Starting as early as this month, trucks loaded with reinforced casks containing the most dangerous material in the world—highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium—will begin moving across Canada and into the US, potentially passing through various communities along the way.
This radioactive waste is the kind of material that someone with a bad idea could use to make a bomb. More likely, it could irradiate a tract of land or pollute waterways if there's a crash or a spill, an eventuality that shippers prepare for by testing the casks for a nine-metre drop and being submerged in water. Such shipments are tightly controlled by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, which oversees the Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), a government-owned corporation that manufactures medical isotopes in Canada.
Shipping operations for nuclear materials are highly secretive. The route that the trucks will take from the Chalk River nuclear plant in Ontario to Savannah River in South Carolina—a journey that will be nearly 1,700 kilometres—is closely protected, and a number of plaintiffs living nearby potential routes are suing the US Department of Energy in an attempt to force the agency to complete an environmental impact assessment for the shipment.
The materials are refuse from the production of medical isotopes used in cancer treatments, including highly enriched uranium. The materials are being shipped as part of a "repatriation" process to send nuclear material from Canada to the US so it can be processed for non-weaponized purposes, and eventually disposed of.
Motherboard has obtained security and transport requirements for the drivers and security escorts that will drive the irradiated material through Canada, through an access to information request for safety and incident reports and briefings. They are marked "PROTECTED - SENSITIVE" and are from Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), the organization that took over managing Chalk River from AECL in 2014.
An AECL spokesperson confirmed that these checklists are up-to-date and will be filled out by personnel involved with the upcoming shipments.
The email containing the checklists was sent in response to a "letter for the failure to comply with all conditions specified in the transport license" in October of 2015 to the Nuclear Safety Commission's director of transport licensing. The checklists reflect and formalize security processes that, at the time of the email's writing, had not yet been implemented.
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is currently soliciting input for a planned "risk assessment" for transporting nuclear materials in Canada, but the agency told Motherboard in July that it won't be looking into "unsafe practices," and will instead hope to confirm that existing practices are working.
According to the checklists, which are completed before shipments depart, escorts must provide a radio to the driver and call an operator every hour to check in with location and status. Security "must maintain constant surveillance of the shipment at all times" and no stopping for meals is allowed. The checklist states that the shipment will stop at the Duty Free shop at the border for an escort switch-over. Once an escort through the US has been arranged, the driver calls the escort to confirm they are in the US, and the escort heads home.
On the driver side, it's much of the same—no stopping for meals, but if you must stop, notify the escort team beforehand and do so in a "safe location." Security must again be in "constant surveillance" of the shipment, and so the checklist warns drivers to "be cautious of traffic lights and intersections." The drivers also have both a primary route and a secondary route planned, in case something goes sideways.
Motherboard followed up with AECL to ask whether a US security detail takes over once the shipment crosses the border, and if the escort in Canada will comprise of police or employees. An AECL spokesperson said that the company can't disclose those details "for security reasons."
"Radioactive material has been transported safely nationally and internationally for over 50 years by road, rail, water and air without a single radiological incident," a spokesperson for AECL said to Motherboard in an email.
If you think you've had a tense drive in your life, this is on a whole other level.