- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2003

The Department of Energy has lifted its moratorium on nuclear-waste shipments imposed after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The routes no longer include plans for moving the shipments by rail through downtown Washington.

“The moratorium is lifted,” Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis said.

The nuclear waste is being shipped from nuclear power plants and Defense Department installations to federal storage sites.

Virginia officials confirmed this week that nuclear-waste shipments have resumed through their state.

“Yes, we have been notified of at least one instance I’m aware of,” said Kevin Hall, spokesman for Virginia Gov. Mark Warner. “But for obvious national security reasons, I would decline to provide any details.”

Most nuclear waste produced by power plants at Calvert Cliffs in Maryland and North Anna in Virginia is stored on site.

In the United States, nearly all high-level nuclear waste consists of fuel rods used to control the amount of energy generated by nuclear power plants. When the rods become saturated with radiation, they must be discarded. However, they can remain dangerously radioactive for centuries.

The 103 nuclear reactors in 31 states produce 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. Most of the waste not stored on site is shipped to federal storage facilities near Barnwell, S.C.; Hanford, Wash.; and Idaho Falls, Idaho.

A smaller amount of high-level radioactive waste is produced by the Defense Department during uranium processing for nuclear weapons.

The long-term solution will be underground storage at Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert. However, the Yucca Mountain facility is not scheduled to open until 2010.

The issue of safety arose this month when residents in upstate New York complained about nuclear-waste shipments from a former Defense Department facility in West Valley, N.Y. The shipment of 125 spent nuclear fuel rod assemblies moved by rail this week to the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory.

Energy Department officials said the moratorium on shipments was lifted sometime before the nuclear waste was shipped this week. However, they would not disclose details of when nuclear waste is shipped or the routes used, except with local authorities who participate in security arrangements.

“Shipments are monitored 24 hours a day and escorted 24 hours a day,” Mr. Davis said.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it imposed new security requirements last year on power plants shipping waste but gave few details.

“The augmented security requirements included increased communications and additional escort and monitoring provisions,” commission spokeswoman Sue Gagner said.

Safety was an issue in the Washington area after the September 11 attacks. An Energy Department map of proposed routes for nuclear-waste shipments showed some of them would be carried on railroad tracks along Virginia Avenue, near L’Enfant Plaza and about a half-mile from the Capitol.

After September 11, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it would review and revamp its routes for greater security.

“The information I have on any movements is classified,” said Dan Murphy, spokesman for CSX Transportation, the railroad whose tracks are used for many of the nuclear-waste shipments along the East Coast. “The one thing I can tell you is no nuclear waste moves through the Virginia Avenue tunnel.”

Other routes would have carried nuclear-waste shipments by rail through Baltimore and by truck near Richmond and Baltimore.

Energy Department officials refused to give further information about routes used since the moratorium was lifted.

“We don’t disclose that,” Mr. Davis said.

The Energy Department hopes secrecy will help them avoid risks such as terrorists firing a missile at a cask carrying nuclear waste.

Bob Halstead, transportation adviser to the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, told Congress last year that a 1998 test at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland showed 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, Mr. Halstead testified to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The smaller truck casks are even more vulnerable.

Nuclear energy industry officials deny the casks create risks from a terrorist attack.

“These are extremely robust containers,” said Steve Kerekes, spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the policy organization for the nuclear energy industry. “On the relative scale of risk, this would have to be far down the list compared to anything else terrorists could do easily to cause public harm.”

Since 1964, about 3,000 nuclear-waste shipments have been made, none of which leaked radiation, Mr. Kerekes said.

Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico is experimenting with the casks to determine whether they could be made stronger.

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