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Evacuation zone remains in Halifax due to incident involving ‘weapons grade’ uranium


March 14, 2014   by Aly Thomson and Keith Doucette THE CANADIAN PRESS


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Fire officials say an evacuation zone remained in place Friday at a port in Halifax after four steel cylinders carrying weapons-grade uranium fell about six metres the night before as they were being unloaded from a container ship, prompting a radiation scare.

Phil McNulty, the city’s executive fire officer, said the area is being monitored by emergency crews after the cylinders carrying granular uranium hexafluoride fell.

Investigators with the Canadian Transport Emergency Centre were scheduled to arrive later Friday to the Ceres terminal in the city’s north-end to conduct a more detailed assessment, McNulty said.

Evacuation zone in Halifax due to radioactive material incident

“This is weapons-grade uranium. This is a volatile, dangerous substance,” he said.

“These folks, they play with this material all the time.”

McNulty said the material reacts with water and could react violently if it catches fire.

“It’s a potential health danger,” he added.

Firefighters had earlier determined there was no leak of radioactive material when the steel cylinders fell from a pallet as they were being lifted off the ship around 10 p.m. Thursday, landing in a contained area of the vessel.

McNulty said one of the lift’s arms failed and sent the cylinders tumbling onto other containers on the ship. There were no injuries and no one was contaminated at the terminal in Fairview Cove.

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The granular substance was well contained in the cylinders, he added.

“These are steel containers wrapped in concrete,” he said. “They go to great lengths to ensure the safety of the product because human beings are dealing with it all the way from start to the end user.”

McNulty said the evacuation area at the port extends about 150 metres and will remain in place until after federal investigators arrive.

Once the investigation wraps up, McNulty said the cylinders would be placed on a truck and continue to their destination.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission said the uranium cylinders came from an enrichment facility in the United Kingdom owned by URENCO.

“The Cylinders are designed to withstand significant impact and initial investigations have confirmed there has not been any breach to the cylinders,” the commission said in an emailed statement.

Uranium hexafluoride is the chemical compound used in the gas centrifuge process to enrich uranium that is then used as reactor fuel or to arm nuclear missiles.

URENCO’s website says it is an international supplier of enrichment services for nuclear fuel used to generate electricity. A spokesperson for the company in London could not be reached for comment.

Firefighters evacuated the immediate area as a safety precaution after the accident Thursday night and the crew of the Atlantic Companion – which arrived in Halifax from Liverpool, England – were taken to a local hotel.

McNulty said there was a similar incident at a Halifax port in the late 1990s involving uranium hexafluoride, but there was no leakage.