Rolling nuclear thunder trucking down a highway near you
By KAREN CHARMAN
Special to The Progressive Populist
In five short decades, human technology has created a toxic monster that
will remain deadly for millions of years. For no reason other than political
expedience, the U.S. government is brokering a deal that transfers liability
for nuclear generator waste from private utilities to the public. At the
same time, this deal would expose us to enormous health and safety risks
by mandating the transportation of lethal cargo on public roads and rails.
The toxic beast is the growing stockpile of high-level nuclear waste, 95
percent of which has been created by the nation's 107 operating and 11 shut-down
nuclear power plants. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE),
which is charged with disposing of the nation's nuclear trash pile, so far
approximately 34,000 metric tons have accumulated, and approximately 2,000
more are produced each year.
This waste, which doesn't include other kinds of nuclear refuse, comes from
the uranium fuel that splits atoms to generate the steam that produces electricity
in the fission process. This makes the fuel highly radioactive and thermally
hot, and after two to three years it becomes depleted and needs to be replaced.
At that point the spent fuel must stay under 40 feet of water for at least
five years before it is cool enough to go anywhere else. According to the
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), most of the nation's nuclear power
plants were not designed with storage capacity for all the spent fuel generated
by their reactors. Cooling pools at a dozen of the nation's plants are already
full, and those at another dozen are expected to reach capacity within three
This fact, plus increasing stories of radiation leaks contaminating groundwater
around several plants, radioactive emissions into the air, and the general
uneasiness of having tons of intensely radioactive garbage around communities
throughout the country, is fueling pressure for a solution. But the solution
the nuclear industry and government are offering has the environmental and
public interest communities on red alert, because they maintain it is ill-conceived,
dangerous and bound to be excessively costly.
The current vision is to consolidate the nation's high-level nuclear waste
in one place and bury it far underground. There, according to Mike Raddatz,
senior policy manager in the NRC's Spent Fuel Licensing Section, it is meant
to be "out of the effective biosphere." Only one site, Yucca Mountain,
nearly 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada, is being considered for
permanent high-level nuclear waste storage.
Controversy rages over the suitability of Yucca Mountain, because, among
other things, it has 35 earthquake faults running under it, and several
scientists suspect the mountain would not contain the radioactivity if the
waste was buried there. Despite escalating scientific evidence and vehement
opposition from the state of Nevada, the Western Shoshone Nation whose land
it is and environmental groups, DOE is continuing to study the viability
of the site for permanent storage.
Meanwhile, a bill that passed both houses of Congress last year would send
high-level nuclear waste rolling out of the nation's 118 power plants and
handful of nuclear weapons facilities onto public roads and rail lines to
tomporary storage at the Nevada Test Site next to Yucca Mountain. Mary Olson,
a nuclear waste specialist with the Nuclear Information & Resource Service
(NIRS), describes the interim storage facility as nothing more than a parking
lot-type structure, "a concrete slab with a cement cover."
Transportation under "Mobile Chernobyl," as the bill is known
by opponents, would begin in 2002 and take 30 years of continuous shipments
to move the estimated 85,000 metric tons of high-level waste that will have
accumulated by the time all the nation's nuclear power plants reach the
end of their expected life spans.
As Marvin Resnikoff, a nuclear physicist and engineer who has worked with
the state of Nevada, says, we are not talking about peanut butter but the
deadliest substance known to humanity. In just three minutes, an unshielded
10-year-old fuel assembly gives off enough radiation to kill somebody standing
three feet from it. Thirty seconds' exposure at the same distance significantly
increases the risk of cancer or genetic damage.
There are no plans to build specially designated transport routes, so the
toxic trash would travel by truck with us in traffic down main roads through
or around most cities within 43 states. By train, the lethally hot cargo
will ride with ordinary cargo. Fifty million people live within half a mile
of the proposed routes.
Cruising down public thoroughfares presents two problems: radiation exposure
to nearby drivers and the risk of accidents. Current radiation standards
allow 100 millirems per hour to come through the container -- the equivalent
of 10 chest X-rays an hour. Accounting for the distance between the truck
and an adjacent vehicle, the exposure would be closer to one X-ray an hour.
This presents particular risks to pregnant women, children, the elderly,
and people with compromised immune systems.
Department of Transportation data tell us nearly 100,000 accidents involving
trucks released some form of toxic material in the U.S. and its territories
in the past 10 years. Considering the number of shipments needed to move
3,000 tons of nuclear waste a year, as Mobile Chernobyl requires, the consumer
group Public Citizen estimates 210 to 354 accidents over the next 30 years,
an average of seven to 12 accidents a year. Of those, over the 30-year duration
of the program, Olson says DOE officials privately expect three to five
to be catastrophic involving the release of large amounts of radioactive
material into the environment.
