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Yucca waste shipments to dwarf past

DOE estimates shipping 3,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel annually for 24 years

By Steve Tetreault
Las Vegas Review-Journal

WASHINGTON – Over three decades, 2,500 tons of spent nuclear fuel was shipped in the United States, an amount that would be eclipsed in only a single year of operations for the Yucca Mountain Project, an expert science panel was told Wednesday.

Kevin Crowley, director of a study being conducted by National Academy of Sciences, said research is showing between 1,923 and 2,746 reported cask shipments of nuclear waste were moved by truck among U.S. sites between 1964 and 1997.

Railroads transported between 279 and 511 cask shipments, he said.

In terms of tonnage, Crowley said, "the total U.S. experience is slightly less than what we would expect to see shipped during one year of a Yucca Mountain transportation program."

Crowley made his presentation to a 16-member expert committee assembled by the academy. The board is developing recommendations on how the government might manage an ambitious campaign to move highly radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel from 39 states to Nevada.

When it is fully operational, the Energy Department estimates shipping 3,000 tons of nuclear waste annually for about 24 years to a repository being planned to hold 77,000 tons of highly radioactive waste.

The department is forming a blueprint calling for 3,000 to 3,300 railroad shipments from government weapons plants and commercial nuclear utilities to the Yucca site.

Another 1,000 shipments would travel by truck.

Crowley said that from 1949 to 1998 there were eight incidents where coolant or other liquid leaked from casks. On 49 occasions, contamination was found on shipping cask surfaces.

"There have been no reported accidents involving breach of the casks and a leak of the (waste) contents," he said.

Panel members sought comment on whether the record of shipments might be a safety indicator for the much larger Yucca Mountain operations.

Michele Boyd, a legislative representative for the Public Citizen advocacy group, said the past is not a good predictor.

"Simply extrapolating from past experience, the statistics of which are disputable, will not be sufficient to ensure that these shipments will be safe, and certainly will not convince the public that they are," she said.

Boyd said statistics do not tell the entire story. For example, she said, from 1986 to 1990 the Energy Department transported two dozen train shipments of nuclear fuel debris from the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania to Idaho.

Along the way, she said, DOE violated speed limits and rush-hour rules through St. Louis. One shipment collided with a car stalled on the tracks, while another carried inaccurate placarding.

"These type of errors need to be evaluated in the context of a massive transportation program involving multiple truck casks per day or multiple train casks per week over a period of at least 24 years," she said.

Steve Kraft, waste management director for the Nuclear Energy Institute, gave a different view. "We believe experience to date is a valid indicator of the future," he said.

Kraft said nuclear waste cask designs and transportation safety plans have remained consistent.

"The quality assurance of the cask, the certification of the cask, the transportation plan, the first responder plan, the security plan, are shipment-independent," Kraft said. "Each shipment is the same."

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