Who is responsible for nuclear cleanup? Lead attorney Tony Merchant weighs in
Earlier this year, Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) began moving closer to selecting a location for the new Deep Geological Repository (DGR) they have been tasked to build. The DGR will be the final storage facility for the more than 48,000 tonnes of nuclear waste Canada has been accumulating over the past 65 years. The waste is currently being stored at Bruce Power, the world’s largest nuclear power facility, located near Lake Huron. While 11 communities (mostly in Ontario) vie for the billion dollar investment, little is known about the new technology and the long-term effects it will have on the community that is selected to house it.
In 2011, following a series of natural disasters, three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan had a serious meltdown. A majority of each reactor’s core – three in total – melted within the first three days, creating a toxic by-product of radioactive water.
Although four years have passed since the meltdown in Japan, experts and analysts are predicting that the cleanup at Fukushima will take an estimated 40 years, in part because cleaning up nuclear waste requires a complex, multi-tier effort, one often complicated by the head-butting between government and private sector interests.
Nuclear decontamination is a lengthy process, and decommissioning reactors that cannot be fixed or put back on line is an even longer process. In the case of the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown in Pennsylvania, crews were able to decontaminate the plant after 14 years. In the Chernobyl nuclear accident, which was far more serious than Three Mile Island, a mandatory and permanent evacuation was ordered when the outer wall of the reactor was breached. As a Frontline story pointed out, the entire reactor and facility was then entombed in concrete: “A protective sarcophagus was built around the plant, which is currently being updated because the original is crumbling.”
The question is, who pays for the long-term management and safety of these plants?
While atomic energy corporations are responsible for paying a portion of cleanup costs, most of the financial burden is left to governments and ultimately tax payers, especially when decontamination and decommissioning can take decades. The greatest tolls are often on cleanup crews who are faced with long-term health problems that often take years to emerge.
Merchant Law Group became involved in litigation over a clean up of a spill at Chalk River.
“Amazingly, the military sent in soldiers to clean up Chalk River because the civilians who knew the dangers refused to participate in the clean up!”, said Tony Merchant, one of the lead lawyers from Merchant Law Group.
“Chalk River has been in the news regarding isotopes, used for medical purposes”, said Tony Merchant. “But my involvement was over the shameful use of the military in the 1958 clean-up” Tony Merchant said.
“I can not do better than recount the very words of one of the witnesses and plaintiffs”, said the class action lawyer. “ I was a research technician in 1958 during the fuel rod accident and clean-up done by the Petawawa military. As technicians we dropped the damage hot nuclear fuel rod pieces in an open pit. The technicians were told to run up to the edge of the pit and wash sand and dirt off the fuel rod pieces in the pit. To do that we had to jump down into the pit, which was about 8 feet deep, literally lie down in the dirt, while looking at fuel rod pieces through a mirror.”
At about the same time, Mr. Merchant recounted, “There was an accident with two plumbers. They were in the reactor zone to cut off a piece of pipe in the hot zone regarding a piece of experimental equipment called ‘rabbit’. It was a brass piece fired into the reactor through a pipe with elbows directing the test piece to a destination in the reactor with test samples. The ‘rabbit’ fell on the floor next to the two plumbers. One plumber picked it up. Engineers starting yelling to drop it and run. That plumber became paralysed and died. The other plumber suffered serious injuries”, Mr. Merchant recounted.
“Cancer of people sent to do the Chalk River clean-up, deaths, horrible stories” were all told to me, Tony Merchant reported.
Decontamination involves the cleanup of the actual site, the surrounding environment and also the residents in the adjacent communities, resulting in a costly and time-consuming process that in turn produces tonnes of radioactive waste. “Dirt and vegetation are also issues for the clean-up: In order to cut radioactivity in half over the first two years, about 4 centimeters of topsoil needs to be removed from farms around Fukushima. In total, it’s enough soil to fill 20 football stadiums.” This from a report by Gretchen Gavett in 2002.
With 80,000 Japanese residents forced to evacuate the area and thousands of residents permanently restricted from returning to their homes in Chernobyl, what protocols are there for the protection of average citizens?
Tony Merchant is a prominent Canadian attorney, leading numerous class actions in Canada and has often been described as Canada’s Class Action King. He was additionally contacted about litigation he commenced over what are known as Canada’s “Atomic Veterans”.
People should track down a documentary made in 2007, on the 50th anniversary of “Operation Plum bomb”. The documentary is called “Time Bombs”.
“The facts of how the Canadian government treated America’s military is difficult to even imagine,” said Tony Merchant. “This is what has come out through our law suit. They wanted to test the effects of nuclear weapons on human beings! US military started down that road. Congress got wind of it and passed a law prohibiting US service personnel being used as atomic guinea pigs. The United States called Canada’s military and we obliged.”
The facts recounted by Tony Merchant are amazing. “Canadians from all the services, but mostly soldiers of the lower ranks, were flown to Christmas Island in the Pacific where they were adjacent to nuclear explosions and the impact upon them physically was observed. And in Nevada, in 1957 particularly, from talking with service personnel, they dug trenches as close as a mile away from nuclear weapons being exploded and a half a mile further back and a half a mile after that, and they lay down in the trenches and the nuclear weapon was exploded,” said Mr. Merchant.
“I talked with one man who said, with his goggles on and his eyes closed and his hand over his face, he could see every bone in his hand and his wrist,” Mr. Merchant recounted. “Then the servicemen, got up and walked directly over the location of the bomb. They had dosimeters. But the dosimeters were not to check individually whether they had taken dangerous levels of radiation – which they all had – because after walking over the site, performing some duties designed to be like what a soldier would do if you dropped a nuclear weapon and then invaded over that land, they then walked back to where the officers were more safely hiding, and threw their dosimeters in boxes. The military wanted to know the collective damage but was uninterested in the individual damage.”
“The Canadian government has never settled with Atomic Veterans who – you guessed it, died in droves of cancer, and while we have litigation ongoing, finding experts who can help us make this case a success is a tough task,” said the Canadian litigator and former Member of a Legislature in Canada.
In Canada, the federal government has established a Nuclear Fuel Waste Act to address the complications that arise in the disposal and management of nuclear waste. From the Act, The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) was founded to deal with the copious amounts of nuclear waste. Their mandate is found on their website: “The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) is responsible for the implementation of Adaptive Phased Management, Canada’s plan for the safe, long-term care of used nuclear fuel.”
The Nuclear Fuel Waste Act also mandated the establishment of a trust fund that energy companies pay into for the management of nuclear waste.
A similar fund in the United States is capped at $12.6 billion dollars, even though projections of what it costs to clean up after an accident well exceed that. “A 1982 study from Sandia National Laboratories, commissioned for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the consequences of a nuclear meltdown would be catastrophic. The disaster could cause 50,000 fatalities and $314 billion in property damage,” according to a 2011 CNN report. “In today’s money, that’s $720 billion.”
With the world’s largest nuclear energy facility, what does this mean for Canada?
Nuclear decontamination is a multibillion dollar business. The projected cost of decontaminating Fukushima is at $300 billion. The 14-year Three Mile Island cleanup cost $1 billion and it is estimated that the relocation and medical costs of the Chernobyl disaster cost $235 billion. And with no ‘experts’ in the field, it is hard to believe that all the international conventions and protocols are being met on every level.
Photo from Shutterstock. This post was supported by Reputation.CA