe or any more dangerous … the risk was almost non-existent.”

Natural Resources Canada, acting as a lead agency, made the final request to have the shipment moved by helicopter, after Transport Canada’s two-week review of a modified emergency response plan.

Plans for the truck-bound shipment met an outcry by environmentalists and native groups in Northern Ontario, who saw the first container as a harbinger of more to come.

Sewchuck says the government was responding to questions at public meetings on an emergency plan, asking why it couldn’t simply be flown to its destination to avoid the risk of a highway accident.

“Going by air might have been a touch of overkill,” Sewchuck admits. “But our biggest shareholder is the government, as a Crown corporation. If the government asks us to do it this way and it doesn’t compromise (safety) … we’ll say OK.”

The move involved a primary helicopter and a backup that flew behind it, with staff from the AECL and the Ontario Provincial Police.

Meanwhile, Tony Martin (MPP – Sault Ste. Marie) is looking to see if federal transportation laws were broken, and pledged to make specific inquiries about the airlift.

“They (AECL) are giving some fairly simplistic answers,” he told Truck News.

During a public hearing in North Bay, officials even said they weren’t allowed to fly any weight exceeding 19 grams, and Americans shipped the load by truck for a similar reason, Martin adds. “At the end of the day, that (plan discussed during public meetings) wasn’t the plan they carried out.”

Larry White, director of emergency measures for the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, looked as the decision as a victory for First Nations communities that had protested the truck route.

“At least it didn’t come through the territory,” he says.

It probably isn’t the last to be heard about the shipments. Another fuel sample from Russia is expected to travel by ship up the St. Lawrence Seaway to Cornwall, Ont., from where it’s still expected to be trucked to Chalk River. Regular shipments could begin within a decade.


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