Nuclear Information and Resource Service

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Nuclear Information and Resource Service

May 6, 1999

Linda Gunter, Safe Energy Communication Council 202-483-8491 13

NBC's "Atomic Train" Explodes Myth of Safe Nuclear Waste Transport
Nuclear Industry Spins Safety "Containment Strategy" for Movie Fallout, Ignores Real Threats

Washington D.C. - NBC's "Atomic Train," a two-part miniseries airing on May 16 and 17 in which a train loaded with radioactive waste and one nuclear bomb careens out of control and ultimately explodes, depicts such a worrisome scenario that the nuclear industry has crafted a propaganda strategy to squelch debate and concerns raised by the drama.

The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the nuclear industry front group,has created a public relations nightmare for itself out of this made-for-television movie. In a document provided to the Safe Energy Communication Council (see attached), the NEI details its "containment strategy" for the airing of "Atomic Train," employing terminology more appropriate for real nuclear accidents instead of media operations and movie reviews. "We certainly do not want to provide news outlets a reason to air a "Could this happen in our town?" story," read the bulliten NEI issued to its member organizations, advising a tactic of silence on the publicity front while working behind the scenes "to arm industry employees and key external audiences" with talking points and resource materials.

"'Atomic Train' is fiction, but the threat is real," said Scott Denman, Executive Director of the Safe Energy Communication Council (SECC). "The nuclear industry is putting a 'containment strategy' on fiction instead of addressing real life threats posed by the unnecessary shipment of forty thousands tons of highly radioactive waste through 43 states to a temporary dump in Nevada. Clearly the nuclear industry would rather stifle legitimate concerns and healthy, democratic debate than confront the dangerous legacy of nuclear power."

The celluloid "Atomic Train" concept underscores a soberingly real threat to the health of hundreds of communities and the environment. If the proposed nuclear dump opens at Yucca Mountain, Nevada (for isolating high-level military and civilian nuclear waste), millions of residents in 43 states could face the prospect of up to 100,000 shipments of radioactive materials as at least 40,000 metric tons are moved by rail and road over the next 30 years. Currently being considered by Congress, H.R. 45 and S.608, dubbed the "Mobile Chernobyl" bills, would authorize an interim nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Should the Yucca Mountain project go forward, the interim dump will ultimately store the equivalent of 2.3 million Hiroshima-sized nuclear bombs.

Unfortunately, the threat of railroad disasters is all too real. According to data from the Federal Railroad Administration's Office of Safety Analysis, reported rail accidents typically number roughly 2,500 a year and increased by nearly 5% between 1997 and 1998. With approximately 3.7 accidents per million train miles each year, an accident involving a train carrying nuclear waste is more than just a statistical probability.

"Although just a movie, 'Atomic Train' sends a powerful and dramatic message about the deadly consequences if one of these thousands of planned nuclear shipments wrecks," said Michael Mariotte, Executive Director of the Nuclear Information & Resource Service. "The policy of shipping nuclear waste to an interim dump site in Nevada is fatally flawed. This highly toxic trash should not be moved until a proven safe, permanent storage method and site are found. In 1998, an overwhelming 66 percent of American voters voiced opposition to an interim storage dump at Yucca Mountain in a national survey conducted by the University of Maryland. The message of 'Atomic Train' reflects the view of most Americans, that the risks posed by a 'Mobile Chernobyl' are not worth taking."

"It's a very compelling, "could happen" kind of story," says Esai Morales, who stars in "Atomic Train" with Rob Lowe and Kristin Davis, according to NBC promotional materials. "It is relatable because it could actually take place. With all the trucks, trains and the different modes of transporting these aging nuclear warheads and increasing piles of waste, this is a very possible scenario."

Appropriately, "Atomic Train" does not have a Hollywood feel-good ending. Owing to a series of human errors, the nuclear weapon detonates. Human error will also be the most likely cause of catastrophe if nuclear waste trains begin moving materials to Nevada. Of 1,130 train collisions between 1993 and 1997, 870 were caused by human error. One quarter (25%) of derailments were also due to human error. Furthermore, such shipments are often made in secret, without alerting local authorities whose emergency personnel are not only unprepared in training and equipment, but unaware of the transportation itself.

"'Atomic Train'.. .may sound like total fiction -- but it is not," stated NBC in promotional documents for the drama. "Because of the issue of secretly transporting radioactive materials and waste is so threatening, many viewers might want to dismiss it as make-believe. That is simply not true."

View a map of nuclear transportation routes


Michael Mariotte, Mary Olson Nuclear Information & Resource Service (202) 328-0002

Dr. Marvin Resmkoff Radioactive Waste Management Associates (212) 620-0526

Robert Halatead Transportation consultant for State of Nevada Nuclear Waste Project (608) 742-3973

Auke Piersma Public Citizen Critical Mass Energy Project (202) 546-4996

Judy Treichel Nevada Nuclear Waste Project (702) 248-1127

Bob Loux, Steve Fishman State of Nevada's Nuclear Waste Project Office (775) 687-3744

Anna Aurilio U.S. PIRG (202) 546-9707

Scott Denman Safe Energy Communication Council (202) 483-8491


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