Peace Bridge: Radioactive roadway?

West Side residents have long complained about trucks crossing the Peace Bridge because of diesel fumes that have been linked to respiratory illnesses.

They now have another reason to be uncomfortable with truck traffic: rigs carrying high-level radioactive cargo.

Federal authorities in May gave approval for a company to truck spent nuclear fuel over the Peace Bridge. They say there haven’t been any leaks or other problems involving similar shipments elsewhere.

But some experts and activists are concerned the route approval is a prelude to shipping highly radioactive liquid waste. This would be unprecedented for North America, let alone the Peace Bridge, and is regarded as a far riskier proposition.

“Such high-level waste is the most radioactive material to be found on Planet Earth,” according to Gordon Edwards of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility.

The federal agencies that regulate these shipments weren’t forthcoming with Investigative Post about information of past shipments of high-level radioactive material over the Peace Bridge or any other part of the state. Nor were officials willing to discuss the potential transport of radioactive material in its more dangerous liquid form.

Anna Tilman, vice president of the International Institute of Concern for Public Health, noted her concerns in a letter to the Minister of Natural Resources in Canada.

“Unlike solid waste, liquid waste can leak into the environment, in very large quantities, if a serious accident occurred. Cleaning it up would be very difficult, if not impossible,” she wrote.

Peace Bridge Authority General Manager Ron Rienas said he’s unaware of shipments of high-level nuclear materials over the bridge linking Buffalo and Fort Erie. Neighborhood residents are likewise in the dark.

“We should have a say of whatever is going on in our community,” said Tangia Delk, who lives near the Peace Bridge. “That’s not fair to do that to people.”

It’s not just the locals who have expressed reservations about using the Peace Bridge as a shipping route for spent nuclear fuel.

State officials urged the U.S. Department of Energy 14 years ago to route radioactive material over the the Lewiston Queenston Bridge for a variety of reasons, including its location is in a less-populated area than the Peace Bridge.

“This is another example of why the commercial processing of any kind of cargo does not belong here at the Peace Bridge,” said Kathy Mecca, a neighborhood activist and president of the Niagara Gateway Columbus Park Association

Transporting liquids a concern

The spent nuclear fuel in solid form that has been approved for shipment across the border begins as highly enriched uranium that is shipped by the United States to Chalk River Laboratories, about 110 miles north of Ottawa. There it is used in a nuclear reactor to produce medical isotopes for medical diagnostic procedures.

The process produces spent nuclear fuel that U.S. authorities say they take back as part of an international program intended to keep radioactive material out of the hands of unfriendly parties.

The spent fuel is shipped about 1,250 miles from Chalk River Laboratories to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site, a processing facility and laboratory in Aiken, S.C.

At present, the spent fuel is transported in solid form in containers tested to withstand 30-foot falls and fires as hot as 1,475 degrees. Shipments of spent nuclear fuel using this method of transport have occurred around the country for decades by road, rail, air and water. Authorities say these shipments have never resulted in a leak of radioactive material.

Has the Peace Bridge ever been used as a route before May? Federal authorities refuse to say. But the Nuclear Regulatory Agency approved the route through 2018.

What has some experts and activists more concerned is the possibility that the route approval could enable the shipping of the highly radioactive liquid byproduct of processing the highly enriched uranium. This is considered more dangerous because of the difficulty of containing radioactive material in the event of a spill.

“This is very, very dangerous material,” said Lynda Schneekloth, chairwoman of the Sierra Club Niagara Group. “If there were ever an accident it would be really, really terrible.”

In addition, the containers NRC certifies have never shipped liquid radioactive material before, said Tom Clements, an adviser to the South Carolina Chapter of the Sierra Club.

“That review process is obscure, but the NRC did have a public meeting about it two months ago” said Clements, one of 10 experts, officials and neighborhood residents interviewed for this story.

Activists in both the United States and Canada want a comprehensive study of the environmental impacts of shipping liquid radioactive material from Canada. Such a study would include alternatives to shipping to the United States, such as keeping the highly radioactive liquid in Canada.

Instead, the Department of Energy finished a lesser review last April and is ready to accept shipments once modifications are finished at the Savannah River Site. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission says it has not yet received an application from Chalk River to ship the liquid waste, a required step for each shipment. But it is in the process of certifying a shipping container for the liquid waste.   

When will that be? The National Nuclear Security Administration, tasked with the management and security of nuclear weapons and nonproliferation in the United States, would not say.

The agency, “cannot disclose specific information regarding the frequency, timing or planned routing of shipments for security reasons,” a spokesman said in an email.

State preferred different route

Although unrelated to the May approval, the routing of spent nuclear fuel over the Peace Bridge was a source of concern for state officials in 2000.

That’s when a nuclear facility specialist for the state’s Emergency Management Office urged the Department of Energy to use the Lewiston Queenston Bridge to transport spent nuclear fuel.

“The Lewiston Queenston is a better option for the following reasons: the Peace Bridge currently has a high political profile because of bridge expansion efforts, the Lewiston Queenston is situated in a lower residential population density area and has more area for conducting inspections when exiting customs,” the state official wrote.

“The Lewiston Queenston is routinely used for hazard [sic] materials shipments,” the official added.

Click here to see the stark differences in population densities at the two bridges

The suitability of the Peace Bridge remains debatable 14 years later.

Federal rules stipulate that the West Side should be protected from further environmental harm because the community has a high percentage of poor and minority residents. The area also exhibits a high risk for cancer, respiratory illnesses and neurological disorders, according to Environmental Protection Agency data.

To make matters worse, the EPA said its data shows the West Side “bears more than its fair share of facilities that use, store, transport, or dispose of toxic substances as well as facilities that emit and discharge pollutants into the air and waterways.”

Mecca, the West Side activist, is one of nine women on her street who had breast cancer and one of three who has survived. She said the concerns the state expressed 14 years ago are still relevant today.

“We always end up being collateral damage and we have to stop that kind of practice,” she said.

Transparency an issue

Bridge officials and neighborhood activists said they were unaware the bridge had been authorized as a shipment route for high-level radioactive material.

Rienas, the bridge general manager since 2003, said he is aware that more innocuous materials such as mined uranium and medical devices with nuclear isotopes have crossed the bridge. He said cat litter can trigger the radioactive sensors at customs inspections.

Low-level radioactive waste can be a wide range of items, including equipment, gloves, shoe covers and tools that have been contaminated.

High-level radioactive waste is much stronger and includes the spent fuel and liquid waste, which can have more than 200 deadly radioactive elements.

Rienas doesn’t necessarily fault federal officials for not disclosing details of the high-level radioactive material because of security concerns.

“It’s traveling on an open transportation network and if someone wanted to hijack a shipment, why make it easy?” he said.

Mecca argues for more transparency.

“Certainly we should be involved in an open conversation. What is the most appropriate and safest crossing for this type of cargo or any kind of hazardous cargo?” she asked.

“Prove to us that what you’re doing is safe before you do it. While I’m happy they’ve never had any problems, it doesn’t mean that they won’t.”

Maureen Conley, a spokeswoman for the NRC, said details about shipments are protected for national security reasons.

As a result, “we would not be able to disclose any information about the timing of the shipment, the specific payload, certain security arrangements or where it is coming from,” she said in an email.

Read our transparency policy on Peace Bridge stories here.