Casper Star-Tribune
Casper, Wyoming

Thursday, August 30, 2001

Feds to ship nuke waste across Wyoming


Casper Star-Tribune

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - Security is high and security clearances hard to obtain over a pending trans-Wyoming shipment of spent nuclear fuel assemblies from a defunct New York plant cleanup site to the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory.

U.S. Department of Energy officials plan to ship 125 spent nuclear fuel assemblies by rail sometime after Sept. 1 from West Valley, N.Y., to the federal lab in Idaho for temporary storage, pending designation of a permanent national nuclear waste repository, an agency spokesman said.

Monitored by satellite and guarded by armed federal agents, the train's transit should take about four days, said DOE spokesman Joe Davis from his office in department headquarters. The shipment's exact timing is "classified," he said, due to efforts to maintain extremely high security for the journey.

The fuel assemblies are left over from uranium-reprocessing plant operations between 1966 and 1972 that the Energy Department is now cleaning up.

Assemblies consist of rectangular bundles of 14-foot solid metal rods encased in eight inches of steel and girded by balsawood shock absorbers, all inside a nearly impenetrable cask. Two casks, each on a separate rail car, will accommodate all 125 assemblies, said DOE spokesman Tim Jackson at INEEL Tuesday.

The specially designed casks are able to withstand severe impacts, drops, fire and immersion without releasing radiation to the environment, Davis noted. The casks are certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission based on rigorous testing.

After leaving the Empire State, the train will pass through parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming before reaching its destination at the southeastern Idaho research laboratory jointly operated by the Energy Department and Bechtel BWXT Idaho LLC.

U.S. Transportation Department officials overseeing hazardous-material shipments by rail could not be reached for comment. State officials, however, said the shipment is classified as "safeguarded," a lower degree of security than that applied to "secure" shipments such as nuclear warheads.

The "safeguarded" classification means the route the train will take, along with its destination and cargo volume, may be made public, although exact shipping dates are secret, said Scott Ramsay, radiological services supervisor for Wyoming Emergency Management Agency.

The governor in each state involved in the shipment appoints a representative to manage that information. That person is left to decide who should be allowed to know the details of a shipment.

In Wyoming, that contact person is Steve Jerard, commercial carrier officer for the Wyoming Highway Patrol. In a phone interview Tuesday, Jerard said he has chosen not to share shipping dates of the West Valley shipment with the general public.

Only Gov. Jim Geringer and a limited number of emergency management personnel will be told, he said.

"There's some security reasons for that," he said, adding that the potential for protest demonstrations is one of those reasons, but not among the most vital.

Ramsay said Wyoming has a good safety record when it comes to the transportation of radioactive materials.

"We've had uneventful transportation with the radioactive materials. It's been really safe," Ramsay said.

"Over the years there's been a couple of minor transportation accidents, but there's been no major issues with releases," of radiation, he said.

According to Ramsay, about 60 railcars of radioactive waste from Fernald, Ohio, recently passed through Wyoming to get to EnviroCare in Utah. Also within the last year, spent nuclear fuel from the Foreign Research Reactor traveled through the state by truck to Idaho.

GE Nuclear also sent two other shipments of spent nuclear fuel by truck through Wyoming to a laboratory in the East, Ramsay said.

Another 108 truck shipments of radioactive waste of military origin traveled through the state, bound for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant project in New Mexico, Ramsay said.

The U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Railroad Administration issued a safety compliance oversight plan to cooperating state and federal agencies and the railroad industry three years ago.

The document notes that no "accidents or incidents" have occurred during 40 years of shipping spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste.

U.S. Council for Energy Awareness figures estimate more than 2,000 such shipments by truck and rail since about 1970.

The plan drafted by the agency's hazardous materials specialists outlines precautions ranging from planning and pre-shipping track inspections through local preparedness assistance along designated routes.

"We have good coordination with safety agencies and governments all along the route, and we don't expect any trouble," Jackson said.

Once the shipment arrives at the Idaho facility, the fuel assemblies will be placed in dry storage in a specifically constructed facility.

INEEL has custody of other spent nuclear fuels both in dry and underwater storage, including some from the Three Mile Island plant in Harrisburg, Pa., the site of a 1979 meltdown attributed to equipment failure and human error.

Under a 1995 agreement between Idaho and the Energy Department, nuclear waste must be removed Idaho by 2035.

Meantime, debate continues in the nation's capital on whether to proceed with construction of the proposed permanent waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev., now under study.

Communities along the train's route should not be concerned about radiation doses from the fuel assemblies, Jackson stressed, noting the vastly higher amounts emanating from the atmosphere, common appliances and even natural-source food and water.

Expected radiation exposures for an individual maintaining a constant 6.6 feet distance from the train will range from 2.3 to 8.2 millirems, he said. That is 40 to 180 times less than an average Wyoming resident absorbs from the high-altitude atmosphere and geological background levels.


On the Net:

U.S. Department of Energy "How SAFE are radioactive material transportation packages?" site: