Lines drawn in battle over storage of nuclear waste
The trains and trucks could be targets of terrorist attacks or fall victim to accidents, opponents warn. Radiation could then leak into the air from the sealed containers, killing thousands, they argue.
Impartial scientists, engineers and terrorism experts, however, have concluded that such a disaster is extremely unlikely. Nevertheless, a major radiation leak would be a catastrophe, and America will have to live with its decision about how to dispose of its nuclear trash virtually forever.
In one of the most far-reaching decisions it will ever make, Congress must decide whether the waste, which is lethally radioactive for millions of years, should be shipped by road and rail to Yucca Mountain starting around 2010 or whether it should remain in temporary storage facilities that are within a two-hour drive of 165 million Americans.
The House of Representatives voted 306-117 yesterday to approve President Bush's Yucca Mountain plan. The vote sets the stage for a July showdown in the Senate, where opponents of Yucca Mountain are making their last stand.
It's a long shot. Opponents think they have only about 34 Senate votes so far, and they need 51. More than 40 senators have indicated they will support putting the waste site at Yucca. That leaves perhaps 24 up for grabs.
Both sides have spent big money. Over the past decade, the Nuclear Energy Institute and its industry members contributed $29.2 million in "soft money," or unregulated cash, to the two big political parties, according to the watchdog group Common Cause.
The gambling industry has contributed $21 million in soft money to the two parties since 1992. In addition, the American Gaming Association, headed by former Republican Party Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf, has set aside $500,000 for an anti-Yucca Mountain lobbying and advertising campaign that reportedly will cost more than $5 million.
The debate largely breaks along partisan lines, with Bush and nuclear-friendly Republicans confronting a green-leaning Democratic Party.
But several Democrats support burying the nation's nuclear waste at Yucca because that would remove it from their own back yards. This makes it hard to forge a solid environmentalist-Democratic coalition against Yucca.
After more than 50 years in the nuclear era, the nation has already accumulated vast amounts of radioactive waste, which will remain lethal for millions of years. It's stored at temporary sites in 39 states. The Bush administration wants to haul it all to Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles north of Las Vegas, and bury it there for 10,000 years.
The administration's plan would require shipping nuclear waste about 1.1 million miles every year, mostly across rural areas. Still, more than 125,000 of those miles would be through populous suburbs and cities. The casks that contain the wastes are designed to withstand almost any shock, and the nature of the waste itself helps ensure that it's unlikely to threaten public safety even if it's released.
The storage casks feature layers of steel and lead several inches thick. They're designed to withstand being dropped from 30 feet, impaled on a spike, then plunged into water. They must withstand temperatures of 1,475 degrees for 30 minutes. Even so, skeptics note that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) tests only parts of the containers, and relies on computer models to test their overall strength.
The waste itself is solid ceramic, which means it could not be dispersed as easily as a liquid or a gas. University of Georgia toxicologist Cham Dallas, who consults with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on nuclear-incident health preparations, said that if the casks were breached, "nothing is going to happen" because of the waste's physics.
"It's a metallic waste. It just goes right to the ground," Dallas said. "It's just not mobilized and thrown up in the atmosphere like we used to think it would be."
Even if the waste somehow were changed into smaller particles — by fire, for example — the pieces would be so big they couldn't be inhaled, he said.
Opponents, however, cited a 1982 incident as a cautionary tale.
At that time, nuclear waste was shipped in containers filled with air, which reacts more with spent nuclear fuel than the nitrogen that fills the casks now.
In one shipment back then, a nuclear-fuel rod cracked and heated up. When it was unloaded, scientists found much of it had turned to fine powder similar to talcum, said Lindsay Audin, an energy consultant hired by Nevada to help fight the Yucca project.
A missile attack on a nuclear waste truck in an urban area could release enough radiation to give 1,820 people lethal doses of cancer, according to two reports that Nevada will release next week. That number could grow tenfold if missiles blew two holes in a cask, which would give better airflow. That could lead to a reaction with oxygen that would turn the waste into a powder that could be inhaled, the reports say.
Yet most terrorism experts interviewed said a terrorist attack on a nuclear convoy would be too difficult to coordinate.
Moving 175 shipments of nuclear waste a year would offer more targets, experts conceded. But the shipments would be so well-protected and hard to find that a successful attack would be harder than the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center were, said Rusty Capps, a former top FBI counterintelligence official who's now president of The Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies in Virginia.
The nuclear industry cites Europe's long record of safe waste shipments.
"This material has been moved far more in Europe than in this country, and terrorism has been known in Europe on a small scale far longer than in this country. And it's never been a target in Europe," said Steve Kraft, fuels manager for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's Washington lobby.
America's experience isn't so comforting, Yucca opponents said.
They noted that the NRC doesn't require armed guards on waste convoys except through urban areas. Federal officials had feared that al-Qaida was surveying U.S. nuclear plants.
While guards may stop terrorists, they can't stop accidents, and accidents do happen.
The Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste repository would require trains to carry radioactive waste more than 1 million miles a year, and trucks with similar loads would add another 100,000 miles, according to the Department of Energy.
The current U.S. accident rate for trains and trucks suggests there would be nearly 100 rail accidents and one or two truck accidents over the 24 years the Yucca facility would be accepting waste.
Still, no harmful radiation is likely to leak in those accidents, according to an NRC statistical analysis, as well as outside experts. Since 1960, 5 million pounds of spent nuclear fuel has been hauled 1.6 million miles across the country. Eight accidents have occurred in that time. No radiation has ever been released.
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