SAULT STE-MARIE, Ont. - Transport Canada recently approved emergency response assistance plans from Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. that will allow shipments of MOX, or mixed oxide fuel, from the U.S. an...
HOT LOAD: The proposed shipments of MOX nuclear fuel have quickly become Canada's most controversial cargo.
SAULT STE-MARIE, Ont. – Transport Canada recently approved emergency response assistance plans from Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. that will allow shipments of MOX, or mixed oxide fuel, from the U.S. and Russia to Chalk River, Ont. There, tests will be performed to see if the fuel, containing weapons-grade plutonium, can be used to generate electricity in a reactor.
In the eyes of Transport Canada, the personnel, equipment and emergency planning available along the route could address any possible accidents.
Native groups, however, have strongly opposed shipments of MOX through certain territories, specifically along the St. Lawrence River near Cornwall, and via Sault Ste. Marie, and along the Trans-Canada Highway to the Ottawa Valley. They say the shipments aren’t safe, and that they were not given adequate notice about them. At the beginning of September, the federal government gave only one day advance notice that public commentary would begin.
But industry leaders and the government maintain the shipments are safe, and that concerns about the safety of the load are unfounded.
“Clearly, there’s no pleasing some people,” says Larry Sewchuk of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. Sewchuk, who has met with community leaders for information sessions on the shipments – and who has been an advocate of nuclear education for several years – feels caught in a dispute between government and First Nation groups. And he feels the dispute has more to do with communication issues than with dangerous goods.
“The reason the project exists is that the United States and the Russians have agreed to destroy their nuclear weapons. In terms of where we are with the transport plans, Transport Canada agreed with our assessment that there is no doubt the shipment would survive any accident,” he says. “And plutonium by itself does not explode.”
In the case of the Russian shipment, Sewchuk says the freezing of the St. Lawrence may delay that shipment coming though until early spring.
Recent developments may also delay the U.S. shipment further.
On Dec. 7, a United States federal judge issued a 10-day restraining order against shipping the plutonium into Canada. Environmental groups in the United States filed a lawsuit against the shipment, saying the U.S. Department of Energy did not sufficiently study potential environmental effects in the event of an accident. The lawsuit contends that this shipment will be one of many to process U.S. and Russian weapons-grade plutonium at world nuclear plants. There are also concerns that the U.S. drivers of the shipments may not be prepared for the possible extreme winter conditions of Canada’s north.
“We’re excited to see the courts are looking into it in the States,” says Bob Goulais, Union of Ontario Indians communications officer. “We’re hoping that it’ll force the U.S. Department of Energy to look into the environmental impact. Our position, representing 43 First Nations groups, is that we haven’t been given adequate consultation at all. The government requires our explicit consultation and consent.”
The blocked shipment doesn’t bode well for the United States’ credibility with Russia, as the American contribution of plutonium is meant to show Russia it is willing to participate in the dismantling of nuclear weapons, and the U.S. plutonium was coming into Canada as a goodwill gesture. However, in a related issue, Russia has also reminded the U.S. that it is still a nuclear power and that it will not be threatened with diplomatic intervention from the U.S. against the war in Chechnya.
Despite assurances to the contrary, many First Nations leaders in Canada don’t accept that the shipment is safe, and more pertinently, don’t believe they were taken seriously in the consultation process.
“The community doesn’t want it to come through Akwesasne,” says Larry White, Director of Emergency Measures at the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne. “The community reacted to it ’cause they didn’t get notice on it. The government prepares all this material. They’re going to give you info they want you to know. But we want more info on that, like why they wanted to ship it through here, and if there were alternate routes or modes of transport,” he says. Currently, there is a restriction of 15 g on the amount of plutonium that can be flown on civilian aircraft. Both shipments exceed 100 g.
Elaine Johnston, Chief Executive Officer of the North Shore Tribal Council, which recently organized a peaceful demonstration along Highway 17 in northern Ontario, agrees.
“The bigger concern is that the dialogue (between government, native groups and municipalities) never happened.”
Johnston says they received more than 600 petitions from the First Nations groups and area citizens.
“It’s been hard to make a point to people about what the status is, as there’s a lot of anti-nuclear sentiment around,” says Sewchuk. “This is not the first time this plutonium has been on the highways … Plutonium’s been on the road for the last 30 years.
“It’s incredible to see people protesting this, based on fear,” he says. “I can’t imagine anything more of a threat to future generations than the existence of nuclear weapons. I like telling my kids their dad is working to destroy them.” n