Sunday, Nov. 23, 1997
The nuclear Bay
Radioactive materials roll through the region on a regular basis
OF THE EXAMINER STAFF
Trucks carrying highly-radioactive spent nuclear fuel rods from Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island roll down Interstate 680 through Alameda County.
Uranium fuel on its way to nuclear reactors in Japan floats out of the Port of Oakland.
Deadly plutonium, used to give nuclear weapons their lethal force, moves south on I-5 toward Livermore's national weapons lab.
Though they may sound like scenes on some nuclear highway of the future, such radioactive shipments are already moving through the Bay Area's congested transportation network - road, rail and sea - by the hundreds.
While local protests rage about a federal government plan to ship foreign nuclear waste through The Bay next year, the public has been told virtually nothing about a nuclear shipping industry that has flourished here for decades.
On average, a major shipment of atomic fuel, radioactive waste or high-level nuclear isotopes moves through the Bay Area every four days, an Examiner study of federal and local shipping records found.
At least 412 of these major payloads have moved on the region's roads, rail beds and waterways since 1993. At least nine of them involved the same type of nuclear waste shipments that Contra Costa Supervisors and Bay Conservation and Development Commission members now protest.
These totals do not include thousands of small shipments of radioactive materials used in medical equipment or in measuring devices. Nor is it possible to trace most of the classified military shipments from Bay Area bases and government research facilities.
Yet, even a partial picture of the radioactivity on the roadways makes it clear that the region is hardly a nuclear-free zone:
* The area already has seen at least 150 shipments of the super-radioactive spent nuclear fuel rods now being resisted by local leaders, federal records show. These top-security hauls include at least nine commercial truckloads in the last five years to and from a little-known General Electric nuclear research facility in Pleasanton.
* Massive quantities of nuclear reactor fuel, headed for Asia's booming atomic power market, regularly sail from the Port of Oakland. Since 1994, more than 5,000 tons of enriched uranium nuclear reactor fuel have rolled over East Bay freeways to the port.
* In the last five years, more than 100 shipments of low-level nuclear waste, from contaminated clothing and soil to tainted reactor components, have gone from the Bay Area to dumps in Washington and South Carolina.
* Department of Energy records also show several dozen enormous loads of more dangerous radioactive products like Plutonium, Cobalt-60, Americium and Curium moving between government contractors and such research sites as Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Shipments called safe
When it comes to assessing the dangers of radioactive transport even the experts can't agree on how safe is safe.
While government and nuclear industry officials say they have a nearly foolproof system for moving dangerous nuclear substances, scientists outside the industry say disaster may be only a mistake away.
Federal officials cite the Bay Area's long history of problem-free nuclear shipments as proof that the modern methods of moving such materials pose no threat.
"The shipment of radioactive material is a lot safer than the shipment of other hazardous substances," said Earl Easton, a transportation expert with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "If I were driving down the freeway, I would be more concerned about getting caught behind a gasoline tanker,"
But anti-nuclear groups argue that, when it comes to shipping high-level radioactive materials, one mistake could be all it takes to create a major local disaster.
"So far, we've been incredibly lucky," said Jackie Cabasso of the Western States Legal Foundation, an Oakland-based group that has fought to keep nuclear shipments out of the region.
"If you look at all the things that could go wrong when you're transporting radioactive materials through an area with a high population density in an earthquake zone, you realize it's either a matter of luck or a matter of time before we have a major accident."
"A lot goes on'
While controversy brews over the federal plan to ship nuclear waste through the Concord Naval Weapons Station next year, current shipping patterns reveal a web of Bay Area nuclear activities far more extensive than what is now being debated.
Few residents realize it, but the region already is a major hub for the commercial nuclear industry.
The area's biggest private shipper of high-level nuclear waste, General Electric's Vallecitos Nuclear Center in Pleasanton, operates so quietly that many residents of neighboring communities believe it closed long ago.
At the same time, the federal government is spending billions of dollars in the region to clean up pollution left behind by former and current nuclear facilities - from San Francisco to Davis, from Berkeley to Livermore.
"Apparently, a lot goes on without the public ever knowing," said Will Travis, executive director of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which seeks to block the planned federal nuclear waste shipments through The Bay to Contra Costa County.
"The public is very concerned about this kind of thing," Travis said. "Whenever someone says "nuclear,' people see a mushroom cloud rising up. With all the earthquakes and wildfires and disasters around here, people don't feel like they need any more danger."
A rolling hazard
Spent fuel rods are probably the most dangerous radioactive material ever to hit the road in the United States. The rods, which are removed from nuclear reactors after three to four years of providing power, are extraordinarily radioactive, even in small quantities.
Charged with polluted energy from their activity inside nuclear reactors, they emit radioactive isotopes ranging from plutonium to Cobalt 60.
Without the massive lead and steel canisters used to shield them in transit, such fuel rods could give someone nearby a lethal dose of radiation within minutes.
Plutonium emitted by fuel rods could be used by terrorists to make nuclear weapons. This is why the United States plans to bring back the deadly waste material from Pacific Rim countries in five shipments through the Bay Area beginning next year.
Since there is no U.S. site authorized to accept spent fuel rods for mass disposal, relatively few such shipments have been made before. Nuclear Regulatory Commission records show only 1,300 non-military movements of spent fuel rods since 1979.
The Bay Area has had its share of these top-security hauls. Federal records show 84 shipments of spent fuel rods have come out of the now-closed Mare Island Naval Shipyard near Vallejo, which served as a base for nuclear submarines, since 1969. Half of them moved by train through the Feather River Canyon to an undisclosed, out-of-state disposal site.
