- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 24, 2002

Federal officials are re-examining their plan to ship nuclear waste to the new Yucca Mountain storage site through major cities, including Washington and Baltimore.
The shipments to the storage facility in the Nevada desert would include 312 rail cars that could pass along the CSX Corp. tracks that run beside Washington's L'Enfant Plaza, only blocks from the Capitol. Other shipments could run through a main rail yard on the east side of Baltimore.
When loaded, each of the casks that contain waste from nuclear power plants at Calvert Cliffs in Maryland and North Anna in Virginia would carry up to 12 tons of highly radioactive material.
A map of "preliminary routes" chosen by the Energy Department shows that the nuclear waste would travel by rail through the Washington and Baltimore areas and by truck near Baltimore and Richmond.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials said their plans for transporting the nuclear waste were prepared before the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
"We are doing a top-to-bottom review of all of our security requirements, which includes a review of transportation cask vulnerabilities to terrorism," spokeswoman Sue Gagner said. "The whole top-to-bottom review we are doing is a result of the September 11 attack."
A hearing on the safety of the nuclear-waste shipments is scheduled for tomorrow before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Congress is trying to decide whether to override Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn's April 8 veto of a federal plan to store the waste in his home state. The Republican governor says the risks of transporting the radioactive material are too great. President Bush has approved the shipments.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors expressed concern about the shipments passing through cities in a Feb. 22 letter to Mr. Bush.
The shipments are scheduled to begin in 2010 and continue for the next 24 years, according to an environmental-impact statement released by the Department of Energy in February. Among the approximately 175 shipments per year, about 45 would be made by truck and 130 by rail.
A major concern of critics is that terrorists could use the casks containing the radioactive material as ready-made "dirty bombs." Explosives planted along track beds or armor-piercing missiles could rupture the casks in populated areas, spreading deadly radiation over a wide area, they say.
The casks are made primarily of steel and lead with mixtures of other compounds intended to reinforce their durability.
Among the problems is maintaining the secrecy of schedules and routes.
The truck shipments can be kept secret more easily than rail shipments because of the many roads they can follow. But they carry greater risk of accidents because of other vehicles on the roads.
"Our preferred shipping alternative is by rail," said Joe Davis, Department of Energy spokesman. "We would like to ship 90 percent of all the waste that can go to Yucca Mountain by rail."
Trains, however, must follow routes set by the alignment of tracks, which include trips through large cities such as Washington.
Mr. Davis downplayed concerns the casks would rupture.
Even if terrorists could determine which of many unmarked trucks or rail cars carried the nuclear wastes, they would have to elude armed escorts and would need to penetrate the reinforced casks designed to be impenetrable, he said.
Mr. Davis called the risks of a successful terrorist attack "remote at best."
"The casks we ship the wastes in have been tested extensively," he said.
During the tests, scale-model versions of the casks were hit by trains at 80 mph, rammed into concrete walls at 80 mph, dropped onto hard surfaces, dropped onto a spike, submerged in water and exposed to fire of more than 2,000 degrees.
"In every instance, they have survived without the breach of a cask," Mr. Davis said.
But critics of the federal transportation plan say the tests have failed to consider terrorism realistically.
Bob Halstead, transportation adviser to the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, said he will testify tomorrow that a 1998 test at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland shows that an armor-piercing anti-tank TOW missile could blast a hole in even the strongest of nuclear-waste transportation casks.
The missile cut a 4- to 6-inch diameter hole in a rail cask, he said. The smaller truck casks are even more vulnerable.
A TOW missile penetrating a nuclear-waste storage cask "could cause 3,000 to 18,000 latent cancer fatalities" in an average urban area, Mr. Halstead said in testimony submitted to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "Cleanup and recovery costs would exceed $10 billion."
Nathan Naylor, spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat who opposes the Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste shipment plan, calls the armor-piercing TOW missiles "a very sophisticated weapon but one that is very commonly available on the black market."
He also said any tests conducted on the casks used only computer simulations or scale models that were no more than half the actual size of the casks.
A consultant's report prepared for Nevada said the casks would have failed if they were exposed to the 1,500-degree heat of the fire caused by a derailment of chemical-carrying rail cars in a Baltimore tunnel last summer.
The transportation casks will vary in size from about 24 tons for the kinds carried by trucks to up to 140 tons for the largest casks carried by rail.
The protective casks will take up most of the weight to be transported. A 24-ton cask, for example, may carry less than 2 tons of radioactive material. A 120-ton rail cask would carry about 10 tons of spent radioactive fuel.

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