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.