Fear Factor

The Energy Department has to figure out how to reassure Americans before it rolls 77,000 tons of nuclear waste through cities and towns across the country.

With more than 1.8 million residents and a tourist population approaching 40 million a year, Clark County, Nev., is one of the fastest-growing areas in the United States. More than 5,000 newcomers per month have adopted an address there since the early 1990s, for an average annual growth rate of 6.27 percent. The average visitor stays 3.4 nights, spends $282.20 on one of 130,482 hotel or motel rooms, and gambles away $480. About 31 percent of Clark County's 846,100-member workforce labors to keep the $34 billion economic engine known as Las Vegas humming, according to Clark County figures.

The county figures it stands to lose 5,393 jobs, $4.7 billion in disposable income, $5.6 billion in spending and 11,924 residents if the Energy Department carries out a plan to haul more than 77,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste to a permanent storage facility deep beneath Yucca Mountain, a 1,200-foot ridge about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. That's assuming there's no trouble on the way to the dump. Nevada is at the narrow end of the waste funnel.

In the event of an accident involving a radiological release, Clark County anticipates bidding goodbye to 54,429 jobs, $42.1 billion in disposable income, $68.1 billion in spending and 90,718 residents over the 24-year life of the transportation program. The data comes from an assessment prepared for the Clark County Comprehensive Planning Department by the Scottsdale, Ariz., consulting firm Urban Environmental Research LLC. It was based in part on surveys of gaming industry executives, business people, residents and tourists in 2000 and 2001.

Despite Clark County's concerns, the federal government says the health and safety risks associated with transporting waste to Yucca Mountain will be negligible. And experts from the National Research Council of the National Academies agree, for the most part, in a study published in February.

But as the county's assessment reveals, the perception of danger is everything. Twenty-five percent of tourists surveyed said the mere presence of irradiated shipments would affect their decision to visit Las Vegas in the future. Thirty-seven percent said even a minor accident would cause them to think twice about visiting, and 49 percent of those said they wouldn't visit Las Vegas again.

Radiation is scary. Its history is entangled with the development of nuclear weapons, and its cultural impact can be seen in comic books and fantastic movies about monsters and mutant superheroes. The federal plan for transporting nuclear waste across the country by rail to Nevada is stirring controversy and opposition-and that's why allaying fears as well as addressing safety are part of the management challenge in crafting the plan.

"When [a fear] is that deep, there's usually a reason for it, and the reason in this case appears to be the invisible nature of the threat, the longtime lag associated with exposure before it becomes evident in the health damage, and the involuntary nature of the risk," says Hank C. Jenkins-Smith, a public policy professor at Texas A&M University's George Bush School of Government and Public Service. "People don't seek out nuclear waste transportation routes to live by." He was a member of the National Research Council study panel, the Committee on Nuclear Waste Transportation, that produced "Going the Distance: The Safe Transport of Spent Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste in the United States" (National Academies Press, 2006).

The underlying theme of the report is that when contemplating the movement of tons of nuclear waste, federal managers can't disregard how frightening the stuff is.

Coming to Your City

National policy calls for all nuclear waste to be disposed of eventually in a single underground repository licensed, built and operated by the federal government. Yucca Mountain has been designated for this purpose. The project to develop the mountain is about 20 years behind schedule, and almost all of its storage space already is spoken for. The government has spent $9 billion on the promised dump so far and faces about $50 billion in damage claims from utilities that haven't had access to it.

The federal nuclear waste transportation plan is incomplete, but parts of it are detailed in the Energy Department's environmental impact statements for Yucca Mountain. In the final statement, issued in July 2005, Energy said it plans to transport large-scale shipments mostly on dedicated trains using commercial railroads and a 319-mile rail spur to be constructed in Nevada. Dumping the legal limit of 77,161 tons beneath the mountain would require 9,600 rail shipments and 1,100 highway shipments over 24 years. That is 20 times the amount of commercial spent fuel that has been shipped in the United States since 1964, and 18 times the number of rail shipments, according to the Committee on Transportation of Radioactive Waste. Most of the shipments would pass through one or more major metropolitan centers on their way to Yucca Mountain.

