By rail and by road, nuclear waste could soon travel through Truckee | SierraSun.com

By rail and by road, nuclear waste could soon travel through Truckee

As the state of Nevada and the federal government continued to spar over the controversial Yucca Mountain project this week, several Truckee officials said they’ve chosen to remain ringside — as spectators — at least until more details are disclosed about the project, specifically in regards to transportation routes.

The project seeks to consolidate the nation’s some 77,000 tons of nuclear waste at one centralized Nevada facility 90 miles southwest of Las Vegas.

However, as Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn stated earlier this year, the project has the potential to effect a much greater population than just the Nevada residents, for the waste would need to be transported to Yucca Mountain from the 131 sites and 39 states in which it currently resides.

Several of the proposed transportation routes could bring these deadly materials from West Coast locations through Truckee’s backyard, either via truck or train.

“Interstate 80 is definitely a possibility as far as a route,” said Bob Loux, executive director for Nevada’s Agency on Nuclear Projects. “It’s hard to say just how many shipments could come through the area, but it’s also possible that materials could move through by rail on Union Pacific lines.”

Loux said the Department of Energy’s (DOE) continued refusal to identity specific routes and methods of transport should be cause for alarm.

“Truckee should be concerned about the lack of safety studies conducted [in regards to transportation issues],” Loux said.

Too Premature to Panic

Town of Truckee Mayor Ron Florian said he needs more information before he can fully comment on the project.

“[Yucca Mountain] is something that I’ve been following fairly closely in the news,” Florian said. “But I’ve still got so many questions. For instance, how would these materials be transported? What kind of precautions would the federal government take to guarantee the security of its citizens? At what times would these materials be transported? How often would they come through? All of these things need to be answered before Truckee can really approach this issue.”

Barbara Green, District 5 county supervisor, agrees.

“I maintain the same position that I had when this issue first came up several months ago in that the possible environmental impacts of this project are deeply concerning, especially in such [an environmentally] sensitive area such as this one,” Green said. “I’d still like to see some more information on transportation safety, particularly after those two train accidents lately. Did you see footage of that recent derailment in Florida? The cars were all over the place.”

Transportation Tug-a-War

After failing to convince Congress that Yucca Mountain is inappropriate, Nevada has recently shifted its campaign to focus on transportation concerns in hopes of rallying support from states and communities that lie along possible shipping routes.

The state recently launched a $6-8 million nationwide advertising campaign to educate people about the possible dangers of transport including spills and accidents, failure of the casks used to carry nuclear materials and terrorist attacks.

“The DOE is relying on its track record thus far to make the argument that the risks are minimal if any,” Loux said. “But the shipments they’ve made in the past have been nowhere near this size, frequency, nor traveled these kinds of distances, and therefore, that track record isn’t adequate.”

According to the department’s Web site, the U.S. government has successfully shipped more than 10,000 spent fuel assemblies in more than 2,700 shipments over the past 35 years.

“While there have been a few accidents (four highway and three rail) involving the transport vehicles, none has resulted in the breach of a cask or the release of radioactive materials above the prescribed regulatory limits,” quotes the site.

Another concern Loux cited was the lack of testing that’s been done on the casks that would hold shipments.

“Most of the tests have been computer simulated or done on a small scale models, which just isn’t enough,” Loux said. “Aside from the dangers of radiation and contamination, the government has also refused to inform communities of potentials such as declines in property values along sites where these materials would be moving through.”

The DOE Web site states that only, “extremely durable and massive transportation casks certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would be used.” Those casks would have to pass a series of tests such as being able to withstand a “fully engulfed fire at 1475 degrees” or “a drop from 30 feet onto an unyielding surface.”

Lastly, there’s the question of a terrorist attack, one of the main reasons proponents of Yucca Mountain use to justify the project.

“The whole issue that these materials are a threat to national security as they are now, spread out across the nation in individual plants, is a phony issue,” Loux said. “The fact that [DOE] wants to put these materials on trucks on every major highway is an even bigger threat to national security.”

Local Agencies Feel Confident

Even after hearing both sides of the transportation debate, local emergency agencies expressed confidence in handling such materials should they be routed through the Sierra.

“We’re not doing anything about this issue right now, largely because nothing is likely to happen for a very long time,” said Truckee Fire Chief Mike Terwilliger. “If and when these materials start being transported through here, we’ll put together a plan with the Office of Emergency Services so that we’re fully prepared. However, until that time, we have a lot of other, more pressing concerns that we’re dealing with on a daily basis.”

Terwilliger said he is more concerned with the hazardous materials such as corrosives, munitions and various compressed gases, already moving through the area on a regular basis, that no one really knows about.

“Many of the containers that those materials are being transported in are not as impervious as what these nuclear materials would be shipped in,” he said, citing the recent I-80 pileup in which the hazardous materials team was called in to clean up diesel fuel and other agents. “[The nuclear material casks] can be dropped from a 20-story building and they won’t rupture. I don’t really foresee there being too many problems.”

While California Highway Patrol Spokesperson Officer Kirk Bromell said the department hasn’t taken an official stance on the issue yet, he doesn’t see the issue of terrorist attacks as much of a concern.

“I personally think that terrorists would choose other targets, ones that could do more damage rather than these isolated shipments,” Bromell said. “Not that this project is exempt from such risks, but is there anything you know of that doesn’t have risks? No, and these are risks that can be greatly minimized.”

Wait, Watch, and Learn

“Even though it looks like we’re still a ways away from any kind of decision on this issue, it’s definitely something we, as a town, need to keep on the back burner,” said Mayor Florian.

President Bush has already submitted his approval of the project, however, that approval was almost instantaneously vetoed by Gov. Guinn of Nevada.

In two months, the vote goes to Congress, where both houses must vote to override Guinn’s veto in order to keep Yucca Mountain alive.

“In the meantime, I wouldn’t mind having some presentations for town staff, as well as the public, on these issues, especially since the more educated we are, the better prepared we’ll be and less likely to have problems when and if the time comes,” Florian said.

Council member Josh Susman suggested that Truckee might even work with Nevada, particularly Reno, which would be dealing with similar transportation issues, and even invite some representatives from Nevada to come give presentations.

“We want to do anything we can to minimize the potentials for disaster,” Susman said.

Reno Mayor Jeff Griffin said he’d welcome Truckee to join with his city on the issue.

“The government simply hasn’t done enough science or research to safely go ahead with this project at this time, and they need to know that,” Griffin said, citing the devastating tunnel fire in Baltimore last year as one such example for concern. “The temperature of that fire exceeded the failure temperature of the casks that would be used for this project by 200 degrees,” Griffin said. “In the event of something like this where nuclear materials were involved, it could be just disastrous.”

Griffin said he plans to take these and other concerns to the upcoming League of Cities convention and welcomed Truckee to join Reno at the event.

Nevada County District 3 Supervisor Bruce Conklin urges residents to take action on the issue by staying informing and contacting their federal representatives with concerns.

“The county really doesn’t have much power in this situation, as a county, but there are things that individuals can do,” said Conklin, who was instrumental in passing Nevada County’s “Nuclear Free Zone” initiative in 1990, an initiative that was later repealed by another group of voters two years later.

“Nevada County residents don’t want nuclear materials moving through their county,” Conklin said. “The people have voiced this in the past and I don’t believe that public opinion has really changed that much.”