Uranium clean-up underway

A ship anchors in Stuart Channel, northwest of Chemainus, as officials decide how to deal with an on-board uranium spill. - Matt Peterson
A ship anchors in Stuart Channel, northwest of Chemainus, as officials decide how to deal with an on-board uranium spill.
— image credit: Matt Peterson

A ship carrying uranium concentrate bound for China has anchored off the coastline between Ladysmith and Chemainus while officials assess an on-board clean-up plan.

But a spokesperson for Cameco, the Saskatchewan-based company that produced and is shipping the uranium, emphasized the operation is not putting local waters or people at risk.

“The environment is protected and people are safe,” said Rob Gereghty, adding the uranium is safely sealed in the one of the ship’s cargo holds.

According to Cameco, the vessel left Vancouver on Dec. 23, headed to China when severe weather interrupted its travel plans.

On Jan. 3, the firm was notified the containers holding the uranium had shifted and two open drums moved outside their sea containers. People inspecting the ship have since discovered more than the two reported drums have spilled.

Cameco is working with Transport Canada and the Canada Nuclear Safety Commission to decide how to do the clean-up and where.

“They (Transport Canada and the CNSC) are looking at us to do a remediation plan, which is basically a plan to clean up the ship and our product,” said Gereghty.

The safety commission, said Gereghty, is also doing its own report and inspection.

“Both parties have to be confident before we can move forward.”

The plan, he added, should be ready today.

Gereghty said a crew on board the ship the morning of Jan. 18 discovered more than two drums have spilled, said Gereghty.

“A number of the sea containers moved, so we are not able to get around and view the entire hold,” said Gereghty.

“I can tell you there’s more than two (drums spilled).”

Up to 35 drums can be held in each sea container and there are about 24 sea containers — roughly 840 drums — on board. That represents 770,000 lbs. of uranium concentrate, said Gereghty. The dollar amount, he said, depends on the contracts signed.

Gereghty said this is the first time in the company’s 20-year history Cameco has had a problem with sea containers.

But he said his company handles uranium on a daily basis and is confident they can clean it up without incident.

The biggest concern when handling uranium concentrate, said Gereghty, is not breathing it in when in close quarters.

Respirators are needed when people are within four to five metres of a drum, said Gereghty, adding crews also wear protective gear.

“You can use a shovel and a broom to clean up a good portion of it.”

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