Along nuclear reactor's path, cries of 'NIMBY'

This week, a radioactive 770-ton vessel begins a long and circuitous trip - amid fights over routes and risks.

Railroad companies said it was too heavy. Highway officials said it was too bulky. Panama Canal authorities have limits on how much radioactive material can be moved through their locks in one trip.

This week, after two years of checking into every possible alternative to transport a used, 770-ton - and radioactive - nuclear reactor vessel from California to a dump site in South Carolina, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) approved the most circuitous route of all: 15,000 miles around the tip of South America by barge.

Critics say the episode spotlights a national problem that will only get worse: how to dispose of more than 50 commercial reactors that will be shut down in the next 30 years. They say utility officials are being too secretive and cavalier in their plans to move such waste. Critics worry, too, that public complacency will lower the bar for the transport of more dangerous, high-level waste as Congress moves to build more reactors.

Energy department and utility officials say the hazards are overblown and insist they have mastered the logistical and safety problems. Energy benefits from nuclear reactors far outweigh the dangers, they say. One of every five American homes or businesses is run on nuclear power - a ratio supporters say helps insulate the country from dependence on foreign oil, Middle East turmoil, and the volatility of natural gas prices.

Either way, the issuance of a permit Dec. 1 to Southern California Edison, majority owner of the San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station, has ignited heated debate on the challenges faced in dealing with current and future nuclear waste. The two-month project could begin as early as next week, and opposition is coalescing both within and without the US.

"Transporting radioactive waste is a very dangerous thing to do and it is already clear from the mistakes of other recent transports that the public is not being clearly informed of everything that is at stake," says Kevin Kamps, a nuclear-waste specialist for the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C., that opposes the use of atomic energy.

The radiation risk

The 450,000-megawatt San Onofre reactor provided electricity for about 500,000 homes from 1968 until 1992, when officials closed it because of cost overruns. Three steam generators, along with other reactor parts, have already been moved by rail and disposed of in Utah. Now, the 35-foot high, pyramid-shaped steel container that housed the reactor has been filled with concrete. It sits at a fenced site at the San Onofre station.

Officials hasten to add that the container's radioactive level is extremely low - so low that if a person sat atop it for one hour, he would receive only half the radiation of a conventional X-ray. Eight feet away from the container, there is zero radiation, they say, and because the steel is both solid and dry, there is no danger of radiation migration or escape, and exposure to a liquid or gas form.

Past trips and trepidation

Despite this, several disposal venues have long been blocked by railroad and transportation entities because of concern over accident, attack, or liability. A recent shipment of similarly low-level radiation from Michigan to Barnwell, S.C., raised public and official ire when utility officials did not sufficiently notify authorities along the transfer route. Watchdog groups found that the trailer carrying the waste broke in transit and that the radioactive canister was stored in full sight one night at a gas station where children catch school buses.

The groups say that the trailer damaged at least one railroad track when crossing over it, and that the protective shell was not built to withstand possible collisions at the trailer's speed. They argue, too, that crowds were not kept at sufficient distances.

"Proper precautions were not taken with a relatively small shipment like the Michigan shipment, and we found the officials to be less than upfront when answering concerns," says International Greenpeace activist Tom Clements. "What does that say about far larger shipments like the San Onofre shell?"

The reactor's route, from sea to sea

That shell will be moved about 15 miles down the beach from San Onofre, using interlocking mats that will form a temporary, above-sand road. The reactor will then will detour onto a state highway (see map) to skirt a ravine and then move down a dirt road to the boat basin at Camp Pendleton - traveling only in daylight because of environmental concerns.

Observing strict tide guidelines to avoid crashing waves, the cargo will be placed on a barge for a 90-day trip around South America to South Carolina. En route, the barge may steer hundreds of miles out to sea to avoid encroaching on 200-mile coastal waters of Chile, Argentina, and other nations. Chilean officials have voiced concerns, but the DOT says the State Department has smoothed the diplomatic path.

"We have taken our time and conferred with all the necessary people to make sure this is a safe journey," says Joe Delcambre of the DOT. One final hurdle was cleared when utility officials purchased $50 million in insurance in case the load is sunk and must be reclaimed from the sea bottom.

No date has been set for the sea transport, but officials say it will take place sometime between Dec. 9 and March, 2004. The proposed journey is expected to be on the agenda Thursday, when South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) meets with his state's nuclear advisory committee to discuss phasing out the Barnwell site for states beyond its own region.

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