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Pembroke factory sparks nuclear concern

April 1st, 2009

After discovering groundwater contaminated with radioactive tritium, regulatory agency recommends shutting company

Wednesday, November 30, 2005 Page A3

Alarmed about radioactivity levels around Pembroke, Ont., that are hundreds of times above normal, staff at Canada’s nuclear regulatory agency have taken the unprecedented step of recommending the closing of a manufacturer of glow-in-the-dark signs. 

Staff at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission have found that emissions from the company, SRB Technologies (Canada) Inc., have created a trail of groundwater contaminated with radioactive tritium more than a kilometre long under the Ottawa River Valley community of 15,000. The most contaminated water had tritium levels 743 times normal. The CNSC staff, in a toughly worded assessment filed with the regulatory agency, recommend that SRB not be issued a new operating licence when its current one expires at the end of December — effectively a call to close the company. 

The staff said they believe the company is so poorly run they don’t think it “is qualified to carry on the activities that the licence will authorize [it] to carry on” and are worried that if the facility is allowed to continue operating, there is ”potential that an unreasonable risk to the environment and health and safety of persons will develop.” 

The staff also fear that the company might not take adequate actions for the “maintenance of national security and measures required to implement international obligations to which Canada has agreed.” 

CNSC spokesman Aurèle Gervais said the case is believed to be the first where the commission’s staff have recommended that regulators shut a nuclear facility that has been approved to handle large amounts of radioactive material. 

The CNSC has a policy of refusing to answer questions about its assessments until documents are submitted at regulatory hearings, so the nature of the possible “national security” issues is not clear. 

Nuclear regulators are touchy about tritium because it has a military use in the manufacture of hydrogen bombs, in addition to its use in glow-in-the-dark signs. 

SRB Technologies said it is upset by the call that it be closed. 

“We’re a little disappointed — well, really disappointed –with staff’s recommendation,” said company president Stephane Levesque. 

The hearing on the future of the SRB plant, which is located in a Pembroke strip mall, is scheduled for today, when commission regulators formally review the staff recommendation and the company’s counterarguments. 

Other documents prepared by the commission for the hearing indicated that a calculation error had led SRB to underestimate its tritium emissions by 90 per cent. The company also has toldregulators that its monitoring equipment may be faulty and might be providing incorrect figures for the amount of radioactivity released into the city. 

According to the CNSC staff assessment, tritium readings in a well about a kilometre from the plant were 400 becquerel per litre, while those in a well 400 metres from the plant were 2,750 Bq per litre. A becquerel is a measure of radioactivity.

Staff characterized those readings as a “significant development relating to contaminated groundwater.” 

Clean water has about 3.7 Bq per litre, so the Pembroke readings were 108 and 743 times normal. 

Tritium, like all radioactive substances, is considered a health risk because it may cause cancer. However, there is considerable regulatory uncertainty about what constitutes an unsafe exposure. 

Ontario’s drinking water standard is 7,000 Bq per litre, a level that is far more lax than the European Union’s standard of 100 Bq per litre or the U.S. figure of 740 Bq per litre. (Californialast year issued a report calling for an even tougher health protection standard of 15 Bq per litre.) The Ontario government rejected an advisory panel recommendation in the early 1990s to adopt 100 Bq per litre as the standard. 

The CNSC staff did not think residents are at risk because the readings are below drinking-water standards, but admitted they did not know the full extent of the radioactivity or the potential health effects. 

But some residents are concerned because neither the commission nor the company have accurate figures on the radioactivity to which they’ve been exposed. 

“If things are not being measured properly, then there is no control [over radiation exposures],” said Ole Hendrickson, a local resident. 

Other radioactivity tests in Pembroke have found that a residential swimming pool near the plant has tritium levels so high the water would not pass Ontario’s drinking water standard, and vegetables with elevated tritium concentrations have been found growing in gardens more than two kilometres away, indicating tritium is widespread throughout Pembroke. 

Mr. Levesque said SRB, which is owned by a Dutch holding company, intends to install pollution-control equipment and hopes the device will remove enough tritium from its emissionsto persuade regulators to keep the plant open. 

Without a licence renewal, the company, which employs 36 people, will have to shut down on Dec. 31. 

Documents compiled by the CNSC for the licensing hearing indicate SRB does not have an approved decommissioning plan and consequently has not posted a financial guarantee to covercleanup costs if the plant closes.   

 © Copyright 2005 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.

Tritium Awareness Project