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Inspections of sign firm urged

March 29th, 2009

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Nuclear watchdog may ask atomic agency to monitor Ontario company’s tritium use

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the body that tries to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons, should inspect SRB Technologies (Canada) Inc., a Canadian company that uses radioactive tritium, according to an internal report by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

The recommendation will be reviewed by the commission, Canada’s nuclear watchdog, at a licence hearing for SRB next week. If approved, it would place the Pembroke, Ont., company in the same league in terms of inspections as facilities that have stockpiles of fissile material that could be converted into atomic weapons.

SRB makes emergency-exit signs and other lights that glow in the dark using tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen.

But tritium is also used for making hydrogen bombs.

A diplomatic source close to the Vienna- based IAEA said the agency did not ask to inspect SRB, which operates a factory in a strip mall on the outskirts of the Ottawa River community of 13,000 residents. The IAEA does not usually monitor tritium, but focuses on safeguarding atomic material considered more crucial to bomb making, such as enriched uranium and plutonium.

“To our knowledge . . . there has certainly not been any request from the agency, through the Canadians, to have anything concerning this company safeguarded,” the source said.

But the CNSC report said the commission wanted the inspections to “facilitate the implementation of Canada’s international safeguards obligations.” It also called for sweeping access to the plant and its records by IAEA inspectors, and wants the inspection requirement written into SRB’s next operating licence.

SRB could not be reached for comment. The commission did not return phone calls seeking comment on why it wants inspections by the UN-linked agency, best known for helping discover Iraq’s clandestine nuclear program in the early 1990s.

Last year, the commission allowed the company to ship about 70,000 glow-in-the-dark lights to Iran, or approximately 10 per cent of the amount considered necessary for a nuclear weapon, raising the ire of disarmament officials at the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Foreign Affairs did not want Canadian tritium sent to Iran because of fears that country is trying to develop weapons of mass destruction. The department told the commission it would not approve SRB shipments to Iran or North Korea, based on proliferation worries.

The company uses equipment containing uranium in its manufacturing process, but it is not known whether concerns over this material, the tritium in its lights, or equipment used to process tritium prompted the inspection recommendation.

The report, by Barclay Howden, the commission’s director-general of nuclear facilities regulation, also gave a strong endorsement of an SRB plan to limit groundwater contamination around its plant by collecting tritium laced rain water that falls on its factory and discharging it into Pembroke’s sewage system. The sewage is released into the Ottawa River, the source of drinking water for downstream communities, including Ottawa.

Some groundwater near the plant contains tritium at about eight times Ontario’s drinking standard, with pockets of even more severe contamination in the soil. The company’s sewer proposal would usually trigger an environmental assessment, but the report said it would be exempt from this requirement because the pollution threat is an emergency that poses a risk to human health and or property.

Environmentalist say it is inconsistent for the commission to view radioactivity around the plant as an emergency, and then permit the contaminated water to be poured down the sewer.

“It doesn’t make sense,” said Ole Hendrickson, a spokesman for Concern Citizens of Renfrew County, an environmental group opposed to the proposal. “The idea that a way of dealing with a serious contamination problem is simply to divert it into the river is unacceptable to a lot of people.”

Last week, the City of Ottawa’s environmental advisory committee voted to oppose the sewer plan because it would increase radioactivity in the capital’s drinking water.

Discharges from the plant would lead to a tiny increase in radioactivity because the tritium would be diluted by the river. Water supplies drawn from it would be well within Ontario’s drinking water standard for the contaminant.

But Mr. Hendrickson said regulators should get companies to reduce emissions, rather than controlling pollution through dilution. “If every polluter was able to solve their problem this way, then we’d have a very polluted world,” he said.

from the source: Globe and Mail

Tritium Awareness Project