America’s atomic powerplants are burdened with growing stockpiles of spent fuel-rods and other radioactive wastes. “Temporary” fuel storage ponds at most reactors were filled long ago and, as aging reactors face the end of their operating (and revenue-generating) lives, the atomic power industry is running short of space, time and patience.
After years of opposition by anti-nuclear activists, environmentalists and the governors of all the affected states, the Bush administration is prepared to start shipping 70,000 tons of radioactive wastes from nearly 100 nuclear powerplants nationwide to an “interim” storage site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.
When the nuclear power business first got its start in the 1960s, the Department of Energy (DOE) promised to assume final responsibility for each and every spent nuclear fuel rod. The DOE was supposed to start picking up and parking Big Nuke’s hot rods on January 31, 1998. It didn’t happen.
Back in the 1960s, nuclear power advocates believed that they could generate electricity “too cheap to meter.” The hope was that, by the time the powerplants needed to be shut down, future scientists would have discovered how to store radioactive waste safely for the next 24,000 years.
Forty years later, science still hasn’t solved the problem.
With storage pools brim-full, US facilities have been forced to start packing used fuel rods above-ground in “dry cask” storage. The operators of the Maine Yankee nukeplant recently invested $60 million to build a new fuel-rod storage facility. These surface “parking lots” will store uranium-filled rods in two-story-tall casks, stacked in rows. Though fenced in and protected by armed guards, the casks will still be exposed to the open sky. By 2005, there may be as many as 50 such parking lots scattered about the country.
Hiroshima on wheels
The White House’s nuclear waste transport plan (dubbed “Mobile Chernobyl” by its critics) would send caravans of casks filled with High Level Waste (HLW) rolling down highways and rail lines near major cities in 43 states. fifty-two million Americans live within a mile of the proposed routes.
Any casks that survived the trip would not be buried in the belly of Yucca Mountain, however. The facility is not expected to be open for business until 2010 at the earliest. Instead, the casks would be placed in another temporary above-ground parking lot — a federalized version of the dry-cask scenario.
Nearly 80,000 truck and 13,000 rail shipments would be required to ship used nuclear fuel rods and assorted rad-waste from decommissioned nuke plants. The shipments would continue day and night for 30-40 years.
The radiation aboard a single truck would be equal to 40 times the radiation released by the US A-bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Each atomic cask traveling by rail would contain 240 Hiroshimas.
The politics of nuclear waste
In 1986, the DOE began examining three potential sites that might be used as nuclear dumps. The sites were located in Texas, Nevada and Washington state.
But something strange happened in Congress. Legislation was crafted to eliminate the sites in Texas and Washington. Was it coincidental that the Speaker of the House at that time was Texas Representative Jim Wright and the House Majority Leader was Washington’s Tom Foley? Robert Loux, the head of Nevada’s Agency for Nuclear Projects, thinks not. “Congress acted on political, not scientific criteria in choosing this site,” Loux charges.
Government geologists have since discovered that Yucca Mountain sits between two active earthquake faults, 12 miles from the epicenter of a 5.6 Richter scale quake that struck in 1992. A 4.4 quake rattled the region in June.
Another drawback: Yucca Mountain is located atop a major Western aquifer. Millions of tiny fissures in the volcanic rock would allow water to drip onto the stored casks. The canisters will have to be retrofitted with titanium drip shields.
Government engineers claim these casks can last 270,000 years, but Loux’s studies show the casks could corrode within as few as 500 years.
If any of the casks were to crack, the wastes would move inexorably toward the aquifer.
Does any of this concern the White House, whose resident-in-chief insists that his judgements will by made on the basis of “the best science, not politics”? Apparently not. On February 14, Bush agreed with his advisors’ recommendation: “We’ve found nothing so far that would disqualify the site… There are no show stoppers.”
Highways to hell
The government admits there could be as many as 900 accidents involving these nuclear shipments over 30 years. Department of Energy officials confide radioactive shipping accidents are “inevitable.”
If a single truck were to spill its radioactive load, federal studies estimate, it would contaminate 42 square miles. Decontaminating a single square mile would take four years.
