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MEMORANDUM

from Gordon Edwards

During his testimony to the Standing Committee on Natural Resources Tuesday, February 5, 2008, Brian McGee -- Vice President of AECL -- indicated that the worst possible radiation release from the NRU reactor at Chalk River, even if all the pumps failed, all the coolant boiled away and no operator action was taken to ameliorate the situation, would be the equivalent of about HALF the radiation exposure of a CAT-scan for the workers in the plant, and little more than the equivalent of a medical X-ray for members of the public. I noted at the time that I disagreed with this assessment. Today I have sent this memorandum to the committee.

Gordon Edwards.

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MEMORANDUM

To: Members of the Committee on Natural Resources:
From: Gordon Edwards, Ph.D., President, Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility
Date: February 12, 2008.

In my testimony to the Committee on Tuesday February 5 2008, I indicated that I disagreed with Brian McGee's description of what he called the "worst case scenario" of an accident at the NRU reactor where fuel failures might occur as a result of a prolonged loss of cooling to the reactor core.

I also called attention to the fact that AECL and Nordion continue to use weapons-grade uranium from the U.S.A. as target elements in the production of molybdenum-99, a practice which entails great security risks and one which the U.S. government intends to terminate.

As it happens, there is a recently released (January 2008) report by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) entitled "Nuclear Security: Action May Be Needed to Reassess the Security of NRC-Licensed Research Reactors" which is relevant to both of these topics.

The report can be accessed on the internet at: http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d08403.pdf

(1) Consequences of Radiation Releases from Research Reactors

Of the four research reactors that are operated by the U.S. Department of Energy, only one is more powerful than the 135 megawatt NRU reactor; it is a 250 MW reactor called the Advanced Test Reactor. The second most powerful DOE research reactor is 85 MW, the third is 4 MW, the fourth is only 0.25 MW. Except for the ATR, these reactors are all smaller than NRU.

Yet here is what the GAO report says about the potential consequences of a radiation release from "some" of these four DOE-owned research reactors:

"DOE has concluded that the consequences of an attack at some of its research reactors could be severe, causing radiation to be dispersed over many square miles and requiring the evacuation of nearby areas. As a result, all facilities where DOE reactors are located have established extensive plans and procedures for safety and security incidents. For example, DOE facilities where research reactors are located have emergency response plans that call for evacuating areas surrounding the facility for up to 300-square miles in the event of a potentially hazardous radiological release."

I believe that Mr. McGee's description of the worst possible consequences of an accident at NRU is inaccurate and misleading. I note that a similar description is posted on AECL's official web site. These descriptions attempt to trivialize the consequences of a major accident at NRU. (See http://www.aecl.ca/NewsRoom/News/Press-2008/080129.htm )

In order to properly critique Mr. McGee's description, I will ask him to provide me with the detailed calculations and assumptions underlying his description.

Of course, one of the unmentioned consequences of a major accident at the NRU reactor would be a complete halt to the production of medical radioisotopes at Chalk River.

There was an accident in 1952 at Chalk River involving the NRX reactor (20 MW, much smaller than the NRU reactor) which was accompanied by explosions, evacuation, a million liters of radioactively contaminated water, and a totally destroyed reactor core.

Hundreds of people (including future U.S. President Jimmy Carter) were involved in radioactive decontamination and cleanup work for months afterwards. The NRX reactor vessel was so radioactive that a relay team of many drivers had to be used to drive the truck a short distance to some burial place on the Chalk River property. The radioactively contaminated water was allowed to seep into a patch of sandy soil about a kilometer and a half away from the NRX reactor building.

There was also an accident at the NRU reactor in 1958 involving a 3-foot long portion of one fuel element, which caught fire and burned, spreading radioactivity throughout the NRU reactor building. This accident led to months of decontamination work involving hundreds of military recruits trucked in from Camp Petawawa and sent in to the reactor building wearing protective suits and respirators. One man, Corporal McCormand, forgot to attach the charcoal filter to his respirator on one occasion and ended up with throat cancer for which he got compensation (a pension). Another man, Corporal Paulson, had skin contamination during disrobing and suffered over a hundred operations for cancers all over his body, also caused by radiation exposure, for which he also received a pension.

Nuclear accidents at research reactors are not always as benign in their consequences as Committee members may have been led to believe.

(2) The use of Weapons Grade Uranium at Research Reactors

The same U.S. GAO Report comments on progress made by the NNSA (National Nuclear Security Administration) in converting U.S. research reactors that used to use HEU (highly enriched uranium, typically 93% uranium-235) to henceforth using only LEU (low enriched uranium, under 20% uranium-235).

According to the GAO Report,

"Since 1978, NNSA has converted eight currently operating U.S. research reactors [from HEU to LEU], including two in 2006. In addition, NNSA plans to convert 10 more U.S. research reactors by September 2014 five of which are scheduled for conversion by 2009."

(In addition to the four DOE research reactors mentioned above, there are 33 NRC-licensed research reactors in the U.S.A. The three largest are 20 MW, 10 MW and 5 MW, while all the rest are less than 3 MW in size.)

One of the consequences of a halt to the supply of HEU from the U.S.A. would be a halt to the production of medical radioisotopes at Chalk River.