Not quite a bomb: McMaster professor explains what fell at Halifax Harbour

Nuclear safety expert says March 13’s accident involving radioactive material posed no real threat.

By Grace Kennedy

The Fairview cargo terminal was a site of activity March 13, after four containers of uranium hexafuoride dropped six metres (Grace Kennedy / Peninsula News)
The Fairview cargo terminal was a site of activity March 13, after four containers of uranium hexafluoride dropped six metres (Grace Kennedy / Peninsula News)

For most people the term radiation throws up red flags. Chernobyl, Fukushima, Nagasaki – all invoke images of the invisible cloud of radiation that permeates the human body. John Luxat, expert in Nuclear Safety Analysis at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., says it’s important to remember that the accident at Halifax Harbour on March 13 was much more benign.

“Had it been some other chemical, a potentially corrosive chemical such as chlorine, it would have been, ‘ah, chlorine. Yeah. No. Not a big problem.’ But this is radioactive,” Luxat says, “the word radioactive tends to get people worried.”

Late in the evening on March 13, four containers containing uranium hexafluoride dropped about six metres while they were being lifted off the “Atlantic Companion” at the Ceres terminal in Halifax’s north end. Workers were evacuated and tested for radiation, while fire crews took readings of the background radiation aboard the ship, which was four times higher than normal. This, Luxat says, is a normal reading considering the increased concentration of radioactive material in the containers.

What fell?

This radioactive material, the uranium hexafluoride, is the form of uranium used to create the enriched uranium necessary for nuclear reactors.

Uranium is predominately made up of two different isotopes, or types of uranium. There is the heavier isotope, uranium 238 which makes up about 99.3 per cent of all natural uranium. The other isotope, uranium 235, is only about 0.7 per cent and is responsible for fission, which creates the energy of a nuclear reaction.

In order for uranium to be useful in nuclear reactions, the uranium 235 content has to be increased to between 3.5 and five per cent. This is commonly done by heating uranium hexafluoride – a combination of natural uranium and fluoride gas – to very high temperatures and spinning it in a centrifuge. Because of the weight difference between the isotopes, the heavier, non-fissile atoms will move to the outside of the centrifuge, allowing researchers to collect the more reactive gas in the centre.

Under ordinary temperatures, uranium hexafluoride is in a solid state. It would have to be heated to at least 56 degrees Celsius, according to Luxat, in order to become the feared gas that could spread radiation. By way of comparison, the hottest day ever recorded in Osoyoos, B.C. – part of Canada’s only desert – was 42.8 degrees Celsius according to the Sunny Osoyoos website.

“Even in the worst cases would be if you release the contents and you heated them, say there was a fire and it got released, then it would be dispersed,” Luxat says, “but the concentrations would be extremely low. So in terms of the actual physical hazards, it would be insignificant.”

What could have happened?

(Grace Kennedy / Peninsula News)
(Grace Kennedy / Peninsula News)

The more worrying scenario that Halifax could have had to deal with, Luxat says, would have been if the containers had leaked and the contents had interacted with water. The “chemical toxicity” of uranium hexafluoride, according to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, is a much larger hazard than its radioactivity.

When uranium hexafluoride interacts with water – even humid air will do – it “decomposes,” as Luxat put it, into two substances: small solid particles called uranyl fluoride, and fluoric acid.

Uranyl fluoride, if it’s suspended in the air, can be inhaled into the lungs and dispersed in the blood stream. It would then be collected into the kidneys and removed through the urine.

If the concentration of uranyl fluoride was high enough, the person could suffer from heavy metal poisoning, the collection of heavy metals like uranium in the body. However, Luxat says, the amount of uranium hexafluoride in the containers would have been too small to create that high of a concentration.

Fluoric acid, on the other hand, is a weak corrosive acid that could irritate the nose, mouth and particularly lungs.

Even an absolute worst-case scenario, where the containers broke and a fire raised the temperature to allow the uranium to react with water as a gas, Luxat says, would not be a dire situation.

“It would occupy a small volume, it’s not as though it’s this big massive cloud that would fall,” he says.

“From the point of view of hazard, the major hazard would be to the first responder who is very close to it, but the amount that would be present, even if he wasn’t wearing a mask, would not cause a problem.”

So what?

Less than four per cent of the cargo moving through the Halifax port are considered dangerous goods, says communications advisor, Lane Farguson, for the Halifax Port Authority. However, a similar incident occurred in 1999 at the port as well, according to a report in the Daily News (Halifax). No uranium hexafluoride was released in that case either.

