With the massive fires raging in and near Fort McMurray in Northern Alberta, concern has been raised by Canadian environmental groups over the integrity of the historic 43,000 cubic metres of low activity radioactive wastes stored in the neighbourhood of Beacon Hill.
An estimated 80% of homes in the Beacon Hill area were destroyed when the , but the federal Crown Corporation that looks after low-level radiation sites said the fire’s proximity to the waste “poses no risk.” Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) described the waste as low-grade uranium mixed with topsoil. It’s buried in a self-contained cell under a thick layer of clay and 45 centimetres of topsoil.
(“Wildfires deemed to no threat to Fort McMurray radioactive waste site”Edmonton Journal, 9 May 2016http://edmontonjournal.com/news/local-news/good-news-wildfires-deemed-to-no-threat-to-fort-mcmurray-radioactive-waste-site)
The bulky radioactive wastes are mostly radium-contaminated materials (contaminated soil and sediment along with contaminated docks and building materials for example) from the Northern Transportation Route –the same route that Eldorado used to carry radium ore and concentrates from the Port Radium mine (on the eastern arm of the Great Bear Lake) to the refinery in Port Hope Ontario from 1931 to 1940, and then -- after nuclear fission was discovered and the A-Bomb program began -- uranium concentrates from 1944 onwards
The radioactive ore and/or concentrates were carried by ‘Sahtu-Dene’ native men on their backs in burlap sacks and loaded onto a boat called "The Radium Gilbert" that took about 8 hours to cross the lake to the river near the present-day site of Deline. The ore-carriers would often lie on the sacks as the boat crossed the lake, then they would carry the sacks off the boat and onto a river barge, where the cargo would be carried south to the railhead near the present-day site of Fort MacMurray. From there it would be either flown or sent by rail to Port Hope.
About 18 years ago Dr Gordon Edwards, director of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility (ccnr, http://www.ccnr.org/ Robert Del Tredici, a globally recognised photographer of the atomic age, were jointly invited to Deline to inform the Dene community of the dangers and the ultimate military use of the uranium that was mined at Port Radium.
They record it became clear that the burlap bags sometimes ripped or tore open, showering the ore carriers with radium-bearing material that they were never told could be dangerous. There were no facilities for showering or changing clothes, nor any instructions for the workers to wash thoroughly to remove the radioactive materials from skin and hair.
In the subsequent years, following the adverse publicity, the Low Level Radioactive Waste Management Office (LLRWMO) was formed within the ranks of AECL (Atomic Energy of Canada Limited). Investigation revealed extensive contamination of docks and soil and buildings all along the Northern Transportation Route. Much of the contaminated material -- at least the material that was on the surface and easily collected -- was packaged and transported to the Fort McMurray area where it has been stored right up to the present time.
Maude-Emilie Page, a spokeswoman for AECL, said although the waste is in the fire-affected area, there were no concerns about the integrity of the cell and no immediate risk to human health or the environment. Page said there are also no worries about it catching fire, though AECL is monitoring the situation. “It is akin to a field or garden; while the surface vegetation may catch fire, the soil itself won’t,” she said.
MORE ON RADIUM AND URANIUM FROM GREAT BEAR LAKE
How Uranium from Great Bear Lake ended up in A-Bombs
1931 Warning re Health Effects of radium-bearing materials
Port Radium minesite in the 1930's
First shipment of radium concentrates from Great Bear Lake (1931)
Echoes of the Atomic Age, March 14, 1998:
Use of Canadian Uranium in A-Bombs - citations compiled in 1998
Dene people of Great Bear Lake call for federal response to Uranium Deaths
Northern contaminated sites (excerpted from the CNSC web site)