Can Nuclear Waste Be Safely Moved?

Nevada senators on a multi-city tour to highlight risks of transporting radioactive materials across the US.

To critics, the plan is a formula for a "mobile Chernobyl" - a nuclear accident with potentially disastrous consequences.

To proponents, the clear and present danger isn't in shipping high-level radioactive waste to a single storage location, but in leaving it scattered around the country at 71 nuclear power plants.

So goes the debate about what to do with some 40,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel rods, an accumulation of 40 years' worth of highly radioactive waste from America's nuclear-power industry. It's a waste stockpile that grows daily. And even while the nation's experts are divided on what constitutes the most prudent solution - keeping it where it is until a permanent repository is built, or sending it off for interim storage - the federal government is still legally obligated to remove this civilian waste now.

But is it risk-free to transport thousands of shipments of high-level nuclear waste cross-country over railways and highways? That question is as politically charged as it is open to interpretation. And with billions of dollars and political careers at stake, so far the dispute has shed far more heat than light.

Now, as Congress grapples with legislation that would permit nuclear-waste shipments to head to the Nevada Test Site for interim storage, two Nevada senators stand at the center of the fray. US Sens. Harry Reid and Richard Bryan, both Democrats, are conducting a whistle-stop tour of the major cities the waste shipments would pass through.

"By and large, people outside of Nevada aren't even aware that if this legislation is enacted, massive quantities of nuclear waste would be coming to their community," says Senator Bryan. "The transportation corridors for this waste pass through major metropolitan centers. And people haven't been told anything about this."

Testifying before city officials in Denver recently - and in St. Louis before that - the senators wanted to alert the public to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1997, legislation that has shuttled through Congress like a freight train. While President Clinton has promised to veto the bill, a final vote coming up in the Senate will determine if that veto will be sustained. In bringing the issue to the public arena, the senators hope citizens will pressure their senators to cast "nay" votes on the plan.

Under the pending bill, nuclear-waste shipments would head through 43 states en route to Nevada beginning in 2002. "This isn't just a Nevada problem," Senator Reid says. "It's a national problem."

The Nevada senators, who will also visit Indianapolis and Chicago, have long opposed the establishment of a permanent nuclear-waste repository at Yucca Mountain - a 5,000-foot-long desert ridge on the Nevada Test Site. The site is barely 90 miles from Las Vegas, the fastest-growing city in the nation. But their concern now, they say, regards the safety of transporting this material.

"My main concern is that it's very dangerous," says Reid. "There could be accidents. Terrorists could get their hands on these shipments. And there's no reason to move it. They can leave it where it is safely for the next 100 years."

Storing on-site

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has indicated this waste can be safely stored at nuclear reactors in what are called "dry casks." But that would cost the industry as much as $5 billion - on top of the nearly $14 billion nuclear power companies have already paid the Department of Energy (DOE) over the past 15 years, in return for a commitment that the waste would be removed by Jan. 31, 1998.

"It's a matter of demanding what you paid for," says Leighann Marshall, spokeswoman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents the nation's 44 nuclear-utility companies. "The federal government has a legal obligation to begin disposing of this used fuel." Meanwhile, utility companies continue to pay $600 million a year into the federal fund for waste disposal, she adds, "and they have precious little to show for it."

But others say that public-safety considerations must come first and that time pressures will only increase risks. "If this is going to happen, it has to happen in a way that the states have a say in it, and that they have some advance training. Right now, we're not ready for it," says Ron Ross, of the Western Governors' Association in Denver.

Lt. Rick Castricone of the Denver Police Department agrees. "We are not prepared to respond to a nuclear accident, and I think it would be impossible to claim that there is no risk of an accident," he says. "In Denver, we had nearly 27,000 accidents in 1997. The odds of an accident with one of these trucks may be low, but it could happen."

The DOE, on the other hand, counters that it has decades of experience shipping nuclear waste, and that the containers for shipping spent fuel rods will be subject to rigorous testing - including being dropped from a 30-foot height, engulfed in 1475 degree F. flames, and submerged underwater. "All the containers will have to meet the standards set by the NRC," says Erik Olds, DOE spokesman. "We're not going to ship this unless it's safe."

Safe containers?

Still, the specific containers for shipping this waste have yet to be designed, much less tested. And critics point out that just two months ago, a DOE shipment of low-level nuclear waste arrived at the Nevada Test Site with containers that were leaking en route. It turned out that the manufacturer of the containers had substituted a different design without first testing it. And it was later determined that the leakage problem extended to all containers of that design.

"They don't know how to transport low-level nuclear waste," fumes Reid. "How in the world can they safely transport high-level waste?"

Others believe the technology to ship radioactive waste is itself sound - but subject to human error.

"This is something that we know how to do safely, but there's no guarantee we will do it safely," says Robert Halstead, a nuclear-waste transportation consultant in Portage, Wis. He further argues that failing to acknowledge the risks only magnifies them. "To address the risks, the industry has to be willing to give in on its attitude that everything is hunky-dory," he says.

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