According to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the first responders at the recent accident followed the proper emergency procedures set out by the companies licence and the regulation requirements. No one suffered from radiation exposure. The terminal, after being closed for a day, returned to normal operations on Saturday, March 15.

As it was, Luxat says, “there was an event that got kind of blown up, because it was designated a radioactive event.”

Zurawski makes science a public conversation

Science journalist Richard Zurawski stresses the importance of science in the media.

By Grace Kennedy

Zurawski on the Science Files
Richard Zurawski broadcasting the Science Files on March 10 with Rick Howe. (Grace Kennedy/Peninsula News)

Richard Zurawski, Skype open on his laptop and headphones on, settles in for an hour of banter and science at Monday’s Rick Howe Show for the Science Files.

Waiting while Howe introduces the hour and who he calls “our science brainiac,” Zurawski types to fellow science journalist Minako Takizawa. Then the show begins. Howe and Zurawksi exchange morning pleasantries, and delve into the weather.

The topics on the March 10 show ranged from bitcoins and unearthed microbes to water heaters and daylight savings, some brought up by Howe, others from callers in.

The questions he answers are “dirt simple,” he says – why the sky is blue, why bubble gum doesn’t stick to teeth, how a mirror works, the age of the universe and how we can be sure – but they represent an avenue for science education that Zurawski thinks is missing in the media.

The process of Zurawski’s career

A radio personality, speaker, author, meteorologist, science expert for the Rogers radio network, and documentary producer, Zurawski seems thoroughly embedded in the world of science communication. How he came to that spot, however, he sums up as “serendipity.”

“Somebody just said, ‘Would you like to do this on television?’ and I thought, no. I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to be a weather boy on television. And then they paid me a lot of money, and I thought, ‘oh OK,’” he says.

From here, hired at the CBET-TV in Windsor, Ont., as the chief meteorologist and science specialist in 1981, he continued to work in television for 14 years before moving to radio.

“Once I was there, I thought, ‘how boring to just talk about weather systems in such a mundane way when the entire body of science is there to be talked about.’ So I started doing science stories.”

He has been both a meteorologist and science journalist at CBET-TV, ATV Halifax, and Rogers Radio Maritimes. It is with Rogers that Zurawski has done his work on the Science Files, first on Maritime Morning with Jodi Morgan, then on the Rick Howe show after nationwide Rogers layoffs in November. Science Files is also broadcast as a bimonthly segment on Kitchener-Waterloo Rogers station.

Interesting Science

“I don’t make science interesting. Science is what it is.”

This is how Zurawski answers questions on the Science Files. Although he says that in order to get people interested in the program they require a “shtick” – in this case, the interaction of Zurawski and Howe’s personalities – he doesn’t make the science more than it is.

He says that the questions he receives on the Science Files are often the things people learned in high school and have forgotten. Most of them, he says, can be found on Google, but the process of dialogue and interaction that people are looking for when they call in.

“It’s not about the answer,” he says. “What I’m trying to talk about is that it’s a process of dialogue and I learn something out of it. Somebody’s question will tweak something else, like why did they ask the question? Why is it of interest, how did it happen? You find that science intrudes everywhere.”

These sorts of questions prompted Zurawski’s rejoining of academia, with his masters of arts degree in research, where he studied “how people learn, and what works for them and what doesn’t work for them as far as information goes.” Zurawski is currently working on his PhD in the same field.

His thesis for his masters degree – how television represents science – formed the basis for his third book, Media Mediocrity – The Media War Against Science … How Television makes you Stoopid!.

This book sums up Zurawski’s criticism of traditional journalism: that the media have “been waging a relentless campaign against science with a deluge of false facts, distorted information and editorial opinions.”

Science in the media

Most science journalism, according to Zurawski, is “flash over substance.” This contributes to what Zurawski sees as the anti-science bias prominent in North America.

“The media has to recognize that the bottom line isn’t ratings, that the bottom line should be veracity, truth, and the correct skewing of information so that you’re not pandering to biases and big business.”

This “correct skewing,” he says, has to make sure that the science in the media is right in the scientific sense. Controversies about climate change and evolution, as well as anti-vaccination and tobacco lobbies should have no place in the media.

Essentially, “the educational systems have to infiltrate communications PR and the media.”

To do this, Zurawski advocates for science journalists to have a background in post-secondary science.

“I met five women, sort of a clutch of Asian women at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Helsinki back in June of 2013,” he says, “and (Takizawa) was the least educated of all of them. She only had a Masters of astrophysics.

“All the other four – and these were Chinese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, and Korean women – all had PhDs in the hard core sciences. And they were all journalists. And most of the people I met from the UK and from Europe were Masters and PhDs in science and deeply interested. Nobody from North America had any background at all.”

