Moving nuclear waste

Nuclear waste is routinely transported around the US. But shipments are expected to climb rapidly, raising questions about safety.

In the 1930s, Eastman Kodak Co. began to hear complaints that some of the X-ray plates it sold to hospitals were arriving hopelessly fogged.

A quick check showed that laborers had loaded boxes of plates onto the same boxcar that carried the containers of radium.

Thus was born what may be the earliest shipping requirement for nuclear materials: Do not ship radium in a boxcar used for shipping X-ray film.

"It was the shortest regulation in history," quips Bob Jefferson, a nuclear-materials transportation consultant.

Today, nuclear materials routinely travel across the country – and around the world.

These materials are subject to stringent shipping and security measures. But concern about them – particularly about the highly radioactive waste from nuclear-power plants – has grown with the prospect that waste shipments will become more frequent if a permanent repository is built, as many expect. Those concerns have intensified following Sept. 11. And some states are getting more vocal about having nuclear materials on their turf: Recently, South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges unsuccessfully attempted to block waste shipments into his state.

These shipments have moved around the US from a range of sources, from the Three-Mile Island clean-up and research reactors overseas to spent fuel and other high-level waste from US Department of Energy reactors and the US Navy.

While some shipments have been involved in accidents, since the early 1960s none has led to a release of radioactivity or to radiation-related illnesses or deaths, state and federal regulators note.

Credit goes to the shipping containers, Mr. Jefferson says. Many products, ranging from radio-pharmaceuticals to home smoke detectors, which contain low-level nuclear materials, can be shipped in cardboard boxes. The most dangerous materials, such as the high-level waste from nuclear-power plants, get more-deft handling.

Spent reactor fuel is loaded into stainless-steel casks weighing from 60 to 120 tons. Casks are lined with materials including depleted uranium that keep radiation inside the cask. The design philosophy, Jefferson says, is, "you can't trust humans."

Casks are designed to withstand a 30-foot fall onto a hard surface such as concrete. A cask must withstand temperatures of 1,440 degrees F. for 30 minutes. (A blaze in a Baltimore tunnel exceeded those temperatures for longer than that in 2001, although engineers point out it's unlikely such materials will be shipped over routes currently off-limits to hazardous limits.) A fractured cask must be leakproof when immersed in three feet of water for eight hours. Newer casks must remain leakproof for eight hours at depths of 100 feet. And a cask must withstand a three-foot fall onto a steel post to simulate an accident that could puncture a cask.

Driving next to a truck and cask on the highway, or standing on the shoulder while one whizzes by, yields a brief dose of radiation indistinguishable from what humans are naturally expose to every day. By one estimate, a pedestrian watching a truck pass receives a dose equivalent to eating two extra bananas a year. Bananas contain traces of radioactive potassium.

However, critics point out that the US has never conducted the full range of structural-integrity tests on full-sized casks, analysts say. Instead, one-quarter to half-scale models have been tested. And Nevada state officials say there are so many uncertainties surrounding transportation of waste that it's tough to gauge potential effects or to plan for emergencies. Next year, the US Nuclear Regulatory Agency is planning full-scale tests..

Over the past four decades, the United States has sent the vast majority of some 3,000 shipments of spent nuclear fuel across the nation's highways and railways. (Some has traveled by barge.)

That number is set to skyrocket when a permanent repository is scheduled to open, perhaps by 2010. According to the US Energy Department, the number of shipments could grow to between 15,000 and 45,000 at that point. The amount depends on whether the material is trucked, or shipped by rail in larger canisters.

To some, the likelihood of a serious accident will rise along with an increase in shipments. Nevada officials doubt enough rail access is available, forcing more casks onto trucks. They say shipments could number as high as 100,000.

Others, however, note that worldwide, the flow of high-level radioactive waste already has run into the tens of thousands of tons.

"Over the history of this industry, more spent fuel has been shipped internationally than will be shipped to Yucca Mountain," says Jack Edlow, who heads Edlow International, a nuclear-materials transport company. The shipments have moved "safely and securely, without the loss of a single life."

Some of these international shipments come from foreign research reactors, whose owners have sent spent fuel to the US for disposal under the Atoms for Peace program. Many other shipments originate in countries whose laws and policies governing the use of nuclear energy require that spent reactor fuel be recycled.

Not every country has reprocessing facilities, however. Japan ships its fuel to France for recycling, as do several European countries. Britain also reprocesses nuclear fuel. Russia reprocesses some of its spent fuel, and is deciding whether to market itself as a host for an international commercial nuclear-waste repository.

Reprocessing has had a checkered history in the US. It yields plutonium, which can be used as reactor fuel. Following India's explosion of a nuclear device in 1974, the US grew concerned about the likelihood plutonium could be diverted to build weapons. And the large number of shipments to and from reprocessing plants could be vulnerable to theft or sabotage. In 1977, President Carter banned civil reprocessing in the US. President Reagan lifted the ban in 1981, but by then reprocessing had lost its economic luster. Last year, President Bush recommended the government put renewed focus on reprocessing.

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