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Updated: Fri, 14 Mar 2014 12:13:47 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Radiation levels watched at Ceres terminal after scare

Not much moving in and out of the Ceres terminal in Haliax Friday morning. Angela MacIvor/CBC

Not much moving in and out of the Ceres terminal in Haliax Friday morning. Angela MacIvor/CBC

Radiation levels are still being watched at a Halifax terminal this morning after canisters carrying hazardous material fell while being moved off a cargo ship on Thursday night.

There was little movement at the usually bustling Ceres terminal in north-end Halifax. Cranes are halted and trucks are parked.

Investigators with the Canadian Transport Emergency Centre will be arriving around 5 p.m. to ensure there is no leak. They'll also figure out the best way to safely remove the material that fell.

Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency said a large container was being moved just before 10 p.m. AT at  the north-end dock when the bottom released, dropping up to four canisters filled with uranium hexafluoridesix metres to the ground.

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

What they found were levels four times higher than background levels. In other words, the levels were higher than the base level humans are exposed to daily, but it was still a low reading.

The call was made to evacuate the area. A further inspection showed there was no actual leak.

“To the best of our knowledge, there is no leak in any of the containers,” said Phil McNulty, a spokesman for Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency told reporters at 1:45 a.m.

“There’s radiation everywhere all the time. It was just an indication it was higher than normal.”

McNulty said the public isn't at risk.

“The experts have told us we should have a 50-foot area around it,” he said. “So that's a very small evacuation zone.”

But Calvin Whidden, senior vice-president of Cerescorp, the company that operates the terminal, said they weren't taking any chances.

Workers tested

“So we shut the terminal completely down and sent everybody home until the experts get here with the proper equipment to determine whether there is actually a leak or not,” he said.

Employees were tested for radiation exposure, but McNulty said no one tested positive.

The crew of the Atlantic Companion, the ship carrying the four containers, were taken to a local hotel. 

Two evacuated crew members, who didn't want to be identified for fear of losing their jobs, said the ship encountered two bad storms on the crossing over from the last port call in Liverpool, England. They said there were about 29 crew members on board.

Whidden estimates between eight to 10 containers carrying radioactive material are transported through the terminal every month.

He said the containers were encased in concrete and then metal to protect the hazardous material inside.

“Very, very seldom do they drop,” he said. “It’s a mechanical failure of some kind, and it actually could be the box itself that has failed.”

Whidden said it's rare and happens maybe once every "200,000 lifts."

Containers guarded

About half a dozen firefighters roamed the scene Friday morning, the CBC's Craig Paisley reported. The containers are cordoned off. 

McNulty said his team executed a "picture-perfect" response.​

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission says it's aware of the incident.

It said the shipment was bound for South Carolina.

Atlantic Companion is a Swedish-built ship owned by Atlantic Container Line.

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