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Nuclear and Radioactive Packages Keep Going Missing in Canada

A new report says dozens of packages with dangerous material inside are still unaccounted for. That isn't good.

by Justin Ling
Feb 12 2016, 5:30pm

Photo from the Associated Press/Douglas C. Pizac

If you've ever lost your wallet or car keys, you've got something in common with the people who run Canada's nuclear facilities, who keep misplacing nuclear and radiological material.

Last year alone, 14 radioactive packages were lost or stolen, according to the annual report from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), and less than half were later recovered. That's on top of the dozen of other nuclear packages from recent years that have yet to be found.

The report doesn't detail the circumstances of the losses or thefts, except to say that they were either "sealed sources" — a secure container carrying nuclear or radioactive material — or "radioactive devices."

The lapses, at a time when security services pledge neurotic devotion to tracking and recovering dangerous goods that could reach the black market, are thanks in part to a handful of private companies that are mishandling radioactive material.

Table from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission's annual report.

In the nuclear watchdog's 2014/2015 annual report, it identified 27 companies that were mislabeling or mishandling nuclear material, or which had inadequate security protections.

In some cases, CNSC lightly rapped the knuckles of companies, including a New Brunswick brewery which, according to the government body, had "several non-compliances related to safety requirements for nuclear gauges."

Pump House Brewery, at the time, told CBC News that the problem amounted to some missed paperwork.

In other cases, the problems were more serious and resulted in fines.

Alberta Health Services, a provincial government body, was slapped with $7,600 in fines after losing two sealed nuclear containers and failing to tell the regulator. Nordion, a company based in Ottawa that deals with medical isotopes, paid nearly $25,000 to the government after exporting category one radioactive material — the most dangerous type — to the United States without informing the CNSC.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police has developed a team to investigate threats to critical infrastructure, and set up a system for tracking suspicious incidents, especially as they relate to dangerous material. That system, launched in 2012, is still in its infancy, but is expected to be expanded in the near future.

"[The Suspicious Incident Reporting System] provides stakeholders with a means to report suspicious incidents to the RCMP online, from their own work terminal," wrote Robert Zawerbny, a research specialist with the RCMP on critical infrastructure, in a variety of industry journals, alerting private companies to the system.

Zawerbny's column included the examples of "two Canadians posing as microbiologist [who] attempted to order pathogens from a private research organization."

The RCMP's hope is that it can leverage industry players to tap into their Spidey senses and pick up on espionage, terrorism, or industrial theft in the early stages. In one case in Quebec, more than a ton of explosives were stolen before anyone was apprehended.

CNSC's report from last year shows that ability is much-needed.

But while the nuclear watchdog is the hands-on inspector that oversees how companies handle radioactive material, it — like many federal agencies — has faced budget cuts in recent years.

While staffing at CNSC has grown in recent years — it current stands at just shy of 900 full-time staff — its budget has declined by more than $10 million since 2014.

The report also found that safety and security at five nuclear power plants was, at least, okay, although several have fallen below industry standards.

Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @Justin_Ling
Security at Quebec's Gentilly-2 and New Brunswick's Point Lepreau nuclear stations were 'satisfactory' — as opposed to the industry average of 'full satisfactory.'

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