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Readers of this column have figured out by now that there ain't no nuclear physicists manning the desks here at News Hits central. And usually that doesn't much matter.
It does, however, make a difference this week, because at least an associate's degree in radiology might help us sort through the isotopes of an issue involving Ontario's Bruce Nuclear Power Plant and its desire to ship contaminated steam generators to Sweden.
What got us on the trail of this issue was an e-mail from our pal Ed McCardle, a local Sierra Club stalwart who advised us the matter was worth looking into. So we made a call down to Monroe to talk with our nuke go-to guy, Michael Keegan, chair of the nonprofit Coalition for a Nuclear Free Great Lakes.
We begin the conversation with a typically subtle approach.
"Why the hell should metro area readers care about what a Canuck nuke plant operator wants to do with some old steam generators, even if they are radioactive?"
"Because the ships taking them to Sweden will be taking them right past you," Keegan explains. "They're going to be coming down the Detroit River and onto Lake Erie."
These generators are as big as a bus — in all, 16 of them could end up sailing our way, each weighing some 100 metric tons. Convert that to standard tons and what you get is still one hell of a big piece of machinery.
The contaminated parts, it should be noted, are inside these generators. Even so, the concern, said Keegan, is if something unfortunate happens, such as a ship sinking or one of these monsters comes loose in a storm and slides off the deck and lands next to Belle Isle. Now, even an activist like Keegan has to admit that the chance of that happening is pretty slim.
"The probability of an accident is low," he says. "But the potential consequences are high."
Even the non-physicists among you will be less than surprised to learn the pronuclear side of this debate pooh-poohs the concerns of known alarmists like Keegan.
Murray Elson, a spokesman for Bruce Power, told The Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto that, even if something highly improbable did go wrong, the level of radiation inside the generators is so low that a person would have to stand next to one for a few hours to get the same amount of radiation as from a chest X-ray.
The thing is, even if Elson is right, News Hits thinks it would be nice if there were at least some public discussion of all this. We do, after all, get our drinking water from that river, and would much prefer that it remain as free of nuclear waste as possible, even if the level of radioactivity is low.
And that lack of discourse is exactly what has Keegan and a passel of others out waving a red flag trying to draw attention to the whole thing.
Up until a month or so ago, the nukes had been able to keep the whole issue on the downlow. But it looks like they can forget about the stealth approach now.
"We don't want to see consignments of radioactive waste from old nuclear reactors crossing the Great Lakes without prior notification to municipalities and proper community consultation," Derek Stack, executive director of the group Great lakes United, said recently.
He's not alone in that belief. More than 60 nongovernmental organizations have signed a petition opposing the shipments, at least in part because of the precedent that will be set if the plan is allowed to proceed.
Speaking of plans, part of the reason this is all taking people by surprise is that the original solution, according to a 2005 environmental impact assessment done in Canada, was to permanently store the generator at the Bruce plant's site.
It was only recently that the idea of shipping the machinery to Sweden surfaced.
"It's a bait-and-switch type thing," complains Keegan. "And if people don't know about it, then it becomes a done deal. But these are our Great Lakes. People should know what's happening."
They should also be aware of why these things are being shipped to Sweden.
According to Great Lakes United, the idea is to "melt up to 90 percent of the radiation-laced material and sell it as 'clean' scrap intended for unrestricted use."
"What happens is it comes back to us in the form of belt buckles, bracelets and eyewear, with trace amounts of radioactivity embedded in the metal?" Keegan says.
Except for the most radioactive 10 percent, which will end up getting shipped back to Ontario.
So, would the city of Detroit and other municipalities along the route have public hearings or something?
"I don't know," says Keegan. "That's the problem: There are a multitude of questions that have not been addressed, and a multitude of jurisdictional issues that have not been addressed."
A public hearing is scheduled before the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission on Sept. 28. If you want to learn more about what's going on, visit the Great Lakes Untied website at glu.org.
As Keegan says, something as significant as this "warrants full investigation and securitization."
News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or NewsHits@metrotimes.com.