Mobile Chernobyl:

Rolling nuclear thunder trucking down a highway near you

Special to The Progressive Populist

In five short decades, human technology has created a toxic monster that will remain deadly for millions of years. For no reason other than political expedience, the U.S. government is brokering a deal that transfers liability for nuclear generator waste from private utilities to the public. At the same time, this deal would expose us to enormous health and safety risks by mandating the transportation of lethal cargo on public roads and rails.

The toxic beast is the growing stockpile of high-level nuclear waste, 95 percent of which has been created by the nation's 107 operating and 11 shut-down nuclear power plants. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which is charged with disposing of the nation's nuclear trash pile, so far approximately 34,000 metric tons have accumulated, and approximately 2,000 more are produced each year.

This waste, which doesn't include other kinds of nuclear refuse, comes from the uranium fuel that splits atoms to generate the steam that produces electricity in the fission process. This makes the fuel highly radioactive and thermally hot, and after two to three years it becomes depleted and needs to be replaced. At that point the spent fuel must stay under 40 feet of water for at least five years before it is cool enough to go anywhere else. According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), most of the nation's nuclear power plants were not designed with storage capacity for all the spent fuel generated by their reactors. Cooling pools at a dozen of the nation's plants are already full, and those at another dozen are expected to reach capacity within three years.

This fact, plus increasing stories of radiation leaks contaminating groundwater around several plants, radioactive emissions into the air, and the general uneasiness of having tons of intensely radioactive garbage around communities throughout the country, is fueling pressure for a solution. But the solution the nuclear industry and government are offering has the environmental and public interest communities on red alert, because they maintain it is ill-conceived, dangerous and bound to be excessively costly.

The current vision is to consolidate the nation's high-level nuclear waste in one place and bury it far underground. There, according to Mike Raddatz, senior policy manager in the NRC's Spent Fuel Licensing Section, it is meant to be "out of the effective biosphere." Only one site, Yucca Mountain, nearly 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada, is being considered for permanent high-level nuclear waste storage.

Controversy rages over the suitability of Yucca Mountain, because, among other things, it has 35 earthquake faults running under it, and several scientists suspect the mountain would not contain the radioactivity if the waste was buried there. Despite escalating scientific evidence and vehement opposition from the state of Nevada, the Western Shoshone Nation whose land it is and environmental groups, DOE is continuing to study the viability of the site for permanent storage.

Meanwhile, a bill that passed both houses of Congress last year would send high-level nuclear waste rolling out of the nation's 118 power plants and handful of nuclear weapons facilities onto public roads and rail lines to tomporary storage at the Nevada Test Site next to Yucca Mountain. Mary Olson, a nuclear waste specialist with the Nuclear Information & Resource Service (NIRS), describes the interim storage facility as nothing more than a parking lot-type structure, "a concrete slab with a cement cover."

Transportation under "Mobile Chernobyl," as the bill is known by opponents, would begin in 2002 and take 30 years of continuous shipments to move the estimated 85,000 metric tons of high-level waste that will have accumulated by the time all the nation's nuclear power plants reach the end of their expected life spans.

As Marvin Resnikoff, a nuclear physicist and engineer who has worked with the state of Nevada, says, we are not talking about peanut butter but the deadliest substance known to humanity. In just three minutes, an unshielded 10-year-old fuel assembly gives off enough radiation to kill somebody standing three feet from it. Thirty seconds' exposure at the same distance significantly increases the risk of cancer or genetic damage.

There are no plans to build specially designated transport routes, so the toxic trash would travel by truck with us in traffic down main roads through or around most cities within 43 states. By train, the lethally hot cargo will ride with ordinary cargo. Fifty million people live within half a mile of the proposed routes.

Cruising down public thoroughfares presents two problems: radiation exposure to nearby drivers and the risk of accidents. Current radiation standards allow 100 millirems per hour to come through the container -- the equivalent of 10 chest X-rays an hour. Accounting for the distance between the truck and an adjacent vehicle, the exposure would be closer to one X-ray an hour. This presents particular risks to pregnant women, children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems.

Department of Transportation data tell us nearly 100,000 accidents involving trucks released some form of toxic material in the U.S. and its territories in the past 10 years. Considering the number of shipments needed to move 3,000 tons of nuclear waste a year, as Mobile Chernobyl requires, the consumer group Public Citizen estimates 210 to 354 accidents over the next 30 years, an average of seven to 12 accidents a year. Of those, over the 30-year duration of the program, Olson says DOE officials privately expect three to five to be catastrophic involving the release of large amounts of radioactive material into the environment.

