More than one million packages of radioactive nuclear material are transported within Canada every year, from spent nuclear fuel to nuclear gauges for breweries. Now the government is gearing up to make sure that they're safe and sound, although it won't be seeking to update outdated and potentially inadequate safety regulations.
Both the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) and Transport Canada have regulations in place for the transport of radioactive material, but the CNSC, which is responsible for ensuring Canada's handling of nuclear material is up to international standards, is soliciting input for a planned Transport Risk Assessment that it hopes will "provide confirmation" that the risks "are low and the safety of packages is high."
These risks might include vehicle collisions and the risk of releasing radioactive material in the event of a fire or a package being dropped, according to Edwin Lyman, senior global security scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
But international standards for these kinds of tests were developed decades ago, Lyman said, and don't take into account collisions on high-speed roadways. According to a CNSC spokesperson, the risk assessment is meant to "refine current techniques" and will not "identify 'unsafe practices or inadequate regulations'."
"Nuclear regulation's always about not looking at the worst case"
"There are many accidents that are much more severe than the 30 miles per hour collisions and 10 metre drops that they test for," Lyman said. "Nuclear regulation's always about not looking at the worst case, and instead just trying to figure out what gives you the highest level of confidence based on the risks you have to worry about."
Another kind of transport risk—missing nuclear material—won't be addressed by the CNSC's planned risk assessment, a spokesperson for the regulator confirmed. CNSC report released last year revealed that in 2014-2015, 14 packages of radioactive material simply went missing. Of those, six were recovered. In 2012-2013, 16 packages of radioactive material went missing, and only five were recovered.
"Clearly, if you're going to worry about radiological accidents, you also need to worry about the possibility of terrorism and missing sources," Lyman said. "There should be, on a parallel track, an assessment."
In Canada, one of the main uses for what is often described as "weapons-grade" enriched uranium is medical and scientific research. The country has numerous nuclear reactors used for research, some of which develop medical isotopes for cancer treatments. There have been growing calls for awareness of the dangers of transporting radioactive packages for this purpose.
"The game is over for Canada's unnecessary and irresponsible use of bomb-grade uranium to produce medical isotopes," Alan Kuperman of the US Nuclear Non-Proliferation Project said in a statement when Canada announced that a 2015 shipment of uranium from the US to Canada would likely be the last.
Although the large majority of the million-plus packages of radioactive material shipped across Canada are likely not "bomb-grade," it is still no doubt unsettling to see that our federal regulator, instead of setting out to improve the safety of handling nuclear material, is trying to keep things business as usual.