Activists bring attention to NWI's potential role in proposed nuclear disposal plan

By Dave Orrick / Staff Writer

Indiana's official motto may be the Crossroads of America, but one glance at a map and it's clear that Northwest Indiana looks more like the Nation's Bottleneck.

Multiple highways and train tracks squeeze through the area, each clogged with loads of steel coils, pigs, cows, battery acid, gasoline and an occasional shipment of low-level radioactive waste.

Under a plan being studied by the U.S. Department of Energy, those occasional low-level radioactive shipments could become a lot more common and a lot more radioactive.

In an effort to deal with the country's growing supply of waste from nuclear reactors and research facilities, the DOE is studying Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada as a place to consolidate as much as 70,000 metric tons of material including rods used in the heart of atomic reactors.

Opposition to that plan brought representatives of national advocacy groups Thursday to Calumet College of St. Joseph.

Public Citizen, a group founded by consumer advocate Ralph Nader, used the event as a kickoff to its "Radioactive Rails and Roads" campaign, which features a mock container like those used to transport the waste on the backs of flatbed trucks. It bears the label: Mobile Chernobyl.

"We're fighting against bad energy policy," said Public Citizen spokeswoman Lisa Gue. "This is not just a mess for the state of Nevada. It involves people in Indiana and all across the country."

Gue said the waste should stay where it is because transporting it is hazardous. Most nuclear power plants have approved storage facilities on-site.

According to the DOE, the earliest shipments could begin is 2010. However, the plan is not a done deal.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson is expected next year to recommend for or against the site.

The problem, Gue and those opposed to the plan argue, is that the DOE already has spent roughly $6.5 billion on its study, an amount they say is too much of an investment to walk away from. And, by an order of Congress, the DOE has no alternative to Yucca.

Since 1958, scientists and elected officials have been trying to find a place to store hazardous waste that could remain at its most dangerous level for the next century.

U.S. Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Merrillville, said Thursday he supports the Yucca Mountain site.

"Right now, you have these materials scattered throughout the United States," he said. "I think it's in everyone's benefit to remain at one site, so you don't have multiple parties responsible."

With deregulation, many power companies have found themselves financially strapped from previous investments in nuclear power.

Congress and the DOE stepped in to prevent utilities alone from being preoccupied with tending to the waste their plants create.

Indiana has no nuclear plants; a small quantity of waste is generated at a research facility at Purdue University in West Lafayette.

Nearly all the power from Northern Indiana Public Service Co. comes from fossil fuels.

It's a not-through-my-back-yard scenario on a national scale for Colleen Aguirre, an environmentalist from East Chicago.

"Seventy-five to 90 percent of the communities along the route probably don't have (hazardous materials) teams," she said. "East Chicago doesn't. Who's going to go out and check the tracks to make sure a train doesn't roll over and cause a disaster."

Visclosky said, "I believe that more needs to be done, and people have a right to be concerned. We ought to make that as absolutely safe as possible."