Nuclear waste may pass through Truckee if Yucca plan approved
Nevada officials and residents alike were outraged last week by news that Yucca Mountain could become the new receptacle for nearly 77,000 tons of nuclear waste over the next several decades.
The formal announcement came Thursday, Jan. 10, when U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham informed Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn of his plans to recommend the site, located 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, to President Bush for approval.
Nevada won’t be the only state affected by this decision, though, as project approval could mean thousands of trucks and trains full of these deadly materials would be transported right through Truckee’s back yard.
“This is much bigger than the state of Nevada,” said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., in an article in the Reno Gazette-Journal Jan. 11. “We are talking about 70,000 tons of the most poisonous substances known to man.”
According to the same article, one proposed route for moving these materials, via truck and train, from west coast locations to Yucca could be Interstate 80 and the Union Pacific rail lines through northern Nevada.
Nevada County Fifth District Supervisor Barbara Green said her initial reaction to the news was one of concern.
“This is an extremely environmentally sensitive area,” Green said. “I think it’s really bizarre that they would choose one of the most scenic routes in California, one of the only roads that goes through the Sierra, for something like this.”
Green said she worries about transportation of these materials both because of possible accidents and “what’s been going on in the world since Sept. 11.”
Due to the level of uncertainty regarding the project at this early stage, Truckee officials were reluctant to discuss the matter.
“We’ll do whatever it takes,” said Town Manager Steve Wright. “From a town perspective, we’ll have to plan accordingly and work with police and fire in case of an accident.”
Councilmember Josh Susman said although the Town Council has yet to discuss the matter, it is a topic they will look carefully at in the future.
“Personally, I am quite concerned with [the possibility of these materials coming through Truckee],” Susman said. “There will definitely need to be some staff presentations to increase community awareness.”
Truckee Fire Chief Mike Terwilliger said he is not too concerned with the proposal.
“There’s all kinds of hazardous materials coming through this area all of the time,” Terwilliger said. “It’s just that people don’t really know about it.”
He said that several years ago, when transporting nuclear materials was a “hot topic,” local fire crews went through extensive training on handling these materials in the event of an accident.
“We’re not planning on doing anything different if these materials start coming through. We’ve got a standard protocol to follow,” Tewilliger said.
He also stressed the durability of the containers used for transport.
“These containers can be dropped from a 20-story building and they won’t rupture. They’re bulletproofEso I don’t really see there being any problems,” he said. “This is really more of a political issue than a safety one.”
The California Highway Patrol has also been specially trained in dealing with nuclear materials.
“It’s a regulated commodity that we’ve dealt with and actually escorted before; however, not with the frequency that we could if this program was to go through,” said Officer Kirk Bromell in the CHP’s public affairs department.
Bromell said they treat these materials just as they treat any other hazardous materials.
According to Mike Furtney, public relations director for Union Pacific railroad’s western region, it is premature for people to start worrying about the Yucca Mountain project.
“Why get all twisted up in knots without even knowing if this is even going to happen?” Furtney said. “People need to get a grip because the nuclear genie has been out of the jug for more than 50 years now. We need to calm down as a nation and take a more rational approach to the situation.”
The earliest nuclear materials could start being transported is 2010, but Furtney said it is likely to be much later than that if the state of Nevada holds the process up in court.
Furtney said he supports the plan, with limitations, because it makes more sense to house these dangerous materials in one central location for security reasons.
According to the Department of Energy, spent nuclear fuel, high level radioactive waste and excess plutonium for which there is no complete disposal pathway without a repository are currently stored at over 131 sites in 39 states.
Nothing will be finalized until after the next couple of months, during which the project is likely to be tossed back and forth between state and federal legislatures. First, the formal recommendation of approval goes to the president after 30 days.
Then, Nevada has 60 days to override the president’s approval if given, which would send the decision back to Congress. A majority vote in the House and the Senate is then needed to override Nevada’s decision.