The casks carrying the glowing garbage are not physically tested, since that is not required, she says, and current regulations don't consider all plausible accident scenarios. No type of crushing incident, typical in a train derailment, is considered. Instead, quarter-scale models are hurled against flat, immovable surfaces, a situation that doesn't occur in the real world.

By DOE's calculations, a realistic scenario including a high-speed crash with a fire emitting a relatively small amount of radiation would contaminate 42 square miles, take 462 days to clean up and cost up to $19.4 billion, depending on how stringent the cleanup standards are.

NRC admits cracks due to faulty welding are starting to appear in some of the casks storing spent fuel at nuclear plants in Michigan and Arkansas. NRC's Raddatz claims the problems will be taken care of and that any leaking cask can be emptied and replaced back in the fuel pool, though he would hesitate to require that because of the utility's cost to junk and replace a cask. The cheapest models run between $500,000 and $750,000.

Olson contends nobody knows how to unload a damaged cask full of intensely radioactive spent fuel, and the issue is currently one of NRC's biggest nightmares. Before the cask can return to the fuel pool, it must be filled with liquid coolant so that the cask's outer cover can be cut away. But the 700 degree F fuel temperature turns the liquid into radioactive steam, which is likely to escape from the plant. Because of these unresolved problems, she says a cask with a small crack that officials at Palisades Nuclear Power Plant in Michigan wanted to unload remains sitting on the premises.

Olson's other concerns about dry storage casks include their basic design. Casks are licensed for 20 years, up to a maximum of 100, with an additional 20-year grace period. Without liquid coolant, she explains, the decaying radioactivity of the fuel rods continues to generate heat, approaching temperatures reached in a reactor's core. This could weaken the cask's cladding and destroy the millimeters-thin zirconium alloy tubes that keep the ceramic fuel pellets vertically stacked. Three elements -- the ceramic form of the pellets, the cladding, and the geometric arrangement of the pellet-filled rods -- contain the intense radioactivity in the cask and keep it from reaching critical mass. When casks are mobile, they are more vulnerable to unpredictable occurrences, and she says the outcome of a road or rail accident could very much depend on what is going on inside the container at the time.

Both DOE and NRC insist transporting nuclear waste is safe, emphasizing that none of the 2,500 shipments that have taken place so far have had any problems. That figure includes moving nuclear waste from the cooling pool to the on-site storage area, which Olson points out, is not comparable to a 2,000-mile journey.

According to the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), the union representing the nation's 225,000 professional firefighters and associated paramedics -- those likely to be the first to respond to a nuclear road or rail accident -- no nationally coordinated emergency response strategy is planned to deal with the huge increase in nuclear shipments mandated under Mobile Chernobyl. IAFF spokesperson George Burke says training will be offered, but local fire departments are not obligated to take it. Nor must they have the necessary equipment enabling emergency responders to get close enough to a nuclear accident to be able to do anything about it. There's no federal mandate for fire departments, he says, adding that many along the proposed transport routes are just small volunteer operations, some of which are "woefully unprepared."

Despite the growing mountain of nuclear waste at power plants across the country, most environmental groups say there is no urgent reason to move it anywhere until a permanent solution is found, and we aren't even close.

Auke Piersma, an energy policy analyst at Public Citizen, says the dates mandated in legislation since 1982 for finding a final solution for nuclear waste were arbitrarily chosen for political reasons, and in fact went against recommendations at the time of scientists from DOE, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Technology Assessment, and NRC.

"Nuclear waste lasts a million years. It's deadly for that period of time, and there's nothing anybody can do to shorten that -- physics is physics," Piersma says. "So the answer becomes 'don't do anything stupid with it.' And stupid is sending it off to be buried into a mountain and hoping it stays there for that million years."

President Clinton has vowed to veto the legislation when it gets to his desk, but it is not certain whether there will be enough votes in Congress to sustain his veto.

Normally, once legislation passes both houses of Congress, it goes to a conference committee where it is melded into one piece of legislation that is then presented to the president. Because of the intense opposition by the Nevada politicians, this legislation is not taking that course, which would present ample opportunities for a filibuster. Instead, it is likely to go into a "pre-conference," where the details of the bill are hashed out in private. Despite the irregularity of this course, Mary Olson says it is not illegal.

At press time, the bill was expected to come up in Senate again in early May. She suggests people write to their senators, congressmembers and President Clinton. To keep current with this issue, check out NIRS' website on the Internet at For maps of proposed nuclear waste transportation routes, see the website

Karen Charman is a New York-based investigative reporter specializing in environmental and health issues.

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