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Why do we have so little information about Cameco leak?

Port Hope Evening Guide: John Miller - December 20, 2007

Cameco's own map of the uranium and arsenic leaking from its UF6 plant shows

contamination spreading out in two directions. You can see it on the company's website at www.cameco.com/port_hope/common/pdfs/news/CCOPH_slides_oliver.pdf

What you won't see there are the many, many questions that this expanding ink blot of contamination raises for the health of our waterfront and the people who work there.

One plume to the southeast crosses public property and seems to stop 130 metres away at the doorstep of its main administrative building. Cameco calls this a "finger."

But this "finger" is more than 10 metres wide and appears to be following the path of an old, underground riverbed. The company admits it doesn't know yet how far the plume goes. Does it go underneath the building? Does it go out the other side? Has it reached Lake Ontario? The company's contractor is still drilling holes - 77 and counting - to find out where it ends.

An even wider plume points due east towards the harbour, and looks more significant. Is the company planning to drill more test holes there, to find out if it's reached the nearby yacht basin? Or will it just leave that area alone, knowing it's just more pollution added to the tonnes of historic waste that are eventually supposed to be cleaned up as part of Vision 2010?

Given the extent of the contamination, how long will it take for the UF6 building to be up and running again? Is it weeks, months, years, or never?

We don't know the answers to these questions because the company has not made any public appearance in Port Hope to explain the latest findings of its clean-up team. All we know is what it said in Ottawa when it appeared before the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission on Dec. 6. Commissioners had lots and lots of questions, and Cameco did not seem to have very good answers.

The full transcript is at:

www.nuclearsafety.gc.ca/eng/commission/pdf/2007-2-06-Transcript.Meeting.pdf

The following disclosures at that meeting may come as news to you, too:

Linda Keen, the CNSC president, warned Cameco that its license to operate a nuclear conversation facility in the middle of Port Hope is "at risk."

She said it's time for the company to stop pretending everything is okay in Port Hope; it's running an aging, leaking facility and there hasn't been "adequate understanding about ... the long-term impact on the environment."

Testing all the other old buildings on the site for leaking chemicals is an urgent priority.

The UF6 building has been leaking uranium and other toxic materials for at least 10 years, and the "migration velocity" is 10 times faster than Cameco's consultant estimated in August.

There is not one leak, but several. "This is not something that was simply overlooked," said Commissioner Christopher Barnes. "The kind of poor practices involved here have been in existence for a long, long time."

The contamination, once described as confined to the soil under the UF6 building, has in fact spread more than 100 metres beyond it. Groundwater is contaminated up to eight metres deep.

The CNSC is forcing Cameco to remove "quite a large percentage" of the contaminated soil - something the company once said there was no need to do.

Cameco's Andy Oliver agreed with Commissioner Alan Graham, who said: "So there's a long time frame out there before the UF6 plant will be started and you'll be back before us many times."

Linda Keen said the Vision 2010 remediation of Cameco's site now needs to be "relooked at seriously."

She said people in Port Hope, who were told 13 months ago during relicensing hearings that everything is safe at Cameco, have "the absolute right to say, you know, what in heck happened over this last year?"

She said Cameco has a moral license from the community, and the company's job now should be to "go from a minus to just even a neutral to improve what's going on in that community."

There's no comfort to take from any of this. Port Hope is clearly facing a very serious problem. Why have we been told so little?

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