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Why We Call It 'Mobile Chernobyl'


OPPOSE S. 1287

Atomic trains and trucks are headed your way!

DOE wants to launch a rushed, ill-conceived campaign to transport tens of thousands of high-level nuclear waste shipments to Nevada with no good place to take them.

The Department of Energy is going full steam ahead with the proposed Yucca Mountain, Nevada national high-level nuclear waste repository -- despite its ever more evident shortcomings -- by lowering environmental protection standards. The unnecessary rush to centralized storage at that site would trigger the largest nuclear shipping campaign in history. 43 states would be run over by thousands of nuclear waste shipments (truck and train). 50 million people live within a ½ mile of the projected routes.

The Yucca site has been targeted for a permanent nuclear waste repository since 1987. In the mid 1990’s the nuclear utilities, the primary producers of the waste, decided to try and change existing law so that waste could be shipped to the site immediately for storage. This legislation has been dubbed the “Mobile Chernobyl” bill.

The legislation was initially introduced by the nuclear industry’s Congressional champions in 1994. Environmental and consumer advocate groups and the Clinton administration decided that this was a bad idea.

Why is the largest nuclear waste shipping campaign in history legitimately named for the worst nuclear reactor accident to date?

This high-level nuclear waste, also called irradiated fuel or the misleading industry term “spent fuel,” is mostly the fuel from a commercial nuclear power reactor -- the same material that was scattered by the Chernobyl accident.

The Chernobyl reactor exploded on April 26, 1986 and then burned for days before it was extinguished. During that time particles of highly radioactive irradiated fuel were lofted into a plume which then made “fall-out” locally and over much of Europe. The radioactivity eventually circled the Northern Hemisphere six times, and was measured here in the United States.

One of the worst-case scenarios for a transport accident with irradiated fuel would involve a breached shipping container – perhaps only partially cracked open – but which is then engulfed in flames. In this case it would not be a nuclear fire, but a high-temperature diesel fire would loft particles of irradiated fuel just like the Chernobyl plume, though on a smaller, more localized scale. Nonetheless, those affected would be affected in much the same way that Chernobyl has impacted millions of people, soil, water, food, animals….

Particles of irradiated fuel can cause a lethal exposure if concentrated – radiation levels that workers, motorists and emergency responders might face at the accident scene. Many of the plant workers and clean-up workers from Chernobyl have died. Ambulance crewmen who rescued contaminated workers at the October 1 st, 1999 nuclear accident in Japan were themselves seriously contaminated. DOE plans do little to adequately protect emergency responders or prepare them for dealing with a radiological disaster.

In lower concentrations, this contamination would cause additional cancers (both fatal and non-fatal), birth defects, genetic defects, diseases and disorders associated with lowered immunity and sterility .

Thus a really bad transport accident with irradiated fuel has the capacity to cause permanent and ongoing impacts to the environment, to people, to resources, to property.

The Department of Energy (DOE) may be contracting the transport of this deadly cargo to private contractors on the basis of a fixed price contract. This means that the contractor makes its profits by keeping the costs low. At the same time, DOE will offer complete indemnification for the contractor, removing any incentive to be sure that extra effort is put into safety, equipment or procedures that might take more time and cost more money but would lower risk and/or hazard of transporting nuclear waste.

Some people say that it is not accurate to use the name Chernobyl since the waste in the container is not the same as an actively fissioning (splitting atoms) reactor. In fact, much care has to be taken to prevent nuclear waste from “going critical” and resuming the nuclear fission reaction. While it is possible to do this, the task is monumental. This is because each and every fuel rod is different. A reactor core is like an oven of sorts – more fission in the middle, less around the edges. Thus, each rod has a unique profile because of its position while it was in the reactor core. This results in variation in how much uranium and plutonium is present that could “go critical.”

Therefore the problem of preventing criticality in a nuclear shipping cask, or a repository cask, for that matter, is one of bookkeeping. Each has to be 100% within the margin to prevent critical mass. As everyone knows, bookkeeping is subject to human error. What will be the margin of error on loading more than 10,000 containers of this deadly waste?

When the Department of Energy looks at accident rates, it includes many assumptions. The fact is, there will be accidents, probably between 200 and 350 over the course of the program if Yucca Mountain is selected. This is because of the massive number of shipping miles. The average distance is about 2,000 miles from where the waste is now stored to the Western Shoshone Land where Yucca Mountain sits. A DOE engineer stated in 1994 that he expects there will be 4 – 6 accidents that involve the release of radioactivity.

When asked how this squares with the statement in DOE’s Environmental Assessment of a Yucca Mountain repository that there would be “no significant radiological impact” from transport to the repository, the same engineer explained that since it was a national program, the radiation exposures were AVERAGED ACROSS THE ENTIRE US POPULATION. Thus, harmfully high exposures of communities to irradiated fuel particles from accidents would be considered insignificant, thanks to a little math.

Is it acceptable to you that Nevada be sacrificed for the sake of the Department of Energy’s need to fulfill contracts they signed with the nuclear utilities? Isn’t such averaging just a little too Orwellian to accept? Isn’t it “significant” if your State is permanently contaminated?

Obviously, given its inherent dangers, high-level nuclear waste transportation is not something to rush into with no good place to take the wastes. Tell DOE to put public health and the environment first, before bailing out the nuclear industry!



OPPOSE S. 1287  

For more information, contact Kevin Kamps, nuclear waste specialist at NIRS: ph. (202) 328-0002 Ph. (202) 328-0002, e-mail: