The San Francisco Examiner

Sunday, Nov. 23, 1997

Taking shipments public

Erin McCormick

The Department of Energy's planned shipment of five loads of foreign nuclear waste through the San Francisco Bay next year marks a first.

It's not that the government hasn't shipped such highly radioactive substances through the area before. This is just the first time the government has given the public any say about it.

When the spent nuclear fuel rods from Pacific Rim countries start floating into Contra Costa County's Concord Naval Weapons Station next spring, they will have been preceded by an environmental impact report and a series of public hearings.

"A lot of things have been done in secrecy in the past," said Dave Huizenga, who is coordinating the shipments for the Department of Energy. He said similar shipments had quietly been made through the Bay by the Navy for years.

"But that's not the way we're operating now," he said. "Nuclear issues are often emotional issues, and it's sometimes difficult for us to explain some of the technical aspects to the public. (But) I think it's better to talk about this stuff than to try to do it in secrecy."

The planned shipments have mobilized Contra Costa residents, many of whom don't want the radioactive materials moving through their communities. The issue also has caused a rift among anti-nuclear groups. Some see the shipments as necessary to protect international safety, while others say the waste is too dangerous to transport.

The spent fuel rods contain highly enriched uranium and small quantities of plutonium, which can be used to make bombs. Without the shielding protection used, the material is so radioactive a person could get a lethal dose just by standing next to it for a few minutes.

The rods will be transported in massive steel and lead casks that the Department of Energy officials say are virtually indestructible.

But neither Contra Costa County's Board of Supervisors nor Bay Conservation and Development Commission members are convinced that the shipments will be safe. Both agencies have moved to challenge the planned route in court.

The waste would enter the Bay by ship and be unloaded to a train at the weapons station. The train would then back up through the town of Martinez, cross the Delta and head through the Feather River Canyon on its way to a nuclear dump site in Idaho.

"I don't understand why they would bring this stuff through a highly populated area that is subject to all kinds of earthquakes, fires and congestion problems," said county Supervisor Gail Uilkema, who noted that there had been four derailments on local rail lines this year. "If they have to ship these deadly fuel rods, we should find a safe way to do it."

The United States began sending the highly enriched research reactor fuel to 41 countries in the early 1950s in exchange for each country's promise that it wouldn't develop nuclear weapons.

Under President Clinton's plan to control nuclear proliferation, the United States is taking back 20 tons of reactor waste in an effort to make sure the bomb-grade material doesn't get into terrorist hands. Foreign reactor operators are switching to a uranium fuel without the same weapons potential.