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DOE may revert to trucking nuclear waste to Nevada

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 this is."

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 rail line.

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 the earliest.

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 shipping campaign.

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 cars.

Truck casks are inherently more vulnerable to high temperature fires and are more vulnerable to terrorism and sabotage," Halstead said.

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