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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.

Yet dry-cask storage is not a permanent solution. What to do with the highly radioactive nuclear waste has long been the subject of heated debate.

In 1982 Congress authorized construction of a permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel. To fund it, they began collecting money from utilities that operate nuclear power plants. It was projected that the shipping of spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants, the Navy, and government-run nuclear reactors to the permanent storage facility would begin in 1998.

"Now, the nearest target date for the movement of spent nuclear fuel is 2010, and many people don't believe that will be met," said Brian O'Connell, the director of the nuclear waste program office of the National Association of Regulatory and Utility Commissioners.

The proposal to build a subterranean storage facility at Yucca Mountain, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) from Las Vegas, was approved in February by President Bush. But Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn vetoed the proposal, calling the project a product of "extremely bad science, extremely bad law, and extremely bad public policy."

The U.S. House of Representatives voted to overturn the governor's veto in May. The Senate is set to make a final decision on whether to proceed with the Yucca Mountain project in the next few weeks.

"While the government has been dilly-dallying over what is essentially a contractual obligation, a number of nuclear power plants have reached or will soon reach storage limits," said O'Connell.

"The question," he added, "comes down to: Do we leave it [spent nuclear fuel] at these 77 or so locations that were never intended to be permanent, or do we build a permanent repository in order to consolidate it all in one place?"

Remaining Uncertainties

The DOE proposal now before Congress calls for moving 77,00 tons of nuclear waste by train, truck, and barge, with a preference for rail. No specific transportation security plan is included, however.

The DOE projects that if trucks are the primary mode of transportation, about 53,300 shipments will be made. If the waste is transported under the "mostly trains" option, the agency projects around 11,000 shipments.

Opponents of Yucca Mountain have vastly different numbers. Seventeen power plants have no rail access, and once a shipment reaches Las Vegas, there is no rail connection to the mountain.

The EWG projects that 105,000 shipments will be made over the 38-year life of the Yucca Mountain project under the mostly-trucks option. If trains are the dominant mode, there will be more than 18,000 shipments by rail, plus an additional 3,000 shipments by barge or truck.

Testifying before Congress in May of this year, Robert J. Halstead, transportation adviser for Nevada's Agency for Nuclear Projects, said the trucking option translates into about 2,760 shipments of high-level nuclear waste per year—more than 27 times the 100 shipments per year that have been transported over the past 40 years.

The DOE says that if the Yucca Mountain project is approved, there will be plenty of time between now and 2010 to develop a transportation plan and train emergency workers in case of an accident.

In response to concerns about the safety of transporting the material, the energy agency cites its long-term record.

"Since the 1960s, we have safely shipped more than 2,700 spent nuclear fuel shipments over 1.6 million miles, with no harmful release of radiation," states a DOE brochure titled Spent Nuclear Fuel Transportation.

"Opponents to Yucca don't seem to understand that the stuff can't stay where it is," said O'Connell. Even if a technological solution making reprocessing fuel more economically viable is worked out, the spent fuel would still need to be shipped to a centralized reprocessing plant. England and France together make 650 shipments a year to reprocess spent fuel.

"It's a perception problem; the Japanese reprocess their spent fuel in England," said O'Connell. "The technology for transportation is available and moving it can be done and is being done."

That's not to say the efforts have been accident-free. The EWG Web site briefly describes 72 potentially risky incidents involving nuclear waste shipments from 1979 through 1996.

The Yucca Mountain project "may be a good idea, it may be a bad one," said Wiles. "What we're saying is that you're adding a significant risk by transporting spent nuclear fuel across the country, while still not solving the problem. Congress could make a decision in the next three weeks that would irrevocably commit us to the Nevada plan, and people along the routes ought to know.

"We need a solution," he said, "but putting it on the road doesn't make sense."

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