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Nuked Baltimore?

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

The burning railway cars that have been paralysing traffic through Baltimore and sabotaging up the main eastern transport and cyber-artery of the United States, could have been carrying spent nuclear fuel rods. The clean-up wouldn’t take weeks. It would take centuries. New Department of Energy regs allow for rail cars to carry lethal nuclear fuel.

The nuclear industry is on full emergency alert after the Baltimore debacle. It knows that years of lobbying and propaganda about the “safe” transportation of nuclear waste could go down the tubes. Answering such fears Harry Reid of Nevada, number two Democrat in the US Senate and prime opponent of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste plan, has pounced on the Baltimore disaster.

In a Senate floor speech Thursday Reid said the crash in a Baltimore tunnel near Camden Yards baseball park should slow the “mad clamor by the nuclear power industry to send nuclear waste somewhere. They don’t care where it goes, but they have focused on Nevada for the present time. And I think everyone needs to recognize that transporting dangerous materials is very difficult,” he said. “The leaking hydrochloric acid in Baltimore is nothing compared to the high-level radioactive waste proposed for the Yucca Mountain site 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. A speck the size of a pinpoint would kill a person. And we’re talking about transporting some 70,000 tons of it across America.”

Reid told his fellow senators that an estimated 60 million people would be within 1 mile of the truck and rail routes proposed to ship waste to Yucca Mountain. “What we should do with nuclear waste is leave it where it is,” he said.

The US Energy Department’s high-level nuclear waste transportation route maps were released in January, 2000 as part of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for a Geologic Repository at Yucca Mountain. These maps have been reviewed by the Nuclear Information & Research Service. The irradiated nuclear fuel from Constellation Energy Group’s (formerly Baltimore Gas & Electric’s) Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant located on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Calvert County, Maryland could be carried by heavy haul truck to the nearest CSX railhead at Chalk Point (about 67 miles from Baltimore), then transported by train through Baltimore. The DOE route map for Maryland can be viewed on the Internet at:

The DOE map does not estimate how many containers of high-level nuclear waste would travel through Baltimore on the CSX. In a 1995 report, the State of Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects identified the same railway through Baltimore as a potential high-level nuclear waste transport route from Calvert Cliffs’ twin reactors. The 1995 Nevada report identified the rail route as belonging to Conrail: Conrail then merged with CSX in 1997. The Nevada study, “High-Level Nuclear Waste Shipping Route Maps to Yucca Mountain and Shipment Number Estimates,” reported that 180 rail casks from Calvert Cliffs could travel the CSX line through Baltimore and numerous States westward on its way to Yucca Mountain, Nevada. This map can be viewed on the Internet at

Kevin Kamps, nuclear waste specialist at Nuclear Information & Resource Service estimates that “Each of the 180 rail containers of atomic waste from Calvert Cliffs could hold one hundred times the long-lasting radiation released by the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Irradiated nuclear fuel, even decades after removal from the reactor, can deliver a lethal dose of radiation in a few minutes time”, Kamps tells us. “The only thing standing between people and deadly radiation is the nuclear waste transport container, which can be breached and release radiation in a severe accident.”

The Baltimore Sun has reported that the fire in the train tunnel reached temperatures as high as 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The fire, apparently fed by flammable chemicals in the train cargo, burned out of control all day long, overnight, and well into the next day. “The inadequate U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission design criteria for high-level nuclear waste containers only calls for casks to be able to withstand a 1,475 degree fire for 30 minutes”, Kamps reports. “Obviously, this real life accident in Baltimore surpassed the NRC’s design criteria for containers that would hold deadly atomic waste. These outdated NRC criteria dates back to 1947, and haven’t been updated since, despite combustibles on the roads and rails today that burn at much higher temperatures.”

The Baltimore Sun quoted a firefighter as saying all he could see inside the tunnel was the glowing metal of train tanker cars. “It was a deep orange, like a horseshoe just pulled out of the oven.”

If it had been nuclear waste, that firefighter wouldn’t be able to look inside the tunnel. If he did, it wouldn’t be long before he was dead. Here at CounterPunch we’re willing to bet that somewhere in the “Terror Attack” scenarios stacked up in FEMA and other government agencies is one involving tunnels up and down the east coast. Now they’ve got a real-life lesson smouldering right under their noses, not so far from where the British bombarded Ft. McHenry outside Baltimore in the war of 1812, thus provoking the composition of the Star Spangled Banner. Stormed at with shot and shell? How about “glowing with nuclear waste”. CP

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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