DOE pushes to change waste shipment containers

Jan 17, 2004 3:04 Eastern Time

ALBUQUERQUE (AP) _ The drums that transport radioactive waste to a storage area near Carlsbad are made of double layered steel, but that could change if the Energy Department gets its way.

Two layers of quarter-inch steel contained the radioactive waste that recently passed through Albuquerque on Interstate 40.

The DOE is proposing sending future waste shipments in single-walled containers.

Some of that waste would be far more radioactive than the bulk of current shipments to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant _ used tools and gloves contaminated with traces of plutonium.

DOE and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission say the new single-walled containers will be safe. They must pass the same tests to prove their safety, said Roger Nelson, WIPP's chief scientist.

But the Environmental Evaluation Group, a quasi-government body set up to give independent technical advice on WIPP, disagrees.

``There is no justification for deleting the double containment requirement,'' EEG Director Matthew Silva said.

Sooner or later, there will be a WIPP truck wreck, and when that happens, the double containment will provide an important margin of safety, according to a study by the scientists.

If the containment broke and radioactive waste leaked, it would likely be in the form of radioactive dust that is invisible, said EEG scientist James Channell, author of the group's report on the issue.

``Most of it would be too small to see,'' Channell said.

That dust could contaminate several city blocks.

Such a leak would be 15 times more likely with a single-walled shipping container than the current double-walled casks, according to Channell's analysis.

Albuquerque City Councilor Miguel Gomez is proposing a measure calling on the DOE to abandon plans to ship WIPP waste through Albuquerque in single-walled shipping casks.

The waste is shipped in a container called the Transuranic Package Transporter Model 2 _ the TRUPACT-II.

To win approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for use at WIPP, the DOE had to show the container could survive a series of torture tests without leaking. The TRUPACT-II container was burned for more than 30 minutes in a fuel fire in one test.

A study by Silva's organization concluded that the risks of a radiation leak in a traffic accident, while traveling through Albuquerque or elsewhere, are very small with a double-walled TRUPACT-II.

But a shift to single-walled containers, as the DOE would like to do for some shipments, would make a spill more likely, according to EEG.

Even if that spill is small, EEG said in a December report, the damage would be enormous.

The DOE is in the midst of seeking Nuclear Regulatory Commission certification for a new shipping container, the TRUPACT-III, that uses a single steel shell to hold the waste.

WIPP scientist Nelson said testing of the new TRUPACT-III will be just as rigorous as that given to its predecessor.

DOE needs the new single-walled TRUPACT-III, Nelson explained, because some of the waste to be shipped to WIPP is in wooden crates that are too large to fit into the smaller TRUPACT-IIs.

DOE hopes to use a second single-walled shipping container for the far more radioactive ``remote-handled waste.'' This is waste that is so radioactive that it must be kept in shielded rooms and handled by remote control.

DOE is seeking approval from state and federal regulators to begin shipping remote-handled waste to WIPP.

AP-WS-01-17-04 0303EST