General Electric's Vallecitos nuclear research center near Pleasanton has been the destination or origin of 64 shipments since 1979, according to records from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Between 1993 and 1995 - the only years when complete records for all U.S. shipments were available - the G.E. facility, tucked away on rural Highway 84, was responsible for every non-military fuel rod shipment West of the Mississippi.
The individual spent fuel rod shipments handled by the Pleasanton facility are relatively small - weighing between 2 and 54 pounds each - but are so radioactive that they must be shipped in 14-ton protective casks.
The 1,500 pounds of spent fuel rods that records show going in and out of Vallecitos since 1979 outweigh the 1,000 or so pounds of foreign spent fuel federal officials say they intend to ship through Concord in the next 13 years.
The fuel rods at Vallecitos, samples of nuclear power assemblies taken from reactors around the country and in Europe, typically come across country by truck to Pleasanton, records show. There, they are examined in "hot cells," specially-designed rooms for handling highly radioactive materials.
The federal government requires all spent fuel rod shipments to be made in massive lead and steel casks, specially built to withstand major crashes, fires of 1,475 degrees and even a drop from 2,000 feet. The casks, which often weigh more than 30,000 pounds, have been tested so stringently that federal officials say they are virtually foolproof in any accident.
"I can't imagine a scenario that would result in a major release," said Judith Holm, a program specialist for the Department of Energy's transportation program. "There's never been a release or a death or an injury."
Holm said the casks have been involved in at least nine major crashes, but have never opened up to release their radioactive contents and expose the public.
Holm said that even if a cask somehow fell open, the spent fuel rods inside would not disperse radioactivity over a large area because they are in solid form. All safety officials would have to do is keep the public from getting close to the radioactivity coming from the material, she said.
But critics say there is no such thing as an accident-proof package.
"The fuel they're transporting is so exquisitely dangerous that, even if 99.9 percent of the shipments go perfectly, the .1 percent that may have a serious accident could have consequences that are completely unacceptable to the public," said Dan Hirsch, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a Los Angeles group that tries to bring scientific information to communities concerned with nuclear issues.
Hirsch's group supports the plan to bring spent fuel back to the United States, as a way to keep the U.S.-produced uranium from wreaking worldwide havoc, but he said it's not without risk.
"Whenever I hear someone tell me not to worry, I get nervous," he said. "I'd feel better if they said this is very dangerous stuff and we should be careful."
There have been problems
Professor Jackson Davis of UC-Santa Cruz, director of the Monterey Institute's Environmental Program, said the wrong combination of catastrophic events could have a huge cost to the public.
While the chance of such an occurence might be small, he said, a crash large enough to break open a cask and an explosion big enough to oxidize and disperse spent fuel into airborne particles could contaminate a huge area.
"A small accident can turn into a very big disaster," Davis said. "If these materials get airborne and settle on land, the contamination would be so expensive to clean up, that the real estate would be worth nothing. You could literally have the loss of a city for 5,000 years."
Department of Energy researchers have computed the odds of a severe accident happening. By their calculations the most catastrophic mishap is likely to occur only once every 10,000 years.
While there never has been a major radioactive transportation disaster, there have been problems.
On November 12, an overturned big rig dumped a barrel of low-level radioactive waste on one of Southern California's busiest freeway junctions. The accident closed southbound lanes of I-5 in the City of Orange for six hours while emergency crews in white moon suits searched for contamination. No one was injured.
Department of Energy incident reports show that in five cases since 1980, casks or truck trailers moving to or from G.E.'s Vallecitos plant have arrived at their destinations with higher-than-allowable radioactive contamination on their outside surfaces.
Easton of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it's fairly common for outside surfaces of casks to grow more radioactive in transit, possibly because of contaminated water they come into contact with during the loading process. But he said the contamination levels are too low to affect passers-by.
"It's not good," he said, "but the contamination is down there at the "no foul, no harm' level.
That greenish-yellow substance
The tons of enriched uranium fuel products that move through the Port of Oakland each year on their way to nuclear reactors in the Pacific Rim don't have nearly the radioactive punch of spent fuel rods, but there are perils.
The most vexing fuel product is the one shipped most abundantly: a volatile, greenish-yellow ingredient of nuclear reactor fuel known as enriched Uranium Hexafluoride.
The stuff is not super-radioactive, but if exposed to water vapor in the air it can turn into an acidic gas, capable of burning lungs and eyes, and giving doses of radiation, according to health physicist and anti-nuclear activist Geoffrey Sea.
Uranium Hexafluoride is hauled cross-country from plants in Ontario, Can., or North Carolina. Once in Oakland, shipments come up the Nimitz Freeway or battle nighttime traffic through the MacArthur maze on Interstate 580 to exit at the Oakland Army Base offramp near the Bay Bridge toll plaza. At the Port of Oakland, it is loaded onto ships and sent oversees, mostly to Japan, but also to Taiwan, Korea and elsewhere, for use in nuclear power reactors.
More than 120 shipments of this product - 3,700 tons - have been trucked into Oakland in the last five years, city records show.
The government requires the product be carried in super-secure cylinders. That packaging has never failed during a transportation accident. In 1986, though, a cloud of the substance escaped from an Oklahoma nuclear fuel processing plant, killing one worker and contaminating a schoolyard.
"A lot of this is handled in such a way that not many people know about it," said Cabasso of the Western States Legal Foundation. "It's incredible how much of this stuff is moving around out there, and most of it is hidden from the public."
Jim McClure, who tracks nuclear transportation accidents for the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico said public fears of radioactive shipments are largely unjustified.
"When people see the trucks with radiation symbols on them, they're scared to death," he said. "But look at the safety record. The nuclear transportation industry doesn't have anything to hide."