Report raises warning on transport of nuclear waste

Government disputes group's claim of trucking risks along I-90, I-205 or I-405

Karen Dorn Steele
Staff Writer
October 5, 2004

Seattle activist Jerry Pollett fretted that he couldn't find a big enough rental truck in Spokane early Monday to fully dramatize his point: that hundreds of people, including teenagers at Lewis and Clark High School, will be put at risk if the Bush administration proceeds with a plan to ship more truckloads of nuclear waste via Interstate 90 to Hanford.

Heart of America Northwest, a Hanford watchdog group, parked a panel truck with a large radioactive waste symbol at Fourth and Howard, across the street from the South Hill high school. Trucks rumbled overhead on I-90.

Lewis and Clark students were inside studying and missed the political event staged for the press.

The group distributed a new report, "Unnecessary Risks," that challenges the government's assertion that the nuclear waste transport plan poses little risk to people in 25 cities.

Nuclear physicist Marvin Resnikoff used computer modeling to conclude that an accident or terrorist attack on a nuclear waste truck along I-90, I-205 through Portland or I-405 through Bellevue could result in hundreds of square miles becoming contaminated and up to 1,500 fatal cancers.

Even routine shipments "are likely to result in 160 cancers in children and adults along the truck routes, and over 50 fatal cancers in children and adults, even if there is no accident or terrorist attack," it says. The report assumes that children would be stuck in traffic next to the radiation casks.

A U.S. Department of Energy official in Richland hadn't seen the report, but said the activist group is exaggerating the public risks.

"We are deeply concerned that they're saying simply sitting in traffic next to a waste truck could be a health risk. That's not true. They are trumping up false concerns," said department spokeswoman Colleen French.

The U.S. Department of Energy, in its own computer assessment of public health risks to adults from the proposed waste shipments, says nine or 10 fatal cancers could eventually result from "incident-free" transport due to radiation exposures.

The Energy Department hasn't yet made public its preferred routes as it responds to questions from a federal judge. But Resnikoff's report says I-90 could easily become one of the most heavily used routes carrying up to 24,829 truckloads over several decades.

That's an exaggeration, French countered.

In June, when it published its record of decision on the transportation plan, the Energy Department scaled it back to less than a quarter of its original scope. Now, the plan calls for no more than 5,800 trucks to come to Hanford over the entire project, she said. At the same time, Hanford has begun shipping out 8,500 truckloads of plutonium-contaminated waste on other highways to New Mexico for burial at the government's new Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

"We'll be exporting more than we'll be importing," French said.

Last year, Heart of America Northwest and Washington Attorney General Christine Gregoire won a federal court injunction against the Energy Department's plans to ship plutonium-contaminated waste to Hanford because the agency hadn't evaluated the transportation risks.

The department is seeking to have the injunction lifted and resume shipments of transuranic waste containing plutonium and other elements that remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years. Meanwhile, Gregoire has gone to federal court in an effort to halt all new waste shipments to Hanford.

Heart of America Northwest has provided much of the $750,000 raised so far for Yes on I-297, an initiative on the Nov. 2 ballot that would ban any new shipments of nuclear trash to Hanford until the 586-square-mile nuclear reservation still the most polluted nuclear weapons site in North America is cleaned up.

I-297 has been endorsed by the Spokane City Council, many state environmental groups and the Washington State Medical Association. It is opposed by the Tri-City Industrial Development Council and the Washington Association of Business. The opponents say it could threaten the $2 billion in annual funds from Congress to clean up Hanford.