One of America’s great contemporary poets, Gil Scott-Heron – dubbed the godfather of rap – recorded one of his most iconic songs in 1977, “We Almost Lost Detroit,” about the partial meltdown at the Fermi nuclear power plant just miles from Motown. Not only Detroit, but the world was lucky the Fermi disaster was not a full-blown meltdown.
If the federal government had succeeded in its plan of opening a nuclear waste dump by 1998, Scott-Heron might’ve had to record a haunting sequel featuring another iconic, majority African-American city with a rich tradition of Black art, music, and culture—“We Almost Lost Baltimore.” Even worse, it might not have been “almost.”
In 2001, there was a major train accident in Baltimore that proved just how dangerous the government’s plan to start shipping nuclear waste across the country is. A freight train derailed on the afternoon of July 18 in the Howard Street Tunnel, a 1.7-mile underpass through Charm City’s downtown. A large number of things went wrong, creating conditions that would have been catastrophic if the train had been carrying nuclear waste, as Congress had planned.
Even though the train in the Baltimore accident didn’t have a radioactive payload at the time, it was exactly the type of freight train that would be used, and on the same railway the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) intends to transport over 140 nuclear waste shipments from the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Maryland. It demonstrates why all of DOE’s assurances that its plans for mass transportation of nuclear waste will be perfectly safe just don’t hold water.
- July 18, 2001 at 3:04 pm: A 60-car freight train entered the Howard Street tunnel in Baltimore, with several tankers full of flammable and hazardous materials.
- 3:07 pm: The brakes on the train failed, causing the train to come to a screeching stop and its cars to derail. Some of the train cars caught fire in the tunnel.
- 3:27 pm: The train drivers detached the three locomotives, and exited the tunnel.
- 4:15 pm: Baltimore Fire Department responds to the fire, and CSX notifies the State of Maryland that hazardous materials are involved.
- 5-6 pm: As the fire grew and smoke began belching from the tunnel, emergency officials ordered an evacuation of the nearby Camden Yards baseball stadium, where the Orioles were between games in a double-header. Over 5,000 people had to be evacuated from the stadium and nearby buildings during evening rush-hour.
All of this could have spelled doom if a nuclear waste shipment had also been on board. Since the 1990s, federal officials have dismissed concerns about the safety of their mass nuclear waste shipping plans.
Even in a worst-case scenario, they say, the nuclear waste containers could handle any accident you throw at them:
- A 30-foot drop
- Dropping them 3 feet onto a metal pole
- Immersion in 50 feet of water for an hour
- 30 minutes in a 1475 F fire
Here’s the problem: even if nuclear waste casks can withstand those tests, they are hardly the worst-case scenarios. The Howard Street Tunnel fire proved that.
Temperatures from the fire reached 1600 F or higher, for perhaps 24 hours or more – far hotter and longer than what nuclear waste casks are supposed to be designed for. The fact that the train derailed and caught fire underground also made it nearly impossible for emergency responders to get control of quickly. Emergency responders didn’t even know what was on the train until the fire was well under way, and they didn’t know where exactly the fire was until much later than that. The fire involved tanker cars that were about a half-mile inside the 1.7 mile tunnel. It took nearly three days for crews to fully extinguish the fires, and a fourth day to finish removing the wreckage from the tunnel, as smoke and gases from the fire poured out of the tunnel.
Radioactive Waste Management Associates published a report in September 2001 that found, if one of the DOE’s nuclear waste casks had been on that train, it would have burst and significant amounts of radioactive materials would have been released. Within 5-12 hours, the fire would have caused the seals on the nuclear waste cask to break down, and the steel walls of the cask to weaken. The paper-thin cladding of the nuclear fuel rods would have burst, releasing the radioactive materials inside. That would include cesium-137, one of the most intensely radioactive isotopes, which evaporates at such high temperatures and can spread far into the surrounding area.
The cost in human lives and environmental cleanup would have been devastating:
- Dozens of people would have died of cancer from radiation exposures on the day of the accident.
- Between 4,401 and 28,164 people would have died of cancer within 50 years.
- A 60-square mile area would have been contaminated.
- Cleanup costs would have totaled $13.7 billion.
That could all happen with a single shipment, with just a single nuclear waste cask. Fortunately, there was no nuclear waste cask on that train. Federal law doesn’t allow the DOE to start transporting it until there is a functioning repository to isolate it in, which does not exist. The one site the agency selected – Yucca Mountain, in Nevada – turned out to be both totally unsuitable for storing nuclear waste, and people and politicians in Nevada have vowed to do everything they can to stop it. (Thank you, Nevada!)
The federal government needs to put Yucca Mountain to rest and start the process of finding a technically, scientifically, and morally sound location. Once selected, the DOE will have to choose a safer, more secure plan for moving the waste. In the meantime, there are ways to store nuclear waste much more safely and securely than it is now, primarily Hardened On-Site Storage at nuclear reactor sites.
One of the primary lessons of the Baltimore tunnel fire is that rushing to put thousands of nuclear waste shipments onto our roads and rails wouldn’t just be putting the radioactive cart before the horse, it would be jumping from the frying pan into fire.
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