A new report prepared by a highly regarded Denver, Colorado consulting firm finds that shipments of spent nuclear reactor fuel to a repository or interim storage facility in Nevada could be much more numerous and more likely to impact the nation's highways in a major way than previously thought.

The report, "The Transportation of Spent Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Waste: A Systematic Basis for Planning and Management at National, Regional, and Community Levels," by Planning Information Corporation (PIC), concludes that, if shipments are required to begin in the next three years (as would be the case under legislation now before Congress), as many as 79,300 truck shipments would be required to move spent fuel and highly radioactive wastes from reactor sites around the country to a storage facility in Nevada. Those shipments would involve 62.3 million cumulative miles on 13,700 linear miles of the nation's public highways. Another 12,600 rail shipments totaling 14 million miles on 18,800 linear miles of the country's railroad would also be needed.

The PIC report built on past work by the State of Nevada and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) that attempted to clarify how nuclear waste shipments might impact states and communities around the country. The number of rail and highway shipments projected in the new report are higher than estimates previously published by the State of Nevada for several reasons. First, this new report adds commercial spent fuel currently stored away from the reactors where it was generated. Second, shipments of vitrified high-level waste from four DOE facilities have been included in this assessment. Third, the report recognizes that DOE's previous commitment to maximum use of rail transport is not part of DOE's current proposal for privatizing the nuclear waste transportation system.

The new report is ground-breaking in that it examines "current capabilities" with regard to reactor sites, equipment (e.g. the containers or casks that would be used to transport deadly spent fuel and high-level waste), and the existing transportation system and incorporates this information into projections about shipping types, numbers, and potential routes.

Unlike optimistic scenarios promoted by DOE and the commercial nuclear power industry which assume that spent fuel and HLW can readily be shipped in large rail casks, thereby limiting the number of shipments and the numbers of communities affected, the PIC report looks realistically at what capabilities currently exist - or are likely to exist by 1999 - with regard to the availability of rail and highway casks; the ability to handle different size containers at reactor locations; rail access to originating sites for spent fuel shipments; which reactors would ship waste in the first three years and what their capabilities are for handling casks, rail access, and other variables; and mode (rail vs. truck) and routing realities as they exist today.

Due to constraints that are present at individual reactor sites and/or in the existing transportation/cask equipment system, the report found that, while truck shipments would comprise 35% of the 86,600 metric tons of waste to be shipped over the total 30 year shipping campaign, trucks would account for 66% of the waste shipped in the first 3 years. The significant front-end reliance on truck shipments is due, principally, to loading and transportation capabilities at those reactors that have the highest priority for waste acceptance and pick up.

The report demonstrates that the only way to reduce the number of shipments and move shipments off of the highways and onto rail roads is (1) for utilities to make major and costly investments in upgrading infrastructure and handling capabilities to enable them to utilize large rail shipping casks and (2) for industry or government to make substantial investments in the development and production of large shipping containers such as the Multiple Purpose Canister (MPC) - a project recently abandoned by DOE together with plans for developing a higher capacity truck cask. Since it is not likely that utility companies will be willing to spend millions in improvements and cask development, heavy reliance on truck transportation is very likely, especially in the early years of the shipping campaign. And that means more people along the nation's highways will come face to face with the thousands of trucks carrying the radioactive waste. This reliance on trucks also increases the risk of accidents and the possibility of radiological contamination in any of the thousands of cities, towns, and hamlets transited along the way to Nevada.

While the report does not draw explicit conclusions about the impacts of proposed federal legislation to require waste shipments by 1999, it is clear from the information and analysis that impacts on states, cities, and communities will be substantial. The report shows how differential mode and routing decisions, which neither the federal government or the states are prepared to make, will markedly alter the geographical distribution of these impacts and how accelerating the time table for shipments can complicate and exacerbate an inherently difficult task.

And although this report is not in any way a political analysis, the implications for national policy-making are clear. There is far more to the nuclear waste issue than simplistically deciding to move spent fuel from reactor locations to storage in Nevada. Putting thousands of tons of highly radioactive materials on the nation's highways and railroads, in close contact with individuals and communities, without having thought out the implications of such a decision could create a strong and sustained negative national response.

Copies of the report are available from:

The Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects
Capitol Complex
Carson City, NV 89710

Nuclear Waste Project Home Page

State of Nevada
Nuclear Waste Project Office
Capitol Complex
Carson City, NV 89710
(702) 687-3744