A highway accident on Jan. 11 just north of Swift Current revealed a hazard on our provincial and federal highways which drivers seldom think about. People generally do not see and therefore rarely think about the many dangerous goods that are routinely being transported on our railways and public roads.
The incident near Swift Current involved the rollover of a flat deck tractor trailer that was carrying 63 barrels of yellowcake uranium in a shipping container known as a seacan. According to media reports, the low-grade radioactive material is owned by an Australian company and was en route to a Cameco refinery at Blind River, Ont.
Swift Current’s fire chief reportedly said a tiny puff of yellow was seen escaping from the wreckage, but it was not known if the material was uranium. A HAZMAT team that was trained to safely handle dangerous spills of radioactive substances was summoned to the scene. There was the possibility of a greater release of yellowcake when the seacan was lifted up and then placed in a larger, sealable container for safe transportation.
Yellowcake is uranium powder that has gone through the first process of becoming nuclear fuel. Additional processing is required at a site such as Blind River before the element can be used commercially.
There was apparently little risk to the public or anyone on site since people must be in very close proximity to the material before it poses a hazard. However, all media reports I read did not mention if the truck driver had been in contact with the material. A quick check with a Geiger counter would likely determine if he had been exposed to uranium. I hope a trip to the hospital would confirm the state of the driver’s health, so his girlfriend would not have to worry about a kiss that left a lingering, heavy metal aftertaste.
Most people do not realize that thousands of shipments of nuclear substances occur every year in Canada, so there is definitely a possibility of having a serious spill at some point in time.
According to Canadian Press, Canada is the world’s second-largest producer of uranium. In 2013, 9,331.5 tonnes of the element were produced. The product was valued at about $1.2 billion and all of it came from mines in northern Saskatchewan. Substantial shipping of the product is required since 85 per cent of our uranium is exported. The remainder is used in Canadian reactors.
Any processing of uranium at Cameco’s Blind River refinery involves shipping. The Ontario plant is the world’s largest commercial uranium refinery and drums of ore concentrate are shipped there from mines around the world. The facility includes a processing plant that refines uranium concentrate to produce a high-purity intermediate product called uranium trioxide (UO3).
Most of the radioactive materials in transit in Canada are used for industrial, commercial or medical purposes.
However, I wonder how many readers recall what happened to Canadian uranium in the 1960s and ’70s that was shipped to India to power Candu nuclear reactors. The radioactive byproduct, plutonium, was used to make a nuclear bomb that was detonated in 1974.
Getting back to the minor uranium spill on Highway 4, to my knowledge the cause of the accident was not addressed in any news releases or media coverage that I read. Getting to the root cause of an incident is critical to preventing future occurrences, but as we all know there are no guarantees that potentially worse spills can be avoided.
For that reason, I always feel a little uncomfortable following a large vehicle displaying a Transportation of Dangerous Goods (TDG) placard. It’s not that I do not trust the driver – it is the automobiles directly in front of a tractor trailer carrying dangerous goods that causes me concern. Drivers of passenger vehicles often fail to realize the extra distance a transport truck requires to make an emergency stop, especially if road conditions are slippery. Furthermore, the energy and inertia a fully-loaded tractor trailer possesses can become catastrophic if a collision or loss of control occurs. This fact was driven home during the years I was photographing highway accidents.
Then, my eyes were opened to a new perspective of vehicle traffic after learning about the classifications and types of dangerous goods that go down our highways and railways every day. Now, my curiosity is immediately aroused when I see a placard on a vehicle indicating it is transporting a gas, explosive or highly flammable substance (and I speculate madly about its chemical makeup). A sign that indicates an oxidizing agent or highly corrosive material is on board causes my heart rate to increase and my breathing to quicken. I break out in a sweat just knowing a vehicle is carrying a toxic or infectious substance and spotting a truck bearing a radioactive placard causes nonsensical jabbering and involuntary muscle spasms.
TDG regulations and placards on vehicles not only make cargo handling safer (as hopefully was the case near Swift Current last week), they also make driving exciting, even when there are no near misses or collisions.