Unsure when rail line will be complete,
energy officials examine backup plan
By Steve Tetreault
Las Vegal Review-Journal
WASHINGTON, D.C. Unsure whether they can get a railroad
built in time, Energy Department officials are dusting off
a backup plan that would ship radioactive spent fuel by truck
through rural Nevada for the initial years of the Yucca Mountain
nuclear waste repository.
Shielded nuclear waste casks that are sized to be carried
by trucks would be placed onto rail cars at nuclear reactors
and shipped to a Nevada transfer station, most likely at Caliente,
according to an internal DOE analysis performed this month.
There, the casks would be rolled onto specially designed
tractor-trailers and hauled to the repository. A DOE document
obtained this week indicates a probable truck route travels
330 miles north and west to Tonopah along federal and state
roads, and then south on U.S. Highway 95 to Yucca Mountain.
DOE spokesman Allen Benson confirmed Tuesday the department
is developing a transportation backup plan.
"It's possible that we won't have a rail line when we
are ready to ship, and so we have to have a contingency,"
Benson said. "You have to be prepared, and that's what
The contingency assumes nuclear waste would be shipped to
the repository by truck for the first six years of repository
operations, which DOE says will begin in 2010. After six years,
it assumes a railroad would be up and running to the site
100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
DOE is expected soon to formalize a 319-mile corridor from
Caliente to the repository as its preferred rail route. The
possible route for truck shipments generally tracks the proposed
A seven-page analysis was completed by DOE's Office of National
Transportation for the Yucca Mountain Project. It did not
detail the number of potential truck shipments through Nevada
over the six-year period.
Robert Halstead, a consultant for the Nevada Agency for Nuclear
Projects, said the state was aware of the department's study
and has begun to examine it.
Halstead estimated truck shipments through rural Nevada could
increase from about 600 the first year to 2,200 annually by
the fourth, fifth and sixth years. Benson would not comment
on the estimate, saying DOE was developing its numbers.
Benson said the existence of a backup plan does not mean
DOE is conceding it cannot have a railroad built by 2010,
although the Yucca Mountain Project calendar suggests it might
be a tough chore to meet that target.
DOE estimates a 46-month schedule to build a Nevada rail
line, but officials say they can't break ground until they
receive a construction authorization from the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission that might not materialize until 2007 or 2008 at
Benson said the 46 month rail timeline was "a guesstimate.
We're obviously looking at ways to speed that up."
Halstead said state officials will demand DOE perform more
detailed environmental studies if it wants to move forward.
If not, the matter could provide fodder for another Nevada
lawsuit against the Yucca program, he said.
The idea of shipping high level nuclear waste by truck through
rural Nevada drew a thumbs down from Nye County Commission
Chairman Henry Neth. The likely truck route would carry spent
nuclear fuel through Warm Springs, Tonopah and Beatty, and
through Goldfield in Esmeralda County, he said.
DOE studied the truck-cask-on-railcar concept years ago but
concluded in an environmental impact study it would not be
practical to be carried out over an entire 24-year repository
Analysts concluded at the time it would add $1 billion to
the program's cost and require a five-fold increase in needed
shipping casks and railcar shipments. Probably the single
biggest show-stopper," Halstead said, are potential safety
questions surrounding the transport of truck casks on rail
Truck casks are inherently more vulnerable to high temperature
fires and are more vulnerable to terrorism and sabotage,"