On May 31, a train left Wisconsin headed for the Department of Energy site near Barnwell, South Carolina, carrying a 310-ton decommissioned nuclear reactor core. Its route was a highly guarded secret.
The reactor core came from the La Crosse Boiling Water Reactor, which was shut down in April 1987. The owner of the nuclear power plant, the Dairyland Power Cooperative, is in the process of dismantling the facility and in May removed and readied the obsolete reactor core for shipment.
To the utility company and to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the process was little more than an engineering problem. A wide vertical hole was cut in the containment structure for removal of the 10-foot by 40-foot core. A contractor specially designed the crane equipment used to lift the reactor vessel, move it out horizontally on a conveyor, lower it into a huge steel "garbage can," weld it shut, and eventually lower the core onto a flatbed, 20-axle rail car, anchor it down, and even paint the cask before sending it from Wisconsin to South Carolina. Workers climbing on the packaged core most likely received elevated doses of radiation.
The entire rail route used by the train was inspected beforehand to ensure safe passage. In this case, chances of an accident involving radioactive release were minimal, since the entire vessel had been filled with concrete while still inside the containment building. But the U.S. government estimates that there are 1 million shipments of radioactive material on the roads every year—the vast majority of them done without public knowledge.
RADIOACTIVE TRANSPORTS include waste moving to places such as Barnwell, Energy Solutions in Utah, and the Nevada Test Site from contaminated places all across the country. Shipments include radioactive materials from brokers selling isotopes to contractors or builders; nuclear weapons and component parts going from one DOE facility to another; medical isotopes shipped to labs or hospitals; cobalt going to food irradiators; reactor operators' gloves, suits, rags, and other garbage going to dump sites.
It is not unusual for trucks to crash and spill radioactive cargo onto highways. In such cases entire sections of road must be ripped up and disposed of as low-level waste. Denver recently removed an entire street made with radium-contaminated asphalt and shipped it to another location. Federal agencies use trucks, barges, and trains to ship radwaste through population centers. On Sept. 11, 2000, a radioactive waste shipment was spotted traveling through Washington, D.C.
The Railroad Administration reported that in 1998 there were 3,500 collisions at highway rail crossings. About every 100 minutes a train collides with a person or a vehicle. In Nevada, the site of the proposed Yucca Mountain high-level dump, an average of 275 truck accidents happen every month, or about nine per day in 2001. According to a 2002 Department of Energy report that analyzed accident scenarios in 20 cities, as many as 1,228 people in Chicago could die of cancer within one year of a nuclear waste shipment accident.
Transuranic waste, which is produced during nuclear fuel assembly (as well as during nuclear weapons research, production, and cleanup, and as a result of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel), often contains or is contaminated with plutonium. Dr. Helen Caldicott, author of Nuclear Power is Not the Answer, estimates that one pound of plutonium evenly dispersed around the planet is enough to cause lung cancer in every person. There is no safe level of exposure to radiation. Every accident that contaminates the environment increases the risk of cancer.
There is no guarantee of safety with radioactive shipments. And the "engineering problem" of what to do with the tens of thousands of metric tons of nuclear waste has yet to be resolved.
The travesty of the nuclear age is that radiation cannot and has not been isolated from our environment. Today we carelessly use the energy produced by deadly reactors and agree to more nuclear weapons—10,000 years from now, people may still be wondering why.
Bonnie Urfer is co-director of Nukewatch, based in Luck, Wisconsin.