Nuclear regulators were never notified of a fire on board a truck hauling a radioactive cargo from Canada to the U.S.
Late on the night of Aug. 22, Brian and Alexis Hanson found themselves on the busy I-75 highway near Troy, Ohio in a flaming truck with a radioactive cargo.
The story has a safe ending, thanks to Brian Hanson’s fast action.
But, despite the fiery emergency, nuclear regulators in Canada – where the cargo originated – and in the U.S. were not informed of the incident.
In fact, there was no requirement for them to be notified.
The mishap underlines the gray areas surrounding the transportation of nuclear material.
It’s a topic that has come up at hearings into a proposed underground nuclear waste storage site near Kincardine, being designed to hold all the low- and intermediate-level waste from Ontario’s nuclear reactors.
Several interveners at the hearings have argued that not enough attention is paid to the risks of transporting nuclear material.
The material the Hansons were hauling in August was not the same type of waste that would be stored at the Bruce site.
It was uranium hexafluoride, a material used to manufacture enriched uranium fuel commonly used by reactors in power plants. (Enriched fuel is not used by Canadian power reactors.)
The Hansons were hauling the uranium hexafluoride from a Cameco refinery in Port Hope, Ontario to a depot in Kentucky.
Brian Hanson was driving and his wife was sleeping when he smelled smoke and realized one of the brakes on his truck was overheating.
He doused it with water and thought he had extinguished it, and climbed back into the cab to call for a service truck. Then he realized the fire wasn’t out.
“I think it was the latent heat from the brake that re-ignited it,” he said in an interview from his home in Alberta.
“I realized we were in big trouble so I disconnected the trailer,” he said.
“I wound the legs down and disconnected it from the truck, losing the hair on my arms because it was really burning at that time – which I figure was kind of crazy in hindsight.
“But we’re so programmed and told about the danger of a load, and the media danger. We’re basically taught that the media’s like terrorism. We’re supposed to do everything we can to avoid media.”
“I wanted to get the fire away from the uranium hexaflouride because it’s heat activated…It’s really nasty stuff, and they would have had to evacuate a huge neighbourhood we were beside.”
“So I got the truck disconnected, it was burning like crazy, fire blazing out the back, trying to get to a safe place to get off the highway and away from the load.
“I made it two miles before the truck was disabled, but I got off on the exit ramp and by that time the police were just seconds behind me, and the fire trucks were on the way.
“My wife was sleeping. I had to wake her up and she’s trying to collect our must valuable stuff like our passports and wallet and important documentation.
“We got our pets out of the truck (the Hansons travel with their two dogs) and her out of the truck, because it was really burning then.
“My dispatcher wanted to know if I’d talked to the media, and I said ‘No,’ and he said, ‘Don’t.’”
George Eckel, president of trucking firm RSB Logistic in Saskatoon, said that the load was supervised at all times – apart from Hanson’s fiery dash down the highway – until a new rig could arrive to take it on its way. (Hanson stayed with the load through the night until a new driver arrived.)
“We don’t leave loads unattended,” Eckel said. Asked if there were any lessons learned from the incident, he said: “I guess our procedures worked.”
An Ohio Traffic Crash Report confirms the severity of the fire – all the right side tires destroyed, along with the fenders and mud flaps; air hoses damaged; and damage to the right side of the cab and sleeper compartment.
Cameco also confirmed Hanson’s version of events, but stressed that the cargo remained safe.
“While the tractor sustained significant damage, there was no impact on the load of uranium hexafluoride,” the company said in an e-mailed statement.
“The trailer unit was subsequently moved to a secure site, inspected by a certified mechanic, and later continued on to its destination (with a new tractor unit).”
“Given that there were no injuries or damage to our shipment, there was no requirement to report beyond local emergency response personnel.”
“Uranium hexafluoride is transported in special containers that are designed and tested to withstand a significant impact and at least 30 minutes engulfed in flames at a temperature of 800 degrees Celsius.”
(The material is transported in a single, giant cylinder about 1.2 metres in diameter and 6 metres long, containing 12,000 kilograms.)
Canada’s nuclear regulator, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, said there was no requirement for it to be informed.
“The CNSC was not made aware of this incident and there are no requirements in the Packaging and Transport of Nuclear Substances Regulations that would require the licensee to report an event that occurs in another country,” it said in a statement.
“Since the incident occurred in the United States, this would have been reported to the United States Authorities if there were a requirement for such reporting in their Regulations. CNSC staff has checked with the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission and have confirmed that this was not a reportable event in the US.”
The federal nuclear regulator in the U.S. has downloaded responsibility to some states, including Ohio.
Michael Snee, chief of Ohio’s bureau of radiation protection, confirmed in an interview that his bureau hadn’t been informed.
“We received no notice of any incident on Interstate 75 in August at all, such as that,” he said. “Neither did our state emergency management agency.” “The driver was obviously quick-thinking and heroic and disconnected and drove the tractor away from the trailer, which protected the cargo – so the cargo wasn’t damaged at all, “ he said.
“By such a scenario in our regulations, and also the regulations of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, it would not require a report to us.”
John Bennnett of the Sierra Club says the incident shows the gaps in nuclear reporting systems.
“What it demonstrates to us is that all the assurances that this transportation is absolutely secure – it isn’t,” he said.
The trucker, he added “had a lot of guts; he should get some recognition.” (Instead, the Hansons had to make their own way home to Alberta. Hanson says he’s having trouble getting the trucking firm he drives for to help with his insurance claim. The Saskatoon-based trucking firm didn’t return calls from the Toronto Star.)
Gordon Edwards of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility said the immediate danger of a release of uranium hexafluoride would be its chemical properties – it’s very caustic.
According to Argonne National Laboratory – a U.S. Department of Energy research lab –if uranium hexafluoride interacts with water or water vapor, it is “chemically toxic,” forming dangerous hydrogen fluoride gas (HF).
“Uranium is a heavy metal that, in addition to being radioactive, can have toxic chemical effects (primarily on the kidneys) if it enters the bloodstream by means of ingestion or inhalation,” it says.
“HF is an extremely corrosive gas that can damage the lungs and cause death if inhaled at high enough concentrations.”
Edwards also noted that the driver was forced to abandon the load. That ought to raise questions about whether the incident should be reported, he said, even if the abandonment was only for a short time.