The casks carrying the glowing garbage are not physically tested, since
that is not required, she says, and current regulations don't consider all
plausible accident scenarios. No type of crushing incident, typical in a
train derailment, is considered. Instead, quarter-scale models are hurled
against flat, immovable surfaces, a situation that doesn't occur in the
By DOE's calculations, a realistic scenario including a high-speed crash
with a fire emitting a relatively small amount of radiation would contaminate
42 square miles, take 462 days to clean up and cost up to $19.4 billion,
depending on how stringent the cleanup standards are.
NRC admits cracks due to faulty welding are starting to appear in some of
the casks storing spent fuel at nuclear plants in Michigan and Arkansas.
NRC's Raddatz claims the problems will be taken care of and that any leaking
cask can be emptied and replaced back in the fuel pool, though he would
hesitate to require that because of the utility's cost to junk and replace
a cask. The cheapest models run between $500,000 and $750,000.
Olson contends nobody knows how to unload a damaged cask full of intensely
radioactive spent fuel, and the issue is currently one of NRC's biggest
nightmares. Before the cask can return to the fuel pool, it must be filled
with liquid coolant so that the cask's outer cover can be cut away. But
the 700 degree F fuel temperature turns the liquid into radioactive steam,
which is likely to escape from the plant. Because of these unresolved problems,
she says a cask with a small crack that officials at Palisades Nuclear Power
Plant in Michigan wanted to unload remains sitting on the premises.
Olson's other concerns about dry storage casks include their basic design.
Casks are licensed for 20 years, up to a maximum of 100, with an additional
20-year grace period. Without liquid coolant, she explains, the decaying
radioactivity of the fuel rods continues to generate heat, approaching temperatures
reached in a reactor's core. This could weaken the cask's cladding and destroy
the millimeters-thin zirconium alloy tubes that keep the ceramic fuel pellets
vertically stacked. Three elements -- the ceramic form of the pellets, the
cladding, and the geometric arrangement of the pellet-filled rods -- contain
the intense radioactivity in the cask and keep it from reaching critical
mass. When casks are mobile, they are more vulnerable to unpredictable occurrences,
and she says the outcome of a road or rail accident could very much depend
on what is going on inside the container at the time.
Both DOE and NRC insist transporting nuclear waste is safe, emphasizing
that none of the 2,500 shipments that have taken place so far have had any
problems. That figure includes moving nuclear waste from the cooling pool
to the on-site storage area, which Olson points out, is not comparable to
a 2,000-mile journey.
According to the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), the
union representing the nation's 225,000 professional firefighters and associated
paramedics -- those likely to be the first to respond to a nuclear road
or rail accident -- no nationally coordinated emergency response strategy
is planned to deal with the huge increase in nuclear shipments mandated
under Mobile Chernobyl. IAFF spokesperson George Burke says training will
be offered, but local fire departments are not obligated to take it. Nor
must they have the necessary equipment enabling emergency responders to
get close enough to a nuclear accident to be able to do anything about it.
There's no federal mandate for fire departments, he says, adding that many
along the proposed transport routes are just small volunteer operations,
some of which are "woefully unprepared."
Despite the growing mountain of nuclear waste at power plants across the
country, most environmental groups say there is no urgent reason to move
it anywhere until a permanent solution is found, and we aren't even close.
Auke Piersma, an energy policy analyst at Public Citizen, says the dates
mandated in legislation since 1982 for finding a final solution for nuclear
waste were arbitrarily chosen for political reasons, and in fact went against
recommendations at the time of scientists from DOE, the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency, the Office of Technology Assessment, and NRC.
"Nuclear waste lasts a million years. It's deadly for that period of
time, and there's nothing anybody can do to shorten that -- physics is physics,"
Piersma says. "So the answer becomes 'don't do anything stupid with
it.' And stupid is sending it off to be buried into a mountain and hoping
it stays there for that million years."
President Clinton has vowed to veto the legislation when it gets to his
desk, but it is not certain whether there will be enough votes in Congress
to sustain his veto.
Normally, once legislation passes both houses of Congress, it goes to a
conference committee where it is melded into one piece of legislation that
is then presented to the president. Because of the intense opposition by
the Nevada politicians, this legislation is not taking that course, which
would present ample opportunities for a filibuster. Instead, it is likely
to go into a "pre-conference," where the details of the bill are
hashed out in private. Despite the irregularity of this course, Mary Olson
says it is not illegal.
At press time, the bill was expected to come up in Senate again in early
May. She suggests people write to their senators, congressmembers and President
Clinton. To keep current with this issue, check out NIRS' website on the
Internet at http://www.nirs.org. For
maps of proposed nuclear waste transportation routes, see the website http://www.state.nv.us/nucwaste/states/us.htm
Karen Charman is a New York-based investigative reporter specializing
in environmental and health issues.
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