High Level Radioactive Waste
If a high-level nuclear waste dump opens in Nevada, the Department of Energy (DOE)'s transportation proposal indicates that approximately 49,500-96,500 truck & 300 rail under the mostly truck scenario or 10,800-19,800 rail & 2,600-3,700 truck shipmentsunder the mostly rail scenario will move through 43 states on our nation's interstates and railways from civilian nuclear power plants over the next 30 years. At least 109 cities with populations over 100,000 plus thousands of smaller communities could be affected by such shipments. Additionally, hundreds, if not thousands of shipments of high-level radioactive waste will be added to the waste stream as the DOE begins to clean-up its toxic legacy at its bomb-making sites. Waste will travel through populated cities such as: Las Vegas, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Denver and Salt Lake. Accidents will happen. With a severe accident, radioactive waste will contaminate homes, neighborhoods, and major business centers. Is your local community prepared? Are there alternatives? Let's look at the facts.
NUMBER OF ACCIDENTS
If all spent fuel were to be shipped to Yucca Mountain by truck in large capacity (GA 4/9) casks, requiring a minium of 46,000 shipments and over 100 million shipment miles, between 70 and 310 accidents and over 1,000 incidents would be expected over the operating life of the dump.
In a severe accident, an invisible cloud of radionuclides would be lofted into the air and carried downwind. Only radiation detectors would sense this odorless, tasteless and invisible cloud. People downwind would inhale materials from the passing cigar-shaped cloud, or be directly exposed to radiation from the passing cloud or fallout deposited on the ground. Fallout would contaminate waste, milk and produce, as occurred throughout Europe from the Chernobyl accident. The fallout will remain radioactive for centuries.
A typical ten year old spent fuel assembly from a Pressurized Water Reactor contains 26,000 curies of strontium -90, enough to sufficiently contaminate twice the volume of water in Lake Mead (23 trillion gallons).
According to a DOE contractor (Sandquist '85), a worst case accident in a rural area could contaminate 42 sq. miles, require 460 days to clean and cost over $620 million, depending on the quantity of the waste and the severity, location, weather, emergency response, and human error factors of the accident. According to the same report, the cost of the accident clean-up in an urban area would be ten times greater and require four years to clean up.
Spent fuel is so highly radioactive that with no shipping cask or shielding, a person standing within 3 ft. of irradiated fuel would receive a lethal dose in less than ten seconds. Waste handlers, drivers and the general public will be exposed to radiation even during routine (non-accident) conditions. Federal regulations allow shipping casks to emit 10 millirems/hr. of low-level radiation standing 6 feet from the cask surface, equivalent to one chest x-ray per hour of exposure, even though the health effects of low-level radiation exposure are poorly understood. When waste transport vehicles are caught in heavy traffic, cars and other vehicles in close proximity are exposed to increased gamma radiation. Each dose of radiation increases the probability that cancer and genetic effects can happen. The DOE estimates that 15 extra cancer deaths will result from individuals driving near a truck transporting waste.
Nuclear transportation trucks are not immune to attack. While spent fuel casks are designed to withstand accident stresses, their vulnerability to intentional damage is an open question. In some cases, guards are used during shipments and, in all cases, shipping data is kept secret. Commercially available shaped charges (used in oil drilling and rocket boosters) exist with the potential for piercing and burning nuclear fuel into dispersible powder. The present policy of maintaining secrecy around shipping dates and routes only hides the shipment from public eyes; such information could easily be obtained by a dedicated individual or terrorist group.
NEW CASK DESIGNS (GA4/9)
A current cask
The casks that might be used in a repository shipping campaign are currently being determined. The GA4/9 design has been licensed, but not fabricated. None of the designs have been full-scale tested. How these casks will perform in real world accident situations is uncertain.
SHIPPING CASK PERFORMANCE
The NRC has no requirement for the actual testing of full-scale casks to determine how they perform, but allow cask designers to substitute scale-model tests and computer simulations in place of full-scale testing. A cask is required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to be able to withstand, in succession, the following four tests: a drop from 30 ft onto an unyielding surface; a drop from 6 ft on to a spike; a 30 min. fire at 1425 degrees F.; and a 30 min. submersion in 3 ft. of water. Whether these tests would ensure that the casks are safe is a serious question. Many accidents resulting in fires burned for over 30 min. The Caldecott Tunnel Fire of 1982 lasted over two hours, nearly 45 minutes of which was at temperatures above regulatory standards. Between 1971-1982, 11 train fires burned longer than nine hours, and one continued for seven days. The spectacular crash and burn films shown by the DOE and the nuclear industry to demonstrate cask safety used films of obsolete casks (withdrawn from service) being tested in the '70's to validate computer models. Although those tests were successful for the purpose of validation of computer models, the tests were not intended to simulate worst-case accidents or to prove the overall safety of spent fuel shipments.
Who would be first on the accident scene? Local fire, police and emergency personnel, are not trained nor equipped to cope with radiological emergencies. Emergency reponders will meet for the first time at the accident scene. The accident scene may be one of confusion, as in a 1977 train accident in Rackingham, North Carolina, involving two tankers of uranium hexaflouride and ammonium nitrate that caught fire in the derailment. The station master panicked and called every emergency phone number he could locate. Seventeen federal, state, and local agencies reponded. Ten separate emergency plans went into effect, but each agency operated independently, and on different radio frequencies. No identifiable and recognized command post was established. One agency detected leakage and called the fire fighters off; another agency said no radiation was detected, and the fire fighters resumed activities. It took 24 hours to clear the tracks.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
Unnecessary shipments should be eliminated and the radioactivity levels reduced. This is possible if waste remains on site where it is produced. With time, the radioactivity levels decline, fuel cools and safety margins for transport and disposal are correspondingly increased. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has stated spent fuel can remain on-site in dry storage for at least 100 years. U.S. Senator Richard Bryan introduced a bill offering economic incentives for utilites to develop on-site dry cask storage facilities.
With utilities able to store irradiated fuel indefinitely, Congress and the nuclear power industry do not need to force it on Nevada, at Yucca Mountain, where studies have revealed it to be geologically unsound. Future technologies may come up with a better solution for the waste already created. As to the future of waste production, we urge you to call your state senators and the president and demand that an independent review of our nation's nuclear policy take place soon. We already have a problem. Let's not make it bigger.
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