The prospect of thousands of tons of nuclear waste traveling along highways and railroads in the St. Louis area brought more than 100 people to America's Center downtown Thursday.
Officials with the Department of Energy hosted the 17th of 20 public hearings nationally to hear public comments. Current plans call for about 80,000 tons of radioactive waste to be transported from nuclear power plants around the country to a burial site in the Nevada desert.
At the hearing, some area residents voiced worries about accidents, terrorism or sabotage with such deadly cargo going through the region.
"This kind of thing scares the daylights out of me," said Mary Ryan of Kirkwood. "I am totally against having this stuff carted through here....This is insane."
Nuclear and utility industry officials, meanwhile, expressed the need for a permanent storage facility and insisted the nuclear waste can be transported safely.
As proposed, the Energy Department would build an underground storage complex beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada to hold used reactor fuel and other highly radioactive waste from 72 commercial nuclear plants and five government sites. The earliest any waste would be shipped to Nevada would be in 2010.
Energy Department officials say they intend to use trucks on major interstates and railroads to transport the nuclear waste, most of which is now stored at nuclear power plants in the Eastern United States. Officials have refused to detail exactly what routes will be used.
But it is obvious that much of the waste will travel through the St. Louis region, given its proximity to cross-county rail and truck routes.
In its own scenarios, the department used Interstate 70 as a primary route for shipments from the Midwest and Southeast - with connections through the St. Louis area using Interstate 270 and Interstates 255 and 64 in Illinois.
Via rail, the shipments would likely travel through Madison or East St. Louis on the Illinois side and then from one of several rail routes between St. Louis and Kansas City.
Robert Halstead, transportation adviser to the Nevada state agency seeking to block the Yucca Mountain project, said his studies estimate that between 30 percent to 40 percent of all the Yucca Mountain shipments would go through St. Louis or Kansas City.
Gavin Perry of Webster Groves lives within a half mile of a Union Pacific railroad line. He reminded federal officials at the hearing that St. Louis is still trying to clean up radioactive waste left behind from the Manhattan Project, the secret effort to make an atomic bomb. Work was done on that project at Mallinckrodt Chemical Co. in 1942.
"Now you want to take the most dangerous materials known to man and ship them through our cities," Perry said. "I don't think so."
At the hearing, industry officials pointed to their safety record.
Of 3,000 shipments of commercial high-level nuclear waste in the United States over the last 30 years, none have resulted in a death or release of radioactivity. There have been 13 accidents.
Robert Jones, a nuclear-industry consultant who flew in from California for the hearing, said potential transportation dangers are exaggerated. Jones has designed one of the metal containers used to transport radioactive wastes.
"People need to recognize that hazardous materials are sent daily right by their backyards," Jones said. "There are chemicals, fertilizers, all of which are in paper-thin containment compared to what we provide for radioactive materials."