In addition to building the rail spur, the Energy Department will need to procure a fleet of rail packages and rail cars and possibly provide other rail access at commercial nuclear sites. If the department doesn't do these things before the repository opens, it will face pressure to establish an interim shipping program using trucks. It has legal and contractual obligations to accept spent fuel. The department didn't designate routes for the shipments in the environmental impact statements. It plans to stake them out about five years before the repository opens-unlikely before 2012-and will need to make any necessary infrastructure improvements before any shipments can be made.

"Going the Distance" found no fundamental technical obstacles to the plan, but it did outline a variety of social risks. They range from increased anxiety and reduced property values in communities along transportation routes to a lack of coordination on everything from security and contingency operations to emergency response.

The report says the government hasn't paid enough attention to shaping public perceptions about transportation of nuclear waste or to preparing emergency responders. It recommends moving the transportation program out of the Yucca Mountain Project and finding an organization other than the Energy Department's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management to run it, giving planners more authority, flexibility and budgetary control. The report also urges Energy to identify and publicize proposed routes as soon as possible so state, tribal and local governments have plenty of time to prepare.

Mountain of Waste

Spent nuclear fuel and high-level radio-active waste are byproducts of commercial nuclear power generation, scientific research and defense programs. More than 66,207 tons of the stuff has accumulated at 100 sites in 39 states. The amount of spent fuel generated in the United States to date would cover a football field to a depth of 5 feet, according to the Energy Department. Most of it is commercial, stored at power plants and regularly transported on the nation's road and rail systems. Power plants had 59,525 tons of spent fuel at the end of 2005; 103 operating reactors were spitting out 2,425 tons a year. The government's inventory of spent fuel last year included at least 2,347 tons from defense reactors. All of it was stored in four locations, all with direct rail access, near Hanford, Wash.; Idaho Falls, Idaho; Aiken, S.C.; and Platteville, Colo. The Washington, Idaho and South Carolina sites also held 386,000 cubic meters of unprocessed high-level waste associated with weapons production.

Also piling up in Aiken and several other sites are tons of irradiated trash-clothing, tools, rags, residue, debris and the like-that is contaminated with plutonium. This solid, or transuranic, waste is being hauled, gradually, to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant that Energy opened in Carlsbad, N.M., in 1999. By the end of last year, 3,600 cubic meters, about 600 shipments, had gone from Aiken to permanent underground storage there. Shipments from Hanford are to begin late next year.

With Yucca Mountain decades behind schedule, a consortium of private nuclear power utilities, known as Private Fuel Storage LLC, offered in March to sell the government space in a temporary dump it plans to build on a Goshute Indian reservation in Skull Valley, Utah, 50 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. The consortium won its license to build and operate the dump from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Feb. 21, but construction isn't guaranteed. Private Fuel Storage still has to line up funding and obtain necessary permits from other federal agencies.

Routing Radiation

The 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act requires the Energy Department to provide technical support and funding to help train state, tribal and local governments in routine transportation procedures and emergency response. The department plans to begin such assistance once it identifies the shipping routes. Not only hasn't it publicized its plan for selecting routes, but it also hasn't determined the role of its program management contractors in selecting routes or specific plans for collaborating with the affected states and other parties along the routes.

Other items on Energy's to-do list: setting safety and security procedures, arranging for state inspection of shipments and planning other contractor operations-those could include communications and tracking, emergency responder training and contingency handling.

There have been accidents involving spent fuel in transit, but none resulted in a release exceeding regulatory limits, according to "Going the Distance." It credits rigorous international safety standards and U.S. regulations, full-scale crash testing, increasingly sophisticated analytical studies and continuing reconstructions of severe accidents that didn't involve spent fuel to assess how nuclear waste transport containers would have performed in a crisis.

