DURHAM, NC — A train carrying high-level nuclear waste between plants owned by CP&L/Progress Energy was recently boarded illegally by one or more inmates in Richmond County, NC. The incident, which occurred last month, has serious implications for a long-running battle over shipments of the "spent" nuclear fuel in the Carolinas, as well as the growing national debate over the safety of sending thousands of similar transports to a dumpsite in Nevada in future years.
Evidence of the security breach was discovered by David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned scientists, who found an NRC cover letter for a classified report on the mishap and forwarded it to North Carolina environmental group NC WARN. The Associated Press was later told by CP&L that two or more "escapees" or "inmates on work release" had jumped the train by mistake, and shortly afterward left the train after seeing a number of armed guards on board. The NC Highway patrol later said only one inmate from a nearby probation camp was involved.
The train was en route from CP&L’s Robinson plant in South Carolina, carrying waste to be stored at the Shearon Harris plant in central North Carolina. CP&L also ships waste to Harris from its two reactors near Wilmington, NC.
A CP&L spokesperson indicated to AP that the event proved its security methods are sound. However, NC WARN said today that the breach is more evidence that waste trains are not protected from terrorists. "If these people had been intending to cause serious harm, they were in perfect position to do so," said Nora Wilson, an organizer with the group. "Being scared off by armed guards after they were already on the train? That's too late."
Lochbaum commented, "Terrorists would not have boarded the train unarmed. The defenders didn't succeed in denying access, which could have led to a real problem if these had been attackers carrying explosives." An attack situation could also involve people willing to sacrifice their lives, which would make them even more dangerous.
High-level waste fuel is among the deadliest materials on Earth, and a number of federal and private studies have shown transport casks to be vulnerable to attack by various weapons — some from very long distances. An attack could release radioactive particles into the air, potentially exposing thousands of people in a populated area to levels to levels causing serious injuries, latent cancers, and possibly immediate deaths. Also, a release could cause property damage in the tens of millions of dollars over dozens of square miles. CP&L’s shipments sometimes exceed one million curies of radioactivity.
CP&L also told AP that its waste trains were a closely guarded secret, but Wilson countered that the shipments have been coming to the Harris plant for 13 years — and arrive each month. CP&L/Progress is the only U.S. utility shipping the waste fuel, and does so to avoid buying casks for storage at each generating reactor, as is done at nearly a third of the nation's reactors. For three years, the corporation has been under intense pressure from citizen groups and local officials to halt the transports, which they see as an unnecessary risk.
Recently, the Bush Administration and a number of state politicians have joined the nuclear industry in pressing for approval of the Nevada site. Scientists and environmental groups argue that politics is trumping scientific problems at Yucca, and groups such as NC WARN are demanding measures to protect the waste onsite without delay. Wilson added, "This waste is too dangerous to now be moving through Carolina communities — and too dangerous to send thousands of nuclear trucks and trains to Nevada in order to bail out the nuclear industry.”
N.C. Waste Awareness & Reduction Network
P.O. Box 61051
Durham, NC 27715-1051