The U.S. Department of Energy recently unveiled its revised plan for a multi-million dollar program to provide training so that public safety officials in every state and Indian reservation can respond properly to accidents which, no matter how unlikely, might occur, during the transportation of spent nuclear fuel or high-level radioactive waste.
Anyone reading the notice that was published in the Federal Register will agree that Mark Twain's admonition - that only those with strong stomachs should watch how laws and sausages are made - applies with equal force to this particular bureaucratic idea.
Without regard to the singularly more important issue of whether the nation's nuclear garbage should be moved anywhere - and this is entirely presaged upon the assumption that it will all be dumped in Nevada, anyway - DOE's proposed "Safe Transportation and Emergency Response Training" program provides no comfort. If anything, it is an exhibit that exposes the entire exercise as a colossal waste of time. energy and taxpayers' money.
The program being put forth by DOE's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM) concerns itself with some typically bureaucratic questions, none of them more revealing than a section that describes what level of assistance will be provided when the route selected for a nuclear waste shipment follows "the border between two states, a state and a tribe, or two Indian tribes."
STERT's objective seems logical: to assure that the first public safety official who reaches the scene of a nuclear shipment accident is someone who is "capable of identifying the shipment as a radiological materials shipment and (is capable of) notifying the proper radiological emergency response authorities."
Obviously, dialing 911 won't be enough. Nor, it seems, the adequacy of requiring DOE to provide advance notice to each state when a nuclear shipment is on the way. Now, OCRWM's bureaucrats want to teach public safety officials how to recognize the international symbol that says "DON'T TOUCH THIS STUFF...WE REALLY MEAN IT!" and make an appropriate call to federal agents who will rush to the scene with their special decontamination suits and rubber gloves.
According to OCRWM, the training program assumes that "an accident resulting in a radioactive materials release is extremely low." It goes on to say that, in the very unlikely event of an accident, federal assistance will be "mobilized in a few hours, although it may take up to 48 hours to be fully functional."
48 hours! An accidental release of radiation on the west coast can be blown halfway across America in 48 hours. Radiation from the midwest can be contaminating livestock and crops and the air and water supplies from Chicago to New York City and Washington, D.C.
Within a few hours of the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant near Harrisburg, Pa., people living within dozens of miles were evacuated from their homes, car and truck traffic on the nearby Pennsylvania Turnpike was being diverted, and rail traffic on the nearby Consolidated Rail/Amtrak right-of-way was being sent back to their originating points.
If these spent nuclear materials are as dangerous as suggested by the extraordinary depth of plans being made for their shipment, then we must insist on something better: an instant response. The decontamination team must be at the site when the accident occurs, not sometime within the next two days!
This is a job that's best left for the military. Spent nuclear fuel should be moved under protection of military convoy, in total secrecy and under cover of darkness. It should be the opposite of what is being proposed by the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management which would even share satellite tracking data with state highway and Indian reservation patrols.
Rather than training highway patrolmen and Indian tribal police who should be attending to other duties, such as directing traffic away from the scene of a nuclear shipment spill, Congress should instruct the Pentagon to reopen several closed military bases for specially trained nuclear transportation and protection units.
If nuclear waste shipments will be a tempting target for terrorists (such as those who set off bombs that kill workers in a federal building, or injure passengers on an Amtrak train, or maim people at an Olympics park), then let them deal directly against soldiers who are armed with up-to-date weaponry including heat seeking missiles and nightvision scopes.
And even in the unlikely event of an accident (such as a train that can derail even while standing still on a bad rail), let soldiers with highly developed radiation decontamination skills be at the scene to minimize the damage.