Yucca Mountain Bound

I thought I really have to care about the plan to stash our country’s nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain. I mean, the place is all the way in Nevada, which might as well be Mars as far as most of us here in Virginia are concerned.

Then I found out some of the North Anna nuclear power plant’s waste would be passing through downtown Fredericksburg, a half-mile from where I work and less than a mile from where I live.

Suddenly, Yucca Mountain became a hot issue for me.

And it should be for lots of other people, too, because if the Bush administration’s proposal for the Nevada site is approved by the Senate (a vote is expected this week), tens of millions of Americans_including nearly 600,000 Virginians_will be in my shoes: They’ll be living or working within a mile of a possible nuclear-waste transport route. (To find out whether you live or work near a proposed route, visit <www.mapscience.org>.)

Oddly enough, the government hasn’t demonstrated much concern over how to ship the radioactive waste to a remote part of Nevada. “What I find most shocking about the Yucca Mountain project is that [the Department of Energy] has no plan to transport spent nuclear fuel to its proposed repository,” Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, testified in Congress on May 23.

In fact, the Department of Energy is at least a year away from coming up with any detailed plan on how the waste shipments will get to Yucca Mountain, or how population centers along the routes might be affected, The Associated Press reports.

The Navy and a handful of utilities currently ship about 60 loads of highly radioactive waste across short distances each year, according to the AP.

But those shipments_dubbed “mobile Chernobyls” by critics of the Yucca Mountain project_will climb dramatically under the Bush plan. According to the Environmental Working Group, there would be 619 radioactive shipments through Virginia alone over the 38-year life span of the project if the waste is moved mostly by rail, and more than 7,000 shipments if the waste is shipped mostly by truck.

Since dozens of nuclear power plants cannot ship directly by rail, a combination truck-rail solution would be likely (with some barge shipments thrown in for good measure). The upshot would be tens of thousands of nuke shipments across our country in the coming decades.

(Fun fact: The U.S. Public Interest Research Group reports that folks stuck in a traffic jam for an hour next to a nuke-transporting truck would receive a radiation dose that’s the equivalent of getting a chest X-ray_something generally not advised for children and pregnant women.)

Shipping distances also would be far greater than they are now, since most of the waste would have to be sent from east of the Mississippi to the Nevada site. U.S. PIRG estimates that the average shipping distance would be over 2,000 miles.

DOE has expressed full confidence in the shipment casks designed to carry the waste, but tests by the government’s Sandia National Laboratory have concluded that the containers could be penetrated by a missile or other high-energy weapon. And DOE has admitted that last year’s rail-tunnel fire in Baltimore was severe enough to have caused the release of radioactive material had one of the nuclear-waste casks been involved.

There are also conflicting assessments of the number of people who would die if one of those casks did leak. DOE’s worst-case scenario predicts 48 radiation-related deaths in a terrorist incident and five such deaths in a serious truck accident. But the Environmental Working Group cites experts who estimate thousands of deaths over time if a radiation release occurred in an urban area.

Yucca Mountain proponents argue we’d enjoy greatly increased security from having our nuclear waste stored in a central facility. But after the shipments to Yucca Mountain end, in 2048, there still will be nearly the same amount of nuclear waste at power plants as there is today, the Environmental Working Group says. Virginia, for example, now has 1,732 metric tons of nuclear waste; that figure would remain at 1,266 metric tons after Yucca Mountain is filled.

Since Sept. 11, the authorities have been assuring us that our nuclear waste presently is stored in safe, secure sites. If that’s the case, why is the Bush administration in such a rush to force the Yucca Mountain plan through Congress, especially when they haven’t ironed out the transportation details? Hall, the former NTSB chief, believes “they’re trying to slip this through before [the transportation questions] are focused on by the American people.”

He might be right. In any event, there are too many unanswered questions about the Yucca Mountain project for it to go forward at this time. The Senate must do the responsible thing this week and shelve the plan until DOE has done all of its homework.

Rick Mercier is a columnist for The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg.

He can be reached at rmercier@freelancestar.com


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