What amounts to a moratorium in recent years by states and cities on the movement of nuclear waste along the nation's highways and railroads is about to end.
Largely as a result of recent court rulings, more than 1,000 shipments of spent nuclear fuel rods going to or through 11 states - many of them here in the Midwest - are expected to start by the end of this week. They are slated to continue over the next year and a half.
Though the plans and some of the routes have only recently been made public - in accord with recent federal law - rising concern on the part of elected officials over the choice of routes and the adequacy of safety measures in the event of a mishap may yet force a delay or reconsideration of the moves.
A federal court order issued last month called for the prompt return to utilities in five states of spent rods stored at a nuclear power plant in West Valley, N.Y. They had been sent there for reprocessing - extraction of usable plutonium and uranium - which was never completed because of President Carter's ban on commercial nuclear reprocessing.
Similarly in May the US Supreme Court overturned as unconstitutional a three-year-old Illinois ban on the shipment of nuclear waste from any state that didn't grant Illinois reciprocal privileges. That ruling opens the door to railroad shipments of more than 200 tons of spent nuclear fuel rods from a Nebraska utility to a General Electric nuclear storage facility in Morris, Ill.
More than 200 jurisdictions, including 26 Cleveland suburbs - have restrictive laws of some kind on the movement of nuclear waste through their territory. Fred Millar, director of the nuclear and hazardous materials transportation project of the Environmental Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. , notes that many of these have effectively blocked nuclear waste shipments in the United States over the last few years. He says he expects that more will be added to the list in the next few months and that some states will suggest alternate routes.
About one-fourth of the some 1,000 shipments will be going to the Wisconsin Electric Power Company's Point Beach nuclear plant in Two Rivers, Wis. Routes already approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) would send the shipments north (in the post-midnight hours) on Interstate 94, which runs through downtown Milwaukee. An emergency-problems committee of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors held hearings a few days ago to consider an alternate route and the adequacy of emergency procedures. Some of the shipments involve spent fuel rods previously sent to the Morris plant which are being returned for economic reasons.
''We have a responsibility to assure people that all possible safety precautions have been taken - and I'm still uncomfortable about the whole situation,'' says Penny Podell, the county board member who suggested the route change.
Wisconsin Gov. Anthony Earl has said he will not block trucking of the spent nuclear fuel rods, since the waste originated at the Point Beach site. But state Sen. Joseph Strohl, chairman of the Energy Committee, says he thinks the shipments should at least be delayed while safety questions are considered. He also suggests that the waste could be moved in greater quantity and meet less traffic if shipped by barge from sites in both Illinois and New York.
A Wisconsin Senate committee held hearings in Milwaukee this week; an Illinois legislative hearing is scheduled for next week.
''I'd really like to stop the whole thing,'' admits Illinois state Sen. Jerome Joyce, chairman of the Illinois Senate Agriculture, Conservation, and Energy Committee, which will hold the hearing. ''Suddenly there's movement of nuclear waste all over the place in midsummer when no legislature is in session. It's like a giant shell game.''
What particularly troubles Senator Joyce and many other elected officials is the fact that the moves amount to nuclear waste reshuffling among temporary storage sites. The first underground permanent storage site is not expected to be ready until close to the year 2000. Some environmentalists such as Dr. Millar say the waste could be safely kept until then in dry storage at present sites. ''We just need to educate judges on the new technology available,'' Millar insists. Ultimately, he hopes that on-site storage solutions can be negotiated.
Still, there are many who say the current fuss over the nuclear waste shipments is much ado about nothing. NRC spokesman Russ Marbito notes that the cask design has been thoroughly tested for strength and fire resistance and that there have been no measurable radioactive emissions in 30 years of use. The NRC's preferred routes include interstates whenever possible, in order to speed the trip, along with armed escorts. Although the timing is secret for security reasons, governors are notified seven days in advance.
''I have no concerns at all because I've seen how spent rods are sealed into those containers - I'd be rather be hit by one of those than a (gasoline) tanker , which is a torch waiting to be lit,'' adds Illinois state Sen. John Maitland, who serves on a newly appointed state task force on hazardous materials.