Pahrump Valley Times

December 17, 1999

Bradshaw urges extensive testing of transport casks

By Henry Brean

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission should spare no expense when it comes to studying the durability of containers that may be used to ship more than 70,000 tons of high-level radioactive waste to Nye County.

That was the message delivered by county officials on Dec. 9, when the NRC held what may prove to be the first of many public meetings in Pahrump on the issue of nuclear waste transportation.

Les Bradshaw, who manages the Nye County Department of Natural Resources and Federal Facilities, urged the NRC to "get the money and spend the money for full-scale testing" of the containers - or "casks" - that may be used to ship waste. "There is no reason why this country can't afford to do comprehensive and repetitive physical tests," he said.

Bradshaw added it is the desire of everyone living in Nye County - as well as those living along all of the shipment routes under consideration - for the NRC to "make this cask design as robust and safe as possible."

"Every single route (in Nye County) has been talked about for the transportation of radioactive waste to the (Nevada Test Site) - every single route," he said. "If we have to, help us assume this national burden with date that will assure us of safety of what is being done."

Yucca Mountain, 20 miles east of Beatty, is the only site currently being considered as a permanent repository for the nation's high-level waste, which is now being stored at commercial reactors and federal sites across the country.

Since Nye County is being asked to assume such a burden, Bradshaw said it is only natural for county residents to expect that burden to come with as little risk as possible. For example, he said, NRC is pushing a maximum radiation dose standard of 25 millirems a year for Yucca Mountain while the Environmental Protection Agency wants 15 millirems with a separate water standard, but what county residents want is a maximum dose standard of zero. "Why can't we have that?" he asked.

Bradshaw's comments came on the heels of a short presentation by officials from the commission, which is in the process of determining a scope for a study on the safety of transporting spent nuclear fuel. NRC will neither develop shipping containers not transport waste, but it licenses and regulates the agencies and companies that do.

The commission's study, which is slated to be completed by 2003, will use new techniques and technology to update the findings of a 12-year-old study on of "Shipping Container Response to Severe Accidents." "We still believe the results of the 1987 study are valid," said Robert Lewis of NRC's Spent Fuel Project Office. "The study's parameters are still valid and the results are still valid."

Lewis went on to say that public meetings like the one held last week - a meeting specifically requested by Bradshaw - will play a small part in the commission's decision on how extensive the new study will be. "Physical testing is expensive, so we have to do it responsibly," he said.

But Bradshaw argued that if ever a study warranted a blank-check budget, this is it. He also warned the NRC against using terms like "computer modeling" and "computer simulation" when describing its research to a public that will not by swayed by anything less than tests involving real containers and real accidents.

Bradshaw tried to illustrate that point with a geography lesson, If trucked through Beatty on U.S. 95, he said, waste shipments will come within less that 100 feet of restaurants, hotels and the main turnoff for the community's public schools. "Highway 95 is our main street," he said. "These trucks are going to be braking for school buses.

Bradshaw added that in 10 years, "when the first shipment rolls down the road," the Pahrump Valley likely will be home to about 60,000 people.

Dr. Charles Massey of Sandia National Laboratory, which will be conducting the study, said the plan so far is to update the accident-rate data included in the 1987 report, use a representative cask model in an accident test at a collision speed of greater the 60 mph, test the cask's response to being placed in a burning pool of petroleum for an hour, and perform an experiment on the behavior of a spent nuclear fuel rod in an accident.

The standard cask design, Massey explained, consists of an outer shell of stainless steel and a 5-inch layer of lead. At each end of the cask are impact absorbers.

The effect of things like explosives of other weapons that might be used by saboteurs and terrorists will also be studied in some form or another. Massey said.

Currently, spent fuel shipments are protected from theft or attack in several ways, including the use of armed escorts through urban areas, unarmed escorts through rural areas, and trucks that can be immobilized with the flip of a switch. The drivers of the trucks are also required to call in every two hours and maintain constant communication capability, while the routes used are designed such that the trucks are never more than about 15 minutes away from some form of emergency response.

Over the last 20 years, there has been about 1,300 road and rail shipments of spent nuclear fuel, which Lewis described as "the most regulated substance that is shipped." Of those shipments, Lewis said, eight were involved in traffic accidents ranging from very minor to severe, but none of the casks were seriously damaged and no radiation was released.

In four of the eight cases, the trucks were on their way back from their destinations and the casks were empty. The worst of the four accidents that involved spent nuclear fuel occurred in 1971, when a truck slid off the road and overturned. "The driver was killed, but the cask was virtually undamaged," Lewis said.

But Pahrump resident Kenton Beirle, who was in the audience, pointed out the eight accidents in 1,300 shipments didn't seem like a very promising trend to him. However, several NRC staff members on hand were quick to point out that if taken on a per-mile basis, the accident rate for high-level waste shipments is actually well below the national average. Beirle, who identified himself as a former test site employee, said that may be true, "but when you talk to the public the raw numbers are what they're going to see, That's what I saw, and those numbers - eight accidents in 1,300 shipments - didn't sound very good to me."

Beirle also raised questions about the doses of radiation people living along the transportation routes can expect to receive. "If the radiation doses from the trucks is the same as a tooth X-ray, that's fine, but is that every time the truck drives by my house?" he said. "I don't get a tooth X-ray every day or two or three times a day of ten times a day."

"That needs to be explained, and we need to get it down to layman's terms, simple terms."

Massey said under the current standards, a person who stood within two meters of fully loaded spent fuel casks for an hour would receive the radiation equivalent of a chest X-ray. That dose drops precipitously as the distance from the cask increases. At 100 meters of more any radiation from the cask in completely indistinguishable from normal background radiation from the sun and earth.

To put it in layman's terms, Massey said is similar to the effect of standing near a fireplace. "As you move away, the heat drops of rather quickly."

Lewis added that NRC would be producing a "plain English version" of its scoping study as well as its Package Performance Study. Once the scoping study is completed this spring, another series of public workshops will be held. The report will be released to the public well in advance of those workshops.

That's all well and good, but Bradshaw said comments like those made by Beirle perfectly illustrate the responsibility with which agencies like NRC are being entrusted. "The public does not fully understand the physics of nuclear waste, and it never will," he said. "We're counting on experts like you ... to make this a zero-risk proposition. We don't understand why it can't be.

"You have to realize the context within which this repository comes to Nevada," he added. "Our focus is on the cumulative effect of all federal activity in Nye County. It has to be. And a such, we resist the tendency of federal agencies to departmentalize and stovepipe every part of the issue."

"We are fighting federal agencies on a number of fronts. It all adds up."

Others who provided comment during the Dec. 9 meeting included Beatty Town Board member Larry Gray, Inyo County (Calif.) Supervisor Michael Dorame, Jim Williams from the Nye County Nuclear Waste Repository Project Office, and nuclear waste meeting regulars Sally Devlin and Grant Hudlow.

The NRC also held public meetings in Henderson and Washington, D.C.