This claim is perhaps hyperbolic; according to the 2013 Global Science Journalism Report, 26 per cent of science journalists have a university degree with a specialist science journalism training and 31 per cent have either a masters or doctorate degree, though the report doesn’t specify in what area. As well, PhDs are more common in Europe and in North America than they are elsewhere.

Although Zurawski says that “there are lots of educational PhD’s out there” – David Suzuki from The Nature of Things and Jay Ingram from Daily Planet – he notes that “even the CBC chooses not to go to them.” Bob McDonald, host of Quirks and Quarks, who Zurawski describes at CBC’s “go-to person,” does not have any post-secondary education in science, although he has received several honorary science degrees.

According to Zurawski, in order for science to thrive it needs the accuracy and dialogue of people who understand both the media and the scientific method.

“Since I’ve been straddling media and science – it’s been a dual tract for me for such a long time – I have a visceral understanding of both,” he says.

“I can speak to scientists and understand what they do, and I’m a working scientist – I’m in the middle of research doing a doctorate in a scientific pursuit. So I understand the rigour, and I also understand the need for conversation and the need for dialogue.”

Not always a smooth flight

Flying to a sunny locale in the depth of the Canadian winter could have delay printed right on the ticket for many passengers. At the height of the January winter storms, WestJet recorded 200 flight cancellations – preventing around 22,000 passengers from getting to their destination on time.

By Grace Kennedy

Flight delays can be caused by many factors and are not always limited to the weather. (Grace Kennedy/Peninsula News)

With the YHZ airport under construction and winter weather underway, delays could cause trouble for some spring breakers.

Flying to a sunny locale in the depth of the Canadian winter could have delay printed right on the ticket for many passengers. At the height of the January winter storms, WestJet recorded 200 flight cancellations – preventing around 22,000 passengers from getting to their destination on time.

However, WestJet spokesperson Brie Ogle said in an email that only about half of all flight delays are caused by weather. Although there are too many factors to get specific, the email continued, most other delays are for mechanical and operational reasons.

“If something happens on the plane – a light in the cockpit goes off, that is something that will need to be inspected,” Erin Sonntag, duty manager for WestJet at the Halifax International Airport, said.

“It’s a little different than when a light goes off in your car, you’re usually okay to drive if it’s showing some sort of indicator, but with aircrafts they don’t just assume that that light means that one thing, they’ll probably do a little bit more investigating just to be sure. It has to be safe.”

Any delay can cause a backlog in the flight system, especially for an airport like the Halifax airport where many of the flights go between Toronto and St. John’s, Newfoundland – areas with particular weather concerns.

Checking in

Although the airlines decide on whether a flight is cancelled or delayed, stress can also come from the airport itself. The YHZ website currently cautions travellers about construction on the main entrance to the airport, asking them to arrive early to avoid any confusion and delay while the entrance is being redone.

According to Dean Bouchard, director of infrastructure and commercial development for the Halifax International Airport Authority, the construction hasn’t hindered passengers from getting to their planes and could make the process easier in the future.

Since the airport’s last renovation in 1998, passenger traffic has increased 50 per cent, Bouchard said. The way people check in has also become radically different, with self-serve kiosks becoming an international norm.

Because of this, the airport is increasing the check in area by nine metres, moving the back wall to allow room for both the kiosk lines and the attendant lines. The airport also purchased self-serve baggage drops for larger airlines, which Bouchard hopes will be able to eliminate some lines entirely.

“We know that when people come to the airport, they’re typically stressed, a lot of people are very rushed,” he said, “so we’re trying to make this as easy as possible for them when they get here and that usually means short lines, I can get to where I need to go quickly, and once people sit down at their gate, they relax. And so we’re trying to get them to that relaxation point as quickly as we can.”

Coming home

Although that may alleviate the worries of some passengers, for people at the other end of the airport, relaxation may not come so easily.

Kelly Crossman was waiting to pick up her cousin coming from Florida for over two hours on Feb. 26, and was unable to find information for how long the delay would be.

“When you come to the airport, you don’t know what’s going to happen, it’s a lot of delays,” she said. “But I just didn’t think that Florida would have a delay, because it’s supposed to be clear. Anything can happen I guess.”

Passengers checking into a Sunwing flight are surrounded by construction of the new entrance area. (Grace Kennedy/Peninsula News)

Sonntag on understanding in the airline industry.

CORRECTION: March 7, 2014 | An earlier version of this story contained the wrong airport code. The correct code is YHZ.