Nuclear utilities have a problem. The cooling pools storing their highly radioactive waste are starting to fill up. The nuclear industry's solution: Send it on the road - public roads and rail lines - at public expense to a geologically unstable, temporary storage site in Nevada.
The nuclear industry has pushed hard for legislation to make its solution a reality. Between 1995 and mid-1997 the industry showered Congress with $12.8 million, according to consumer group Public Citizen. Last year Congress passed Mobile Chernobyl, officially the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1997. But, uncomfortable with further debates on radioactive waste in an election year, Congress this week appears to have deferred the issue until another session. But it will not go away.
At present, there is no solution to the problem of high-level nuclear waste - one of the deadliest known toxins. A Nevada state agency report on the impacts of shipping nuclear waste says it would take less than three minutes for someone standing three feet from an unshielded 10-year-old fuel assembly to receive a lethal dose of radiation.
If all the nation's 104 nuclear power plants still operating run until the end of their licenses, we will have 85,000 metric tons of this stuff. It will remain dangerously radioactive for 250,000 years.
Under Mobile Chernobyl, shipments would begin in 2002 and take 30 years to complete. By truck, the waste would travel alongside us in traffic down main roads through or around major cities in 43 states. By train, the hot cargo would sit with ordinary cargo.
Transport on public thoroughfares presents several problems: radiation exposure to nearby drivers, accidents, and opportunities for terrorist attack. Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations allow 100 millirems of gamma rays per hour to come through the container - the equivalent of 10 chest x-rays an hour. Nuclear Information and Resources Service expert Mary Olson calculates the exposure would be closer to one chest x-ray an hour for the distance between the truck and an adjacent vehicle. This is, pure and simple, a health risk.
Department of Transportation data tell us nearly 100,000 transit-related accidents released some form of toxic material in the US and its territories in the past 10 years. Based on the number of shipments needed to move 3,000 tons of nuclear waste a year, as Mobile Chernobyl requires, Public Citizen estimates 210 to 354 accidents are possible in the next 30 years.
By the Department of Energy's calculations, a realistic but not worst-case scenario including a high-speed crash and fire emitting a relatively small amount of radiation would contaminate 42 square miles, take up to 462 days to clean up, and cost $620 million.
Communities aren't prepared to deal with a catastrophic nuclear road or rail accident. The government has no coordinated emergency-response strategy, says George Burke, a spokesperson for the International Association of Firefighers. The task would be left to local fire departments, many of which do not have the necessary training, Mr. Burke says.
The destination for this exquisitely dangerous material - a temporary storage place at the Nevada Test Site, next to the proposed permanent dumpsite at Yucca Mountain - does not offer the public any sighs of relief. Yucca Mountain is sitting on 35 earthquake faults and in the last 20 years has had more than 600 earthquakes greater than 2.5 on the Richter scale. Because of the geological instability, Yucca Mountain may not be approved for permanent underground storage, so the casks shipped there may have to be reshipped.
A nuclear waste fund was set up in 1982 to pay for permanent nuclear waste disposal. The money comes from ratepayers, and approximately $25 billion has been collected so far. But according to a recent independent analysis, that will cover only about half of the cost of Mobile Chernobyl - the other half lookes likely to be a $25 billion taxpayer bailout for the nuclear industry. And still, we will not have a solution to the nuclear waste crisis.
Nuclear power provides about 11 percent of the electricity generated in this country. The obvious first step is to shut down all nuclear plants now and get on with finding a real solution for dealing with the deadly radioactive heap we already have.
Sen. Paul Wellstone (D) of Minnesota aptly describes Mobile Chernobyl as "an S&L bailout with a toxic twist."
Congress has the ability to say no to this crazy scheme permanently, and it should.
* Karen Charman is a New York City-based investigative reporter specializing in environmental and health issues.