Concerned citizens groups have expressed safety concerns about a massive radioactive nuclear reactor vessel that traveled a thousand miles over the course of three weeks from northern Michigan to a burial dump in South Carolina. The shipping/burial container is a 25-foot-long, 13.5-foot-in-diameter, 3-inch-thick steel cylinder weighing 290 tons. It contains the radioactive Big Rock Point reactor vessel, in which nuclear chain reactions took place over 35 years. The shipment began Oct. 7, and arrived at the Chem-Nuclear dump in Barnwell, SC on Oct. 21. Although Consumers Energy Company claimed the shipment was “low level” radioactive waste posing zero risk to the public, and federal regulations did not require security safeguards, the shipment’s routing and schedule was kept highly secretive. Regulators required no advance notification to state governments. The actual shipment route used from Michigan and Ohio, through Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, and/or Georgia, to South Carolina has still not been made public.
During “routine” shipping conditions, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission allows one chest x-ray (10 millirems) per hour to be emitted at a distance of 6.6 feet away from the shipping container. But during accidents, NRC allows 1 rem (1,000 millirems) per hour of radiation at a distance of 3.3 feet away, a dose equal to 100 chest x-rays per hour.
“The fact that local emergency responders in several states were given little or no notification in advance of this shipment is an outrage and recklessly endangers public safety,” said Kevin Kamps of Nuclear Information and Resource Service. “Emergency responders, as well as locomotive engineers and other rail workers, would face the highest radiation doses in a transport accident, but members of the public could also be put at undue risk because of the woefully inadequate emergency preparations. Such radioactive waste shipments are like mobile x-ray machines that cannot be turned off,” Kamps concluded.
“This shipment of so-called low-level atomic waste highlights the dangers of the government’s plan to haul tens of thousands of high-level radioactive waste shipments through 45 states to a proposed dump in Nevada at Yucca Mountain,” added Kamps of NIRS. “Atlanta, for instance, would be a crossroads for many thousands of high-level radioactive waste truck and train shipments under current U.S. government plans,” Kamps concluded.
“Another concern is the poor quality of the railroad tracks that this shipment and future trainloads of high-level radioactive waste will travel,” said Kamps. “During a large part of the shipment through Michigan, this heavy load could travel only 5 miles per hour due to the poor track quality. Our fear is that high-level radioactive waste train cars, also very heavy, will travel degraded railroad tracks, risking derailment,” Kamps concluded.
Just two days after the reactor shipment had passed through, 30 cars of a freight train traveling the same stretch of CSX railway in Grand Blanc, Michigan derailed. A local fire chief speculated that the reactor shipment’s weight may have degraded the train tracks, leading to the derailment. (http://www.wnem.com/Global/story.asp?S=1491514&nav=7k75Ieou)
In addition, the Big Rock reactor shipment broke an axle on a bridge over a river during the heavy haul truck leg of its journey in northern Michigan due to the large weight. (“RADIOACTIVE CARGO: ACTIVISTS CONCERNED ABOUT OHIO RAIL ROUTE,” by Geoff Dutton, THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH, Tuesday, October 14, 2003)
In addition to concerns about the reactor’s transport, citizens groups expressed alarm at and suggested potential alternatives to the dumping of radioactive waste in South Carolina.
“It is time to reevaluate the interstate compact and South Carolina’s place in the world. We are all too willing to trade public health for short term economic gain, just as any third world country,” said Dell Isham, South Carolina Chapter Director of the Sierra Club.
“The Barnwell dump is already leaking. It seems like a very bad place to dump additional atomic wastes, such as reactor vessels being buried in unlined dirt holes to eventually corrode and leak,” said Diane D’Arrigo, director of the Radioactive Waste Project at Nuclear Information and Resource Service in Washington, D.C. “It does not bode well for future generations that the State of South Carolina has raided the dump’s already inadequate emergency contingency fund in order to address budget shortfalls. After all, the radioactivity is harmful for literally millions of years,” D’Arrigo said.
The San Onofre unit 1 reactor from southern California is reportedly due to set sail for burial in South Carolina within weeks. It is over three times bigger than the Big Rock vessel, and will travel by ship around the tip of South America to Charleston Harbor, !QW! it will transfer onto a train for Barnwell.
“Dumping nuclear waste in Barnwell is an environmental crime. Even the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has realized that the impacts from the nuclear sites in that area fall disproportionately on low income and minority communities,” said Lou Zeller of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, which has an office in Augusta, GA office. “We can do better than poisoning people for our energy supply–no one will ever have to worry about a windmill dump!” he concluded.
“A third option exists besides permanent burial or interim storage on-site called ‘mothballing’ which is permanent entombment at the reactor site,” said Glenn Carroll of Georgians Against Nuclear Energy (GANE). “Industry and regulators have been reluctant to examine permanent entombment on-site because it challenges the goal of license termination and real estate reclamation. Environmentalists advocate that no action be taken on decommissioning until entombment has been exhaustively studied,” Carroll said.
“Another nuclear death trap down, 103 to go, but now Vice President Cheney wants to use our tax dollars to build more,” said Mary Fox Olson, Director of the Southeast Office of Nuclear Information and Resource Service in Asheville, NC. “It just doesn’t make sense, reactors are the biggest dirty bombs on the planet, why would the terror fighters want to build more?” Olson asks.
“The controversy surrounding the transport and dumping of this radioactive reactor serves as a loud wake up call to our U.S. Senators to filibuster the pending Congressional energy bill and its dangerous proposal to subsidize the first new orders for nuclear power reactors in the U.S. in 30 years,” concluded Ms. Olson.
“The potentially hazardous shipment of highly radioactive nuclear wastes through our communities to unsatisfactory destinations !QW! they will emit radiation for interminable periods bodes ill for public health and safety, especially in consideration of the administration’s newly announced plans to promote construction of more nuclear reactors, while taking into consideration all the hazards associated with their production, operation and waste disposition,” said Dr. Lewis Patrie of Western N.C. Physicians for Social Responsibility in Asheville.