If the accident happened in a rural location, federal studies estimate cleanup costs could reach $620 million. If the accident occurred in an urban location, the entire city would be rendered uninhabitable. The decontamination costs would top $9.5 billion.
Truck accidents and train derailments are in the news nearly every day. The DOE, however, says there is little danger, as its casks are crash- and fire-proof. The US Conference of Mayors is not reassured. On June 18, the mayors called on the DOE to halt its plans to ship waste to Yucca Mountain, noting that the casks “have never undergone full-scale physical testing to determine if they can withstand likely transportation accident and terrorism scenarios.”
If the shipments are to go ahead, the mayors stated, Congress must first pass legislation requiring “adequate funds, training and equipment to protect the public health and safety in the event of an accident.”
On July 18, 2001, a CSX railroad train caught fire in the Howard Street tunnel beneath the streets of downtown Baltimore. It was an hour before the fire departments were notified, and nearly three before the public was warned. The inferno raged for five days and reached temperatures of 1,500°F — hot enough to have melted the DOE’s “impregnable” casks within a few hours.
According to studies conducted by the New York-based Radioactive Waste Management Associates, had that train been hauling HLW, 390,388 residents would have been exposed to the radioactive cloud. Tens of thousands might have died of cancer as a result. The cleanup costs would have approached $14 billion.
Despite calls for heightened security in the wake of 9/11, the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) are planning to relax safety regulations governing these nuclear shipments. The NRC concedes the new rules will reduce public health and safety.
Under the joint DOT/NRC plan, hundreds of radioactive isotopes would be exempted from regulatory controls. The plan would allow the industry to ship the wastes in cheaper, stripped down single-shell casks instead of the sturdier double-shell models currently required.
Agency officials explain the scheme to deregulate nuclear waste shipments was written before September 11. Nonetheless, NRC officials have refused to abandon plans to loosen security in the post 9/ll world. Their response is that these unforeseen new threats will be addressed “later.”
The agency entrusted with safeguarding these rolling terror targets is the DOE’s Transportation Security Division (TSD). In simulations run to assess the TSD’s readiness to protect the cargo against terrorist attack, the Project On Government Oversight [www.pogo.org] reports, TSD defenders “were annihilated in ten seconds after an attack was started.”
An internal DOE memo dated December 12, 1998 reported on the results of a computerized Joint Tactical Simulation of TSD’s readiness. The results of the first test: three losses and no wins. The results of the second simulation: three losses and one win. At that point, all further simulations were cancelled.
DOE decided to purchase fleets of armored Humvees to help TSD’s troopers patrol the shipments. That was before the Security Director at DOE’s Pantex nuclear weapons assembly plant in Texas pointed out the Humvees were motorized death traps and it would be “just as effective to buy Yugos.”
The problem? Armor-piercing incendiary rounds could penetrate the Humvees, turning the passengers into toast. A Government Accounting Office investigation has revealed the Pentagon has released more than 100,000 of these deadly surplus rounds for sale on the open market.
The shipping casks could be equally vulnerable. According to the Nuclear Information and Resource Service [www.nirs.org] the White House has been informed “rocket launchers that are for retail sale… around the world are capable of penetrating a shipping cask, releasing deadly amounts of radioactivity.” As NIRS spokesperson Kevin Kamps observes: “Providing security over a 30-year period for tens of thousands of moving targets is not realistic.”
In July, the US Senate voted 60-39 to override Nevada’s veto of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump. This does not mean Yucca Mountain will ever open; instead, it sets the stage for years of courtroom activity, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licensing proceedings, continued Congressional action, and an increased likelihood of large protests and blockades of highways and railways.
Gar Smith is Earth Island Institute’s Roving Editor
What you can do: Take Action: See what routes near your home may be used to transport radioactive waste at www.mapscience.org. Public Citizen’s website at www.citizen.org is a good source of information on nuclear waste, or contact Earth
Island’s Center for Safe Energy at 2828 Cherry Street, Berkeley, CA
94705, (510) 883-1177, email@example.com, www.earthisland.org/cse
We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.Donate
Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.