Waste shipments aren't frightening
But on a list of safety concerns, an accident involving a shipment of radioactive waste ranks relatively low. Even the possibility of a terrorist attack on a truck or train carrying nuclear materials is not a major worry, given that most of the radioactive waste transported in this country is not extremely hazardous.
The federal government's plan to ship radioactive waste to a storage site at Yucca Mountain, Nev., won't substantially increase the risk of a deadly accident, either.
Officials in Nevada who oppose locating the national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain are distributing some projected numbers about waste transport that obviously are designed to whip up an anti-nuclear frenzy in other states.
Some of those numbers appeared in a story last weekend in the Courier-Journal.
On the surface, they appear worrisome — 3,312 nuclear train shipments moving through Kentucky over a 24-year period, if rail is the main shipping option; 18,435 truck shipments if rail is not used.
Nevada officials speculate that I-24, which runs through Paducah, would be one of the main truck shipping routes.
A point to emphasize is that Nevada officials are speculating — and, in all likelihood, conjuring worst-case scenarios — as they continue to battle the federal government over the Yucca Mountain site.
This week the Senate voted 60-39 to overrule the Nevada governor's veto and allow the Department of Energy to seek a license for the facility.
Still, lawsuits could delay work on the site for years, possibly even decades.
At this point, it's impossible to be certain about the shipment routes. But even if, say, two or three shipments a day end up moving across Kentucky, the danger to the public will be small.
Residents of Paducah have reason to welcome the opening of the Yucca Mountain repository. The government intends to ship radioactive waste to Yucca Mountain from the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, where it currently poses a threat to the environment.
Area residents have waited for years for the government to conduct a serious cleanup operation at the gaseous diffusion plant. The availability of the Yucca Mountain facility should guarantee that most of the waste is removed from the plant site.
In any event, the risk of a significant accident clearly is low. No injuries or fatalities have been reported during the four decades the nuclear industry in the United States has shipped nuclear fuel. Also, no environment damage has occurred as a result of a nuclear shipping accident.
Every day millions of tons of hazardous chemicals are transported on U.S. railroads and highways, but few Americans fear living with the threat of accidents involving nonnuclear materials.
It should be noted that nuclear waste is transported in steel casks lined with lead. According to the Courier-Journal, the casks have been proven to withstand a 30-foot fall, a 40-inch fall onto a steel rod six inches in diameter, a 1,475-degree fire for 30 minutes and submergence under water for eight hours.
Those are toughcontainers.
Of course, no matter how many safety precautions are taken, an accident can occur.
The real question is whether transporting radioactive waste across the country and burying it in the Nevada mountain poses a greater risk than haphazardly storing it — with few environmental safeguards — at sites all over the country.
President Bush and Democrats and Republicans in Congress have delivered a clear and sensible answer to that question.
So let's take all the necessary precautions — and then let it roll.