A Gift to Terrorists? George Bush's Nuclear Waste Transport and Disposal Plan Puts Millions of Americans at Risk

By Smith, Gar | Earth Island Journal, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

A Gift to Terrorists? George Bush's Nuclear Waste Transport and Disposal Plan Puts Millions of Americans at Risk


Smith, Gar, Earth Island Journal


America's atomic powerplants are burdened with growing stockpiles of spent fuel-rods and other radioactive wastes. "Temporary" fuel storage ponds at most reactors were filled long ago and, as aging reactors face the end of their operating (and revenue-generating) lives, the atomic power industry is running short of space, time and patience.

After years of opposition by antinuclear activists, environmentalists and the governors of all the affected states, the Bush administration is prepared to start shipping 70,000 tons of radioactive wastes from nearly 100 nuclear powerplants nationwide to an "interim" storage site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

When the nuclear power business first got its start in the 1960s, the Department of Energy (DOE) promised to assume final responsibility for each and every spent nuclear fuel rod. The DOE was supposed to start picking up and parking Big Nuke's hot rods on January 31, 1998. It didn't happen.

Back in the 1960s, nuclear power advocates believed that they could generate electricity "too cheap to meter." The hope was that, by the time the powerplants needed to be shut down, future scientists would have discovered how to store radioactive waste safely for the next 24,000 years.

Forty years later, science still hasn't solved the problem.

With storage pools brim-full, US facilities have been forced to start packing used fuel rods above-ground in "dry cask" storage. The operators of the Maine Yankee nukeplant recently invested $60 million to build a new fuel-rod storage facility. These surface "parking lots" will store uranium-filled rods in two-story-tall casks, stacked in rows. Though fenced in and protected by armed guards, the casks will still be exposed to the open sky. By 2005, there may be as many as 50 such parking lots scattered about the country.

Hiroshima on wheels

The White House's nuclear waste transport plan (dubbed "Mobile Chernobyl" by its critics) would send caravans of casks filled with High Level Waste (HLW) rolling down highways and rail lines near major cities in 43 states. fifty-two million Americans live within a mile of the proposed routes.

Any casks that survived the trip would not be buried in the belly of Yucca Mountain, however. The facility is not expected to be open for business until 2010 at the earliest. Instead, the casks would be placed in another temporary above-ground parking lot--a federalized version of the dry-cask scenario.

Nearly 80,000 truck and 13,000 rail shipments would be required to ship used nuclear fuel rods and assorted rad-waste from decommissioned nuke plants. The shipments would continue day and night for 30-40 years.

The radiation aboard a single truck would be equal to 40 times the radiation released by the US A-bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Each atomic cask traveling by rail would contain 240 Hiroshimas.

The politics of nuclear waste

In 1986, the DOE began examining three potential sites that might be used as nuclear dumps. The sites were located in Texas, Nevada and Washington state.

But something strange happened in Congress. Legislation was crafted to eliminate the sites in Texas and Washington. Was it coincidental that the Speaker of the House at that time was Texas Representative Jim Wright and the House Majority Leader was Washington's Tom Foley? Robert Loux, the head of Nevada's Agency for Nuclear Projects, thinks not. "Congress acted on political, not scientific criteria in choosing this site," Loux charges.

Government geologists have since discovered that Yucca Mountain sits between two active earthquake faults, 12 miles from the epicenter of a 5.6 Richter scale quake that struck in 1992. A 4.4 quake rattled the region in June.

Another drawback: Yucca Mountain is located atop a major Western aquifer. Millions of tiny fissures in the volcanic rock would allow water to drip onto the stored casks. …

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