Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Along Nuclear Reactor's Path, Cries of 'NIMBY' ; This Week, a Radioactive 770-Ton Vessel Begins a Long and Circuitous Trip - amid Fights over Routes and Risks

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Along Nuclear Reactor's Path, Cries of 'NIMBY' ; This Week, a Radioactive 770-Ton Vessel Begins a Long and Circuitous Trip - amid Fights over Routes and Risks

Article excerpt

Railroad companies said it was too heavy. Highway officials said it was too bulky. Panama Canal authorities have limits on how much radioactive material can be moved through their locks in one trip.

This week, after two years of checking into every possible alternative to transport a used, 770-ton - and radioactive - nuclear reactor vessel from California to a dump site in South Carolina, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) approved the most circuitous route of all: 15,000 miles around the tip of South America by barge.

Critics say the episode spotlights a national problem that will only get worse: how to dispose of more than 50 commercial reactors that will be shut down in the next 30 years. They say utility officials are being too secretive and cavalier in their plans to move such waste. Critics worry, too, that public complacency will lower the bar for the transport of more dangerous, high-level waste as Congress moves to build more reactors.

Energy department and utility officials say the hazards are overblown and insist they have mastered the logistical and safety problems. Energy benefits from nuclear reactors far outweigh the dangers, they say. One of every five American homes or businesses is run on nuclear power - a ratio supporters say helps insulate the country from dependence on foreign oil, Middle East turmoil, and the volatility of natural gas prices.

Either way, the issuance of a permit Dec. 1 to Southern California Edison, majority owner of the San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station, has ignited heated debate on the challenges faced in dealing with current and future nuclear waste. The two- month project could begin as early as next week, and opposition is coalescing both within and without the US.

"Transporting radioactive waste is a very dangerous thing to do and it is already clear from the mistakes of other recent transports that the public is not being clearly informed of everything that is at stake," says Kevin Kamps, a nuclear-waste specialist for the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C., that opposes the use of atomic energy.

The radiation risk

The 450,000-megawatt San Onofre reactor provided electricity for about 500,000 homes from 1968 until 1992, when officials closed it because of cost overruns. Three steam generators, along with other reactor parts, have already been moved by rail and disposed of in Utah. Now, the 35-foot high, pyramid-shaped steel container that housed the reactor has been filled with concrete. It sits at a fenced site at the San Onofre station.

Officials hasten to add that the container's radioactive level is extremely low - so low that if a person sat atop it for one hour, he would receive only half the radiation of a conventional X-ray. Eight feet away from the container, there is zero radiation, they say, and because the steel is both solid and dry, there is no danger of radiation migration or escape, and exposure to a liquid or gas form. …

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