Threat of accident involving nuclear shipments downplayed
Safety precautions for expected shipments of nuclear waste through California, and possibly even Nevada County, are so extensive it is extremely unlikely a serious accident could occur, a state official said.
Nonetheless, hazards are possible and proper planning is required, stressed Richard Osborne, radiological officer for the state Office of Emergency Services.
“It is like me winning the lottery,” Osborne said. “There is a possibility I could, but when?”
Osborne outlined security provisions surrounding the federal shipments for a handful of county officials last week. State and local officials are preparing for a variety of scenarios, including accidents, terrorism and civil disobedience.
Since the 1950s, the United States has supplied research reactors and enriched uranium to foreign countries that agree not to develop nuclear weapons. As part of the agreement, the United States also accepts the spent nuclear fuel, most of it through shipments through the East Coast.
Five ocean shipments from Pacific Rim countries are expected through the Concord Naval Weapons Station within the next 10 to 13 years. The material will finally be stored in eastern Idaho.
The Energy Department reportedly favors overland rail shipments through Truckee or the Feather River Canyon. The state could expect five to eight shipments through 2010.
However, according to the California Energy Commission, the federal Energy Department has not ruled out trucking as many as 38 shipments of the spent fuel along Interstate 80 through Nevada County
and over the Sierra.
The first shipment is scheduled next February, although state officials hope the Energy Department will push back the date, lest the train have to battle fierce winter snowstorms, Osborne said. The shipment’s exact time and date will not be announced.
Such shipments have been kept secret in the past, but the Energy Department of late has been releasing some information about them, Osborne said.
This is reportedly due to political pressure from communities along shipment routes. For example, some Nevada County supervisors recently have argued for an alternative route through Oregon, which they argued is less populated. The idea was studied and rejected by the federal government.
Among the planned safety precautions are the fuel containers – stainless-steel, 26-ton casks with 8-inch walls meant to withstand a 70 mph vehicle crash and 30 minutes of exposure to heat of 1,475 degrees F. The 1995 explosion that destroyed the federal building in Oklahoma might crack the cask, Osborne said. “That is how safe the cask is.”
Accompanying the shipments will be a health physicist, a communications expert, an expert on the casks and an armed escort. There also will be cell phones and radios on the train. Were a cask to fall off the train, Osborne said, it would be difficult to move, given its weight. It also can be opened only with special tools.
If there were an accident in Nevada County, the county’s role would be to prevent people from entering the area until experts arrived at the scene, said Dennis Cassella, the county’s emergency services director.
“We are not going to move a 26-ton cask,” he said.
Under a worst-case scenario, Osborne explained, a bomb placed next to the cask could spread material and contaminate a 10-square mile area. He stressed that the material itself is not explosive.
Since the program began in 1957, there have been 2,468 shipments and no breach of a cask and no release of a cask’s contents, according to federal Department of Energy figures.
Nuclear materials, however, have stirred past debate in Nevada County. In 1992, voters appealed a controversial Nuclear-Free Zone Act they had approved only two years prior. Measure B repealed the Nuclear-Free Zone Act and replaced it with a simple prohibition of radioactive-material dumping.
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