Media Release

Groups Find Serious Deficiencies In Newly Revised Plan For Dealing With Plutonium Spill; Seek Extended Public Comment Period

Sep 14 2000

Ottawa. A coalition of environmental groups has identified a number of serious deficiencies in Atomic Energy of Canada Limited's (AECL) latest emergency plan for the air transport of plutonium fuel from Russia. Accordingly, the groups are asking Transport Canada to extend the deadline for public comment until mid-October to allow these serious flaws to be adequately addressed by the public as well as independent experts. On August 17, 2000, Transport Canada notified AECL that review of its emergency plan could not go forward because it did not deal with the issue of an accident involving the release of plutonium fuel powder. On September 1, AECL responded by submitting a revised emergency plan which describes, for the first time, the measures to be taken in the event of plutonium-fuel powder escaping into the environment. Accordingly, Transport Canada has extended the deadline for public comment from August 25 to September 15, 2000. Expert testimony from Dr. Edwin Lyman of the Washington-based Nuclear Control Institute has confirmed accidental release of plutonium-fuel powder is indeed possible. It is known that The container chosen by AECL can be destroyed by a severe impact, such as that caused by an aircraft accident. The ceramic fuel pellets would be partially pulverized by such an impact, and can become almost completely pulverized by exposure to fire in the presence of oxygen for as little as 30 minutes. Elizabeth May of the Sierra Club of Canada noted that "AECL's new emergency plan raises more questions than it answers. Canadians have a right to know prior to allowing this hare-brained scheme to go forward, what the risks are to our health and the environment." Specific concerns raised by the Sierra Club of Canada include : what level of remediation and clean-up will be required? Would AECL be required to recover 100% of spilled plutonium? or only 80%? or perhaps as little as 20%? The revised AECL plan acknowledges that emergency response teams would require full face respirators and special protective clothing in the event of an accident. Previously AECL has downplayed concerns about possible accidents involving MOX fuel in the media, saying that a piece of paper could block radioactive emissions if there were an accident. (See for example, The Montreal Gazette, March 23, 1999, p. A11, "Even if an accident happened en route, [AECL spokesperson, Larry Sewchuck] said, 'all you'd need to block the radioactivity from hitting you would be a single piece of paper.' " See also the Calgary Herald, April 27, 1999, p. A9). Dr. Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, said: "Full-face respirators, plastic body suits and double rubber gloves for AECL personnel are for the first time described as mandatory, but there is no training program outlined for teaching fire-fighters, medical personnel, and other emergency responders how to use this kind of equipment. Nor is there any indication of how to prevent the inadvertent spread of plutonium contamination during the disrobing operation." According to Patrick Rasmussen of the Mouvement Vert Mauricie, "The new emergency plan envisages the possibility that plutonium-contaminated casualties might be transferred to hospital before the arrival of AECL's RAT (Radiological Assessment Team), but there is no consideration of measures to prevent plutonium contamination of the transport vehicles, emergency rooms or medical personnel who would be called on to deal with these casualties. Nor is there any training described for nurses, doctors and paramedics to prepare them to deal with plutonium-contaminated casualties," he adds. Theresa McClenaghan of the Canadian Environmental Law Association states that, "The adequacy of emergency response in issues such as transportation and medical treatment of radioactively contaminated casualties is a major concern. In a 1993 trial concerning the Nuclear Liability Act, we had evidence from Ontario medical officers of health that these capabilities were completely absent. Very little has changed since then in Ontario and we have no reason to think the situation is better elsewhere in Canada."Kristen Ostling, National Coordinator of the Campaign for Nuclear Phaseout, stated that "The serious flaws in AECL's plans confirm our position that the Chrétien government should call for an immediate halt to the plutonium import project."- 30 -For more information:Elizabeth May, Sierra Club of Canada, 613-241-4611, Edwards, Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, 514-853-5736 (pager), www.ccnr.orgTheresa McClenaghan, Canadian Environmental Law Association, 416-960-2284Patrick Rasmussen, Mouvement Vert Mauricie, 819-532-2855Kristen Ostling, Campaign for Nuclear Phaseout, 613-789-3634