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Atomic Trains Grounded

For years environmentalists have warned that shipping high-level nuclear waste across the country on rails or highways was a program fraught with peril. They pointed to the near certainty that eventually a train would derail or a truck would crash, spilling radioactive material into streams, fields or cities. They warned that the US was embarking on a path that would inevitably led to “a kind of mobile Chernobyl.” They even pointed to the possibility that the nuke trains made an inviting target for terrorists, who could turn the locomotives into a high-speed radioactive weapon that could be derailed in the heart of several of the nation’s largest cities, putting the lives of millions at risk.

These concerns were dismissed as the ravings of anti-nuke Cassandras by the Department of Energy and, to a large extent, the national press corps. Indeed, the atomic boosters had become so confident of their scheme that they were poised to greenlight the largest rail shipment of nuclear waste in US history for a 2,000 mile journey from New York to Idaho. Then came 9/11 and suddenly the anti-nuke organizers didn’t seem so hysterical after all.

The Department of Energy’s nuke train plan came to grinding to a halt, marking yet another salutory reappraisal of US environmental policy following the terrrorist attacks of September 11. The atomic waste train was scheduled to carry 125 highly radioactive nuclear fuel assemblies from West Valley, New York through ten states to Idaho. The move has now been postponed until at least April 1, 2002

“Actions speak louder than words, so although DOE will not admit it publicly, it’s clear the West Valley shipment was suspended due to terrorism and security concerns,” said Kevin Kamps of Nuclear Information & Resource Service (NIRS). “We’re relieved DOE has recognized the extreme danger this proposed shipment would have created and chose instead to suspend the shipment. But the threat such shipments pose is not going to go away in a few months. Proposals for shipping tens of thousands of high-level radioactive waste containers by train and truck through 43 States past the homes of 50 million Americans to national dumpsites in Utah and Nevada must be re-examined in light of the potential for terrorist attacks.”

The twin 20 foot-long, dumbbell-shaped metallic atomic waste containers were scheduled to leave DOE’s West Valley Demonstration Project near Buffalo as early as mid-September. But due to concerns about additional potential terrorist attacks, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham suspended DOE nuclear waste and materials shipments the day after 9/11, capitulating to concerns that environmentalists and anti-nuke groups had been raising for years.

Even so the DOE’s suspensions were only temporary. By the end of September, the Department began raising the possibility that the West Valley shipment might still roll by Halloween. Because metal gaskets on the two containers have not been certified for cold weather conditions, DOE had agreed to deliver the shipment to its Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory no later than Oct. 31 in order to avoid encountering freezing temperatures.

Then on October 7, the DOE reinstituted its suspension of nuclear waste shipments, citing concerns of potential reprisal attacks in response to the initiation of U.S. military action in Afghanistan that day. Despite this, DOE’s West Valley site director Alice Williams told the Buffalo News on Oct. 16 that the nuclear train might still roll by the end of the month despite on-going national terrorist threats. However, the very next day, orders were sent to Williams from DOE headquarters in Washington explicitly suspending the shipment until next spring, according to an Oct. 19 Buffalo News article. The two containers will now be off-loaded from the on-site railcars, where they sat outdoors since May, and will spend the winter inside the West Valley facility.

“Energy Secretary Abraham’s decision to halt this high-level nuclear waste shipment, not once, not twice, but three times clearly shows that the Energy Department itself acknowledges atomic waste trains like this one are potential terrorist targets,” said Tim Rinne, State Coordinator of Nebraskans for Peace.

“Attorney General John Ashcroft and the FBI have warned about additional terrorist attacks. Trucking firms and railroads have been put on highest alert against attacks upon hazardous and radiological shipments. Recently, airports around the Three Mile Island nuclear plant were shut down due to a terrorist threat. The DOE shipment ban should be extended indefinitely, and expanded to cover commercial high-level nuclear waste shipments as well,” said Kay Drey of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.

Despite the current shipment ban, Energy Secretary Abraham appears ready to approve the national high-level atomic waste dumpsite targeted at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. DOE closed its public comment period on the Yucca proposal Oct. 19, and has announced Abraham will make his recommendation to President Bush by the end of the year or early next year.

In recent days, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission publicly announced its “concurrence” with DOE’s Yucca Mountain siting guidelines, and in recent weeks finalized its own Yucca licensing regulations. At the same time, the NRC is reviewing a nuclear power industry license application to “temporarily store” all currently-existing irradiated fuel at the Skull Valley Goshute Indian reservation in Utah, which would launch 200 high-level atomic waste trains per year throughout the country as early as 2004.

“It is hypocritical for DOE to put the brakes on the West Valley shipment while rushing ahead to give its thumbs up to Yucca Mountain,” said Dave Ritter, policy analyst at Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “Approval of the Yucca Mountain repository proposal would launch tens of thousands of high-level atomic waste trucks and trains onto our roads and rails. Inadequately addressing potential terrorist threats to such shipments is rash, irresponsible, and reckless.”

DOE studies show that 50 million Americans in 45 States live within a half mile of projected highway and train routes to Yucca Mountain.

Critics also point to an Aug. 27, 1998 letter written by Abraham, then a U.S. Senator from Michigan, to then-Energy Secretary Bill Richardson regarding plutonium shipments. In the letter, Abraham wrote “I am sure you will agree that the ramifications of an accident are too serious to consider anything less than the very best emergency response preparedness.”.

“Just as police and firefighters were on the front line of the 9/11 attacks, so would emergency responders be called upon to protect our communities in the event of an atomic waste transport accident or terrorist attack upon a shipment,” said Chris Williams, executive director of Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana. “They need to be thoroughly trained and well equipped to deal with radiation emergencies, and not caught off-guard as our government agencies have been by the bio-terrorism attacks.”

Greens want the NRC to address terrorist threats to atomic waste transport containers. Commercial high-level atomic waste shipments, such as those to Carolina Power and Light’s Shearon Harris reactor storage pools in North Carolina, have continued to roll despite the DOE ban.

In a Sept. 21 response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission admitted that “the capacity of shipping casks to withstand such a [large aircraft] crash has not been analyzed.”

In June 1999 the State of Nevada filed a “Petition for Rulemaking” to the NRC, charging that safeguards against terrorist attacks on high-level radioactive waste shipments were woefully inadequate or non-existent. Nine state governments and the Western Governors Association endorsed the petition. Despite officially agreeing to act on the petition in Sept. 1999, the NRC has yet to do so.

“Large scale movement of radioactive waste on the roads and rails would create tens of thousands of potential targets, in virtually any scenario a terrorist might choose, whether major metropolitan areas, suburbs, or the agricultural heartland, near schools, hospitals, or water supplies,” said Corey Conn of Illinois-based Nuclear Energy Information Service. CP

 

 

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink co-written with Joshua Frank. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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