Flap Over Bringing 'Rad' Waste Home

DOE effort to collect nuclear material overseas may hit a snag at California's Golden Gate

In a belated act of nuclear responsibility, the US has pledged to collect radioactive material from the far-flung corners of the globe. But the effort is running into strong opposition: governors and local officials who oppose transporting the potentially deadly cargo through their jurisdictions.

The Department of Energy has chosen San Francisco as the point of entry for part of the nuclear shipment - a decision California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) has characterized as "incomprehensible." At least one Bay Area county is considering filing suit against the US later this month to prevent the shipments.

The controversy highlights the dilemma of balancing international nuclear security against the risk to Americans of a nuclear transport accident.

Under the DOE's preferred route, ships carrying the controversial cargo would steam through congested San Francisco Bay, travel under six much-travelled bridges, and be off-loaded at a Navy base near two active earthquake faults. The material would then be transported across densely populated regions in three states to an Idaho storage facility.

Taking the waste back

The plan is part of the DOE's recently announced 1997 program to retrieve spent nuclear fuel rods containing weapons-grade uranium from research reactors worldwide. "The Clinton administration has dared to take on what others have allowed to languish for almost a decade - keeping nuclear bomb-grade material out of the hands of terrorists and securing it safely on our shores," Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary said recently.

But Governor Wilson says other transport options make more sense than off-loading the nuclear waste at the Bay Area's Concord Naval Weapons Station. The DOE's own analysis of alternative ports found that the weapons station, 25 miles northeast of Oakland, Calif., has "the highest potential risk of accidents with the greatest potential consequences," he says.

Less populated routes are available through Oregon or Washington. But the plan calls for rail cars and trucks to carry the hazardous material out of the Bay Area and through several major cities, including Sacramento, Reno, Nev., Salt Lake City and Ogden, Utah, before reaching the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory in Boise.

Starting in the 1950s with the Atoms for Peace program, the US sent 41 nations highly enriched uranium to fuel their research reactors. But the US devised no plan for the secure, long-term disposal of the waste. Because this spent weapons-grade fuel can be stolen by renegade countries or reprocessed by advanced nations to make nuclear weapons, the US now plans to take back 20 tons, or 24,000 irradiated fuel rods, over the next 13 years and replace it with less-hazardous, low-enriched uranium. DOE's last program to recover spent fuel rods ended in 1988.

The great majority of the spent nuclear fuel will be sent in 150 to 300 shipments to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina through the Charleston Naval Weapons Station; South Carolina Gov. David Beasley (R) is "outraged" by the plan. The remaining fuel from Pacific Rim reactors will be carried in five shipments through the Bay Area for interim storage in Idaho. The DOE has no permanent repository for high-level nuclear waste.

David Huizinga, director of the DOE's nuclear materials recovery effort, says it is true that the highest risk for theft or mishap is when radioactive material is moved. But, he adds, the DOE has safely transported spent nuclear fuel for decades, including in the Bay Area.

He says the Concord Naval Weapons Station was chosen over other West Coast ports because it is a military base that routinely handles munitions and hazardous materials. The fuel will be sealed in lead-lined, stainless-steel casks that have been tested to withstand severe accidents, and extensive security measures will be provided to help ease public concerns, he says.

"We're trying to wean the world off highly enriched uranium, as it's easier to make nuclear weapons from it than from plutonium," says Mr. Huizinga, who noted that Iraq recently tried to use such research reactor fuel to develop a nuclear weapon. "We can bring about a significant improvement in ... security by trying to remove bomb-making material from world commerce."

To move or not to move?

But prolonging global nuclear commerce by trading one fuel for another is what troubles Michael Veiluva of the Western States Legal Foundation, a Bay Area antinuclear group that is part of a local coalition fighting the DOE plan. With few exceptions, he says, spent radioactive fuel should remain where it is until a permanent disposal site is found. Phasing out nuclear programs worldwide is the best route to nonproliferation, Mr. Veiluva adds. "We're feeding a nuclear addiction."

Yet some environmental and antinuclear groups say that the nonproliferation benefits of the program are still worthwhile and outweigh what they consider to be the low risks of a nuclear accident. "We're paying the social and environmental costs of the Atoms for Peace program, but I don't think those costs are high," says Thomas Cochran, director of the nuclear program for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington. "The people in the Bay Area undergo risks that are much higher on a regular basis."

But Contra Costa County Supervisor Mark DeSaulnier, whose district is near the naval weapons station, says the DOE failed to assess the risks for specific communities along the route, especially highly populated ones. County supervisors may file suit against the agency shortly.

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