Railroad cars carrying some 123 tons of nuclear waste glow red-hot in an infrared picture taken in Valognes (map), France, in November and released by Greenpeace International as part of an antinuclear-power campaign that included arranging protests that delayed the train's progress.
The train is hauling a so-called CASTOR convoy, named after the type of container carried: Cask for Storage and Transport Of Radioactive material. These trademarked casks have been used since 1995 to transport nuclear waste from German power plants to France for reprocessing, then back to Germany for storage.
"High-level waste is in fact hot," said nuclear energy and proliferation expert Matthew Bunn. "It doesn’t mean anything in particular in terms of how dangerous it is."
Two antinuclear activists hang from a bridge over a CASTOR train on November 7 near Morschen (map), Germany. A protest the day before drew tens of thousands, adding significant delays to the three-day trip from a processing plant in Cap de la Hague (map), France, to a storage facility in Gorleben (map), Germany.
Greenpeace International organized many of the gatherings in the wake of a German-government decision to postpone plant closings. The organization's Nuclear Reaction Weblog claimed the protests "illustrate clearly to the German government and the nuclear industry that their actions to prolong nuclear energy in Germany are taken undemocratically—without the consent of the German people."
Writing on the same blog, Rianne Teule, senior climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace International, said nuclear power "is expensive, poses an unacceptable risk to the environment and to humanity, and will not help in solving the climate problem."
A CASTOR railcar glows ominously in a thermal image, but the scene shows only that the cars' contents are warm—no hotter than a sweltering summer day—said Matthew Bunn, of Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
"The decay of these atoms in the fission products from nuclear reactors releases a fair amount of heat, so [the canister] will look red" in thermal pictures.
The CASTOR trains are always hot topics, Bunn added. "For people concerned about the whole issue of nuclear power and whether the disposal or storage of nuclear waste is safe, the trains provide an obvious political symbol."
(Related: "Radioactive Rabbit Droppings Help Spur Nuclear Cleanup.")
Image courtesy Greenpeace
Hundreds of antinuclear protesters gather near Hitzacker (map), Germany, to stall the progress of a nuclear-waste-carrying CASTOR train en route to nearby Dannenberg (map) on November 7.
Several thousand protestors blocked the tracks along the train's route, and hundreds of them had to be physically removed. Activists also chained themselves to the railway tracks, blocked a crossing in Dannenberg with a Greenpeace vehicle camouflaged as a beer truck, and even drove a flock of some 500 sheep onto the tracks.
Photograph by Michael Probst, AP
Wheels on Fire
A nuclear-waste railcar glows red in a thermal image taken at a railway station in Valognes, France, in November.
While the heat shown in these thermal pictures poses no danger, Bunn said, there are two potential problems associated with moving nuclear waste by train—safety and security. "The safety issue is what might happen purely by accident. The security issue is what would happen if bad guys try to make something happen."
The nuclear waste pictured was originally spent fuel from German power plants. Reprocessing at Cap de la Hague, France, stripped the material of uranium and plutonium, which might have future fuel use. The remainder was made into a solid glass matrix for transport and eventual storage back in Germany.
Image courtesy Greenpeace
CASTOR containers, filled with processed radioactive waste, sit at a temporary storage facility in Gorleben, Germany, after the long train trip from France.
The CASTOR railroad cars and containers are extremely strong—but some level of risk remains with the transport of nuclear waste, Bunn said.
"What happens if an accident happens that is worse than [the casks] were designed to cope with—a higher-speed accident or a very hot fire?" he asked. "That's the safety issue.
"The security issue is an attack," Bunn continued. "What if somebody takes a rocket-propelled grenade and uses it to penetrate one of those canisters?
"Some studies show that you could do that and spread a little bit of radiation. And if the train happens to be going through an urban area at the time, you could get some nasty human doses."
(Related: "Idaho, U.S. Battle Over Nuclear Waste Dump.")
Photograph by Christian Charisius, Reuters
Nuclear Waste Canister
A CASTOR full of nuclear waste is moved at a power station in Gundremmingen (map), Germany, in 2006.
Last fall German Chancellor Angela Merkel sparked controversy by extending the life spans of Germany's 17 nuclear power plants. All had been slated to shut down by 2021, but some are now scheduled to run into the 2030s.
Nuclear power, Merkel said, is a "bridge technology" to renewable energy sources. (See "Nuclear Power's Comeback" in National Geographic magazine.)
Photograph by Christof Stache, AP
A CASTOR train crosses the France-Germany border on November 10, 2003.
Harvard's Matthew Bunn said the safety of such transport systems depends on a multitude of factors, including the contents of each car, the probability and severity of any accident or attack, and the locations of any disturbances.
"These uncertainties are so large that you can easily make a case that the risk is insignificant or significant," he said, "Especially for [unknown types of] sabotage. Trying to make estimates on this kind of thing is atrociously difficult."
(Read "'Nuclear Archaeologists' Find World War II Plutonium.")