Web Map Shows Nuclear Waste Shipping Routes

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
June 11, 2002

Behind the U.S. controversy over building a permanent storage facility for nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, are major concerns about not only the long-term safety of the site but also the cross-country transport of thousands of tons of radioactive waste.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington-based nonprofit organization, has created an interactive map to show Americans how close they live to a potential nuclear waste shipping route.

"One in seven Americans live within one mile of the proposed routes for shipping highly radioactive nuclear waste to Nevada," the group said in unveiling its interactive Nuclear Waste Route Atlas Tuesday. Based on a visitor's street address, the site generates a map showing the closest proposed nuclear transport routes.

The White House, for instance, is 1.1 miles (1.8 kilometers) from what might be the nearest nuclear waste route. There are 153 schools within a mile of the proposed route through the District of Columbia.

"Before Congress locks us into shipping high-level nuclear waste through 44 states, people along the routes ought to know. Right now they just have no idea," said Richard Wiles, senior vice president of EWG.

"This mapping program," he added, "will make it real for people."

Wiles said EWG doesn't have an official position on the feasibility or desirability of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project, which would begin in 2010 if approved. Yet there are risks from traffic accidents, train derailments, and the potential for shipments to be targeted by terrorists. And in the end, there will still be nuclear waste sites scattered across the country.

EWG estimates that about 45,662 metric tons of nuclear waste are now stored at 72 commercial and five U.S. Department of Energy sites across the country. If the Yucca Mountain project is completed, once it has reached its capacity, projected 38 years from now there will still be 42,416 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel at other U.S. sites. Twenty-five nuclear power plants will have more nuclear waste at their sites than they do now. Many others will have only slightly reduced amounts.

Thorny Political Decision

Spent fuel removed from nuclear reactors remains radioactive for longer than 10,000 years. When first removed from the core of a reactor, the spent-fuel rods are stored in cooling pools for up to five years before they can be removed and repackaged.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, as spent-fuel repositories neared their capacity, utility companies started moving cooled fuel to dry-cask storage facilities above ground, where the waste can be stored for 50 to 90 years.

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