Kearney Hub

County responders ready for nuclear waste transport

Hub Managing Editor

KEARNEY Awareness, planning and training are among the keys to ensure the public's safety when hazardous materials are transported through population centers, said Laurie Hardin, emergency management coordinator for the city of Kearney and Buffalo County.

Hardin said on Wednesday she is confident all safety precautions will be taken this summer when a rail shipment of high-level radioactive waste crosses southern Nebraska. She also said that transporting nuclear waste and other hazardous materials occurs on a regular basis on the Union Pacific mainline and Interstate 80, which pass through or near Kearney and a number of other Hub Territory communities.

Because such dangerous materials are regularly rolling down the rails and interstate, Hardin said, a network of local and state experts has been established to respond in emergencies and assure that all precautions are followed.

Gov. Mike Johanns announced Wednesday that the shipment of 40 tons of nuclear waste will be sent from a former nuclear reprocessing center in West Valley, N.Y., to a storage facility in Idaho, and will pass through Nebraska on the way.

Just as former Gov. Bob Kerrey did in 1986, Johanns said he is prepared to have the State Patrol halt the train before it enters Nebraska if it appears there are safety concerns.

Johanns said Wednesday, however, that it appears adequate precautions will be taken with the summer shipment.

Hardin said that she checked with state authorities on Wednesday and confirmed the shipment will involve nuclear materials that are more radioactive than what normally pass through Kearney.

Hardin said although the nuclear materials will be more radioactive than those that are usually transported through town, additional precautions will help assure the safety of people along the route.

"They're transporting these in casks that have been tested and re-tested and impact tested. The railroad has an excellent safety record, and it (the train and materials) will be monitored as it enters the state," she said.

Hardin said the timing of the shipment shows there is a high degree of concern about safety because it is easier to monitor and assure safety in the summer than in other seasons.

She said if there is an emergency, responders from the Kearney area might monitor the situation, but that a team of experts from the state would probably work to contain the emergency and conduct cleanup, if an emergency occurs.

Kearney law enforcement officers and firefighters receive regular training in responding to radioactive and chemical emergencies, and are taught when it's OK to intervene and when it's wiser to let outside experts handle the problem.

Hardin said the city and county have drafted evacuation plans for extreme emergencies, but that addressing hazardous materials issues has become a regular part of training and planning for emergency responders.

"You have hospitals, clinics and other places that have radiological materials. For first responders, being aware and trained has been a standard, and it's on-going," Hardin said.

Nebraska's radiological officer leads training sessions regularly in Kearney for law enforcement, EMS and fire fighting personnel. Hardin said the next class in Kearney will be Jan. 30.

"Responders need to be aware of the material so if they get a call they're thinking of the possibilities," she said.

Jon Schwarz, the radiological officer with the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, leads the training sessions.

Hardin said the high-level waste shipment planned in the summer is out of the ordinary. "There has been lower-level stuff that's traveled through the state before. It's so low-grade that if you took radiological monitors around the boxcar you wouldn't get any readings."

She expects to be alerted when the summer shipment rolls through.

"I don't want people to be scared of these materials when they come through. They've done everything to make sure it gets through safely, and we have one of the finest trained counties as far as fire fighters and emergency responders."