Transport containers are designed to prevent or limit radiological releases in accidents and to hold the radiation on their exteriors to acceptable levels. The typical container is an airtight, hollow cylinder made of multiple layers of steel, lead, concrete and other heavy shielding materials. The ends are capped with rubber- like seals and steel lids and cushioned with wood, foam or metal honeycomb. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires the cylinders to be designed with a substantial margin of safety and manufactured using an approved quality assurance program. Regulators license a container based on the ability of its design to survive being dropped, punctured, engulfed in 1,475-degree flames and submerged in 50 feet of water without a radiological release that is outside regulatory limits. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission permits computer simulations and scale-model testing to meet the requirements. It does not mandate full-scale testing of spent fuel packages because of the expense involved-large truck and rail containers cost more than $1 million each-and the lack of U.S. facilities capable of handling them.

"Going the Distance" characterizes the containers as 99 percent effective in shielding more than 99 percent of radiation emitted by the spent fuel or high-level waste inside them. But it makes one important exception: an accident involving a fire that burns uncontrolled for hours or days. In July 2001, a fire in a Baltimore railroad tunnel with limited access gave locals and first responders a fright. A train carrying 28,600 gallons of liquid tripropylene derailed. The National Institute of Standards and Technology estimated that the fire lasted three to 12 hours, with temperatures peaking around 1,832 degrees. There was no radioactive material aboard the train, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is using the accident conditions to re-examine the performance of some transport containers it previously certified.

Because the casks don't block the radiation completely, people along the shipping routes risk getting small doses when loaded containers pass by. According to Energy's final environmental impact statement for Yucca Mountain, with maximum incident-free exposure, the lifetime risk of developing and dying of cancer might increase by 1 in 10,000 for someone who lives along a rail route. It estimates the radiological impact on populations within half a mile of any rail route, assuming no accidents, to be one cancer fatality in 16.4 million people over the 24-year life of the program. A rail accident might raise the number to five. About 3.8 million members of that population can expect to die of unrelated cancers in the same period. While Energy characterizes the health and safety risks as barely discernible and "exceedingly small," the Committee on Nuclear Waste Transportation report acknowledges that even minor releases might have important social implications.

"Going the Distance" drew its strongest criticism from the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a nonprofit group in Takoma Park, Md., for citizens and environmental activists. Nuclear waste specialist Kevin Kamps accused the committee of whitewashing the dangers. "Instead of recommending that wastes be safeguarded and secured against accident and attack where they currently are, [the National Academies] now advises that the wastes be rushed onto our roads, rails and waterways," Kamps said in a statement issued Feb. 14, a few days after the release of the report. "The prospect of 'Mobile Chernobyls' speeding at 60 mph down roads and rails through hundreds of cities introduces new risks not faced by stationary on-site storage at reactors."

The report didn't surprise Judy Treichel, a tireless anti-Yucca Mountain crusader who heads the Nevada Nuclear Task Force Inc. "It says that we are capable of shipping nuclear waste and other hazardous materials in this country, but there needs to be very strict regulations and they need to be scrupulously followed," says Treichel. "It also says [the Energy Department] is not the entity to do this," she adds.

Paul Golan, acting director of Energy's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, didn't disagree that the structure of his organization could be improved. In fact, he says he's begun augmenting his nuclear waste transportation program with a handful of security professionals from other parts of the department. But in late March, he was resisting the report's recommendation to separate the transportation and repository programs. "The job the [Energy] secretary gave me was to move the Yucca Mountain Project forward," Golan says. "We think it's best integrated."

"Going the Distance" says certain characteristics of the transport program make it exceptionally challenging: It's decentralized, involving numerous government agencies and private sector entities; it has to operate consistently and reliably; it faces schedule pressure because of spent fuel acceptance deadlines set by law; it's subject to the Energy Department's budgetary ups and downs and the annual congressional appropriations process; and it spans more than two decades. All that makes it difficult to plan for, procure and construct the needed infrastructure. "The committee felt that the program wasn't getting enough management attention and wasn't getting enough funding to be able to do its job, says study director Kevin Crowley. "The committee recommended raising its visibility, either within [the Energy Department] or by turning it into another type of an organization." Options include establishing a quasi-governmental corporation or a wholly private entity. Whatever structure results, the report says, the government should pay attention to safety and people's fears.

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