Transporting Nuclear Waste May Be Bumpy Ride
By Jennifer Brown, Staff Assistant
The U.S. Congress has approved locating the nation's nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain and President Bush signed the legislation this week. But the question remains, how will spent nuclear reactor fuel be safely and efficiently shipped to Nevada?
The Energy Department (DOE) intends to ship about 95 percent of the spent fuel by rail.
That means routes would not be regulated by the federal or state governments, said Bob Halstead, the transportation advisor for the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects.
"You may see an effort by the federal government to create regulations that apply to the selection of rail routes, but the railroads are adamantly against that and will probably prevail on that issue," Halstead said.
Other options for transporting the spent fuel in the shape of small solid pellets sealed in large casks include trucks and barges, but the most likely proposal is a combination of transportation modes because Yucca Mountain does not currently have rail access.
Trucks have hauled nuclear materials for more than 30 years using routes established by the Department of Transportation. States can designate routes they want the shipments to take, but those routes are considered "preferred alternative routes" and the DOT can choose not to use them.
"You can't just go out there and create nuclear-free zones," Halstead said. "You have to show accident rates or infrastructure conditions that don't fit with nuclear waste shipments."
More than 39 states and the federal government must work together to determine modes of transportation and routes in a relationship that may recall the antagonism between John Candy and Steve Martin in "Planes, Trains and Automobiles."
The DOE included potential shipping routes in its Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), but actual routes have not been established.
The DOE has said it would work with states to develop routes, but final say belongs to the federal transportation authorities, alarming environmental groups and state officials who feel safety will be sacrificed for cost-saving and expediency.
"Instead of the safest route, they will want to take the most direct route," said Pierre Sadik, attorney with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and author of the report, "Radioactive Roads and Rails: Hauling Nuclear Waste Through Our Neighborhoods."
"To take the safer, more roundabout ways would be more expensive for the private sector haulers," Sadik said.
The state versus federal battle regarding nuclear waste is not unprecedented. South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges is currently arguing in federal court to block plutonium shipments to his state. Last year, Colorado appealed to the DOT to stop shipments of nuclear waste on I-70 west of Denver to avoid the Eisenhower and Glenwood tunnels.
In the late 1980s, Idaho used state police to block rail shipments of low-level nuclear waste into the state.
In coming years, governors and transportation officials across the country will work together to establish and agree on routes.
"Routing is the key area of dispute between DOE and the states," Halstead said. "The bottom line that we've learned is, you have to start working many years in advance to work out disputes between states about routes."
The incomplete transportation plans upset officials in Nevada who have been working to thwart the project for more than a decade.
"Nevada considers the Yucca Mountain project to be the product of extremely bad science, extremely bad law, and extremely bad public policy," Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn told Congress in his testimony this spring. "Moreover, implementing this ill-conceived project will expose tens of millions of Americans to unnecessary nuclear transport risks."
The incomplete plans also upset some environmental groups who feel the DOE has not done all of its homework yet regarding transportation.
"There's a lot to be done on the transportation aspect of this," John Corsiglia, spokesman for the Environmental Working Group, said. "We would have preferred the Senate to have a full transportation plan to approve instead of giving a blanket sign-off."