by Gar Smith – The-Edge
Accidents do happen: In 1991, a truck carrying nuclear fuel rods crashed into a median strip in Springfield, Massachusetts, spilling radioactive material onto the roadway and to the ground below.
(July 5, 2002) — The US nuclear lobby is suffering the agonizing pangs of nuclear constipation. 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.
In its desire to accommodate the US nuclear industry, the Bush administration is preparing to hand terrorists a road map to success. A costly plan to sweep the problem under a mountain-sized rug may be just the dose of Pepto-Bismol the nuclear lobby craves. But it could also open the doors to the kind of nuclear nightmare that a terrorist organization could only dream of.
After years of opposition by anti-nuclear activists, environmentalists and the governors or all the effected states, the Bush administration is prepared to start shipping 70,000 tons of radioactive wastes across thousand of miles from nearly 100 nuclear powerplants to an “interim” storage site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.
How Did We Get into this Mess?
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 one of the industry’s left-over super-hot and super-deadly fuel rods. 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’s advocated believed that they could generate electricity “too cheap to meter.” It turns out that their solution to the nuclear waste problem was even more misbegotten. The hope was that, by the time the powerplants needed to be shut down, future scientists would have discovered how to safely immobilize radioactive waste for the next 24,000 years.
Forty years later, science still hasn’t solved the problem. (Note to Washington: There is an important management lesson to be drawn from this predicament.)
With storage pools brim-full of nuclear brimstone, US facilities have been forced to start packing used fuel rods above-ground in “dry casket” 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, surrounded by fences, protected by armed guards – and 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 business-friendly road show (dubbed “Mobile Chernobyl” by its critics) would send caravans of caskets filled with High Level Waste (HLW) rolling down highways and rail lines near major cities in 43 states. The lives of 52 million Americans living within a mile of the proposed routes would be put at risk.
Any caskets that survived the trip would not be buried in the mammoth subterranean caverns carved out of the belly of Yucca Mountain, however. The facility is not expected to be open for business until 2010 at the earliest. Instead, the caskets would be placed in another temporary above-ground parking lot – a federalized version of the dry-casket 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 nukeplants. The shipments would continue day and night for a period of 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 casket traveling by rail would seethe with the radiation equivalent of 240 Hiroshimas.
Playing Politics with Nuclear Waste
In 1986, the DOE began examining three potential sites that might be used as dumpsites for the nuclear industry’s excrement. 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 just coincidental that the Speaker of the House at that time was Texas Representative Jim Wright and the House Majority Leader was Washington State’s Tom Foley. Robert Loux, the head of the Nevada’s Agency for Nuclear Projects thinks not. “Congress acted on political, not scientific criteria in choosing this site,” Loux has charged.
The $4 billion underground cavern may never be used, however. (This possibility lends a profound new resonance to the phrase “pouring money down a hole.”) Government geologists have belatedly discovered out that Yucca Mountain is situated between two active earthquake faults. It sits 12 miles from the epicenter of a 5.6 Richter scale quake that struck in 1992. A related 4.4 quake rattled the region on June 14, 2002.
Another drawback: DOE’s doomsday dump is located above a major Western aquifer. And, despite early scientific assurances, the dumpsite leaks – millions of tiny fissures in the volcanic rock would allow corrosive water to drip onto the stored casks. The canisters will have to be retrofitted with titanium drip shields to resist the corrosive impact of this slow, acidic drizzle.
Government engineers have promised that these casks can last 270,000 years but according to Nevada’s Robert Loux his engineering studies show the casks could corrode within as little as 500 years.
If any of the caskets containing any of the 77,000 tons of high-level waste were to crack, the contaminated wastes would spill into the fissured rocks. The migrating plumes of pollution would move inexorably in the direction of critical Western aquifers.
Is any of this a matter of concern to 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, Mr. Bush raised the checkered flag, indicating that he 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 openly admits that there could be as many as 900 “accidents” involving these nuclear shipments over 30 years. Department of Energy officials have confided that radioactive shipping accidents are “inevitable.”
If a single truck were to lose 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 that the clean-up costs could reach $620 million. If the accident (or terrorist attack) occurred in an urban location, the entire city would be rendered unlivable. The decontamination costs would top $9.5 billion.
Trailer-tractor accidents and train derailments are in the news nearly every day. The DOE, however, says that there is little danger since its caskets are crash-proof and fire-proof. The US Conference of Mayors is not reassured. One June 18, the mayors called on the DOE to halt its plans to ship HLW 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 took an hour before the fire departments were notified. It took nearly three hours 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 caskets 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. Between 4,972 and 31,824 would have died of cancer as a result. The cleanup costs would have approached $14 billion.
‘Deregulating’ the Danger
Despite the call for heightened security in the face of the post-September terrorist threat, the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) are actually planning to relax safety regulations governing these nuclear shipments. The NRC has publicly conceded that the new rules will “reduce” public health and safety.
Under the joint DOT/NRC plan, hundreds of radioactive isotopes – including isotopes of plutonium, strontium and cesium – would be exempted from regulatory controls. The plan would allow the industry to ship the wastes in cheaper, stripped down single-shell caskets – instead of the sturdier double-shell models currently required.
Agency officials explain that the scheme to “deregulate” nuclear waste shipments was written before the September 11 attacks. 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 public has until July 29 to respond to this deregulation plan.
Facing – and Fumbling – the Terrorist Threat
The agency entrusted with safeguarding these rolling terror targets is the DOE’s Transportation Security Division (TSD). It is staffed not by highly trained military personnel but by civilian federal employees.
In simulation tests 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 literally 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: “3 losses and no wins.” The results of the second simulation: “3 looses and 1 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 that 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 that the Pentagon has released more than 100,000 rounds 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 that “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.”
Is There A Nuclear Route Near Your Home? Check the Map!
If you live in the US, you can see how close these shipment would come to your neck of the woods by checking the customized Nuclear Waste Route Maps posted on the Internet [www.mapscience.org].
A check for The-Edge’s office in downtown Berkeley turned up some alarming information (see map). More than 7 million Californians live within a mile of the proposed routes (not to mention 150 hospitals and 1,567 schools). Shipping the waste through California would require 14,479 truckloads and 13,690 trainloads. Each year in California, there are, on average, 313 fatal tractor-trailer crashes and 388 train wrecks.
The Senate Is Set to Vote. Make Your Voice Heard
In 1996, the nuclear industry spent tens of millions on ads and political pay-outs in an attempt to amend The Nuclear Waste Policy Act to jump-start this nuclear juggernaut. President Clinton’s promise to veto the bill brought the industry’s campaign to a screeching halt.
Clinton’s veto threat kept Mobile Chernobyl stuck in traffic until the last day of his administration. But George W. Bush – running as the “Un-Clinton” candidate – has made good on his pledge to advance the fortunes of Big Oil, Big Coal and Big Nukes.
The pressure is on. The US Senate is expected to vote on authorizing the Yucca Mountain nuclear dump immediately after the senators return from the July Fourth holidays. The vote will be a vote on “states-rights” since a “yes” vote requires overriding the protests of Governor of Nevada and the objections of the Western Shoshone Nation.
What You Can Do Call your senators at the US Capital Switchboard [(202) 224-3121, or toll-free at 1(888) 554-9256, 8-5PM central time zone]. For more information: www.citizen.org, www.nvantinuclear.org, www.nukewatch.com, www.nirs.org/dontwasteamerica, www.ieer.org.