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The perils of nuclear transport

A California county on the border with Nevada is raising its concerns about the prospect of tons of radioactive nuclear waste moving through its communities.’s Miguel Llanos reports.
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Unlike most Americans, Peter Brierty is very aware and very concerned that highly radioactive material would be shipped through communities nationwide if Yucca Mountain in Nevada becomes the central repository for nuclear waste. You might at first write him off as an anti-nuclear activist with an axe to grind. But Brierty wears a badge — that of fire marshal for San Bernardino County, a vast area wedged between Los Angeles and the state line with Nevada.

Brierty is worried about getting rural volunteer firemen trained for nuclear accidents and about setting up a system to monitor waste shipments as they pass though his county.

He says he’s not against Yucca, but he does want the federal government to step in — and soon — to help communities along transportation routes plan for worst-case scenarios.

The waste would be shipped by rail, truck and barges that crisscross the 39 states where the spent nuclear fuel is now stored.

Some of those rail lines and highways run through San Bernardino, which has seen explosive growth from Los Angeles suburban sprawl. The county’s urban areas are busy night and day as trucks and trains move freight between California and its seaports and the rest of the United States.

“We have a transportation point that is not only a control point for railroads, it’s also for truck traffic, for high-pressure pipelines and for electric transmission,” Brierty notes.

“If we have a release of radioactive waste we’re going to end up with contamination that could dramatically affect the national transportation scenario,” he says.

But Brierty also contemplates a second potential nightmare: a radioactive release in a rural area near the state line where firemen are volunteers aren’t trained for such emergencies. “Our primary concern is if we get a call at 2 a.m. where an 18-wheeler flatbed carrying some of these casks, which look like large water tanks, collides with a passenger vehicle,” he says.

If such an accident occurred today, those firemen would “come in not suspecting that it could be a radioactive, contaminated rescue,” Brierty says.

Time for training?
Fortunately, those scenarios wouldn’t play out for several years — 2010 is the earliest that Yucca would be open for shipments.

Joe Ziegler, a senior technical adviser to the Yucca Mountain Project, notes that while the Energy Department might want to do more advance work like local disaster training, under the law that created the project such training can’t begin until four to five years before shipments start.

“Until we get closer to transportation and Congress funds us,” he says, “we would not be able to do as much as we would like.”

Moreover, specific transportation routes haven’t been finalized, and won’t be until and unless the Energy Department gets a green light from the Senate and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The Senate must vote by the end of July, and approval would let the Energy Department seek a license from the commission at the end of 2004.

Ziegler isn’t convinced communities need to start planning now, but he understands the concerns, and even the desire to keep the nuclear waste shipments out of one’s own backyard.

“I believe that’s more a matter of perception than real risk, but that perception is real,” he says.

Risks, rewards
Yucca’s supporters argue that the risk of an accident or successful terrorist attack on a shipment is extremely small and that it’s a risk society is willing to take in exchange for a reward — in this case a cheap source of electricity.

Each year, there are 300 million shipments of hazardous material in the United States. And 2,700 shipments of spent nuclear fuel, the primary type of radioactive waste at issue here, have been shipped 1.6 million miles over the last 20 years without a single release of radioactivity, supporters say.

Yucca’s critics counter that never before will so much radioactive waste have been shipped so far and for so long — 24 years under the Yucca Mountain proposal.

The Sept. 11 attacks, they add, have raised the specter of terrorism. That point is shared by the rail industry, whch has shown reluctance to become a carrier and asked that, if it must, the Energy Department require dedicated trains for nuclear waste shipments.

Transporting the waste with other railcars increases safety risks, Ed Hamberger, head of the Association of American Railroads, told lawmakers earlier this year. That Energy Department policy “is driven no doubt by economic considerations,” he added. “I submit that the events of Sept. 11, 2001, have altered that calculation forever.”

Varying estimates
At issue in the case of an accident is how far radioactive powder might be dispersed, how many people might be killed and what kind of cleanup would be involved.

Yucca supporters and critics are far apart in their predictions.

The Energy Department’s worst-case scenario predicts 48 cancer deaths from an act of sabotage on a truck shipment.

The state of Nevada, which has led the campaign to stop Yucca, commissioned a study that estimated thousands of deaths.

The predictions were based on different assumptions. Nevada took a scenario from a Baltimore rail tunnel fire in 2001, where a train burned for three days and temperatures reached as high as 1,500 F. Containers aren’t required to withstand that kind of heat for that long, Nevada noted, but if a nuclear waste container became enveloped in such a fire, it could melt, allowing radioactive particles to disperse far and wide.

Nevada also points out that safety testing is done on small-scale models and not full-scale containers, which can weigh as much as 250 tons.

Container safety
The Baltimore fire as well as Sept. 11 have led officials to review the safety of containers.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which regulates their design, has said it is studying the “lessons learned” in Baltimore and is sponsoring a study to see how well the casks withstand acts of sabotage and terrorism.

“We will decide within the next year whether changes are needed in our physical security requirements,” NRC operations official Carl Paperiello told lawmakers in April.

The commission also stands to become the central regulator of Yucca. If the Senate approves the project, the commission would eventually have to grant or deny an operating license. That decision wouldn’t come before 2005, and the Bush administration says that leaves plenty of time for outstanding issues to be resolved.

That doesn’t reassure officials in San Bernardino. “What is the contingency plan” for these worst-case scenarios, asks Jon Mikels, a county supervisor. “How will the response and cleanup teams be mobilized? Where are the workers and equipment to come from? How will 42 square miles and everything in it be decontaminated?”

Ziegler reiterates his plea for patience and suggests communities be careful about what they wish for when it comes to training before transportation routes are finalized.

“If we started working with San Bernardino County,” he says as an example, “that might prejudice the decision” towards using routes through the county. “If I were living there I’d want you to weigh all the options and not bias the selection towards my area.”