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Nuclear-waste conflict intensifies Opponents of plans point to terrorism

By Martin Kasindorf

Fear of nuclear terrorism is heating up a dispute concerning the safety of shipping radioactive cargo across the USA by road, rail and waterway.

With little fanfare, shipments of weapons-grade plutonium and spent nuclear fuel have been transported among government facilities and commercial power plants since the 1950s. Now, political showdowns and the arrest of a suspect in an alleged ''dirty bomb'' plot have forced the issue into public debate:

* The Senate is nearing a crucial vote on opening a facility beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada for disposal of 77,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste now stored at 131 sites in 39 states. Nevada officials and environmental groups warn that putting the waste on wheels during the 24 years of shipments risks a ''mobile Chernobyl'': a radiological contamination disaster that could result from a terror attack or accident. On Monday, the U.S. Conference of Mayors voted to oppose the plan until cities along transport routes have adequate funding and training to handle incidents.

* The Justice Department announced last week that Abdullah Al Muhajir, 31, a U.S. citizen, had been arrested in Chicago on suspicion of plotting with al-Qaeda to detonate a dirty bomb, which uses conventional explosives to spread radioactive material. Critics of the Yucca Mountain plan moved quickly to capitalize on the news.

The arrest ''should serve as a wake-up call to the nation that transporting nuclear waste is a deadly idea,'' Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., says. The Energy Department and the nuclear power industry respond that they have a good road safety record.

* South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges, a Democrat, ordered state troopers to stop any shipments of bomb-grade plutonium bound for the Energy Department's Savannah River Site nuclear complex in his state. The department is closing the Rocky Flats nuclear facility near Denver and wants to store plutonium in South Carolina until it is recycled into power plant fuel.

Hodges sued, saying he fears the government won't build the recycling plant and will turn his state into ''a dumping ground'' for plutonium. A federal judge dismissed the suit, saying a blockade would be illegal and a target for terrorists. The ruling cleared the way for the first shipments, but Hodges is appealing. The ruling, meanwhile, does not specifically order Hodges not to block roads, and on Monday, the Energy Department asked the court for such an order. A hearing is scheduled today.

Like Nevada's Reid, Hodges cites the arrest of Al Muhajir. ''If terrorists are trying to build a dirty bomb in the United States, the last thing we should do is truck weapons-grade plutonium across the country in 18-wheelers to a new storage site,'' he says.

Senate action on the $57 billion Yucca Mountain storage site is expected before the July Fourth recess. As soon as 2010, waste destined for burial could start rolling through 45 states on guarded trains, trucks and barges. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham says the lethal waste would be safer in a single vault. Nevada officials say the risks in shipping are so fearsome that the waste is safer where it is now.

Scientific consultants hired in the dispute disagree over how hard it is to puncture the canisters that will carry the waste. But they agree that a release in a big city of radioactive cesium-137, the most dangerous component in fuel rods, would kill emergency personnel and cause long-term cancer fatalities.

''All you've got to do is say this nuclear cask has been attacked, and it doesn't matter whether it was successful or not, people are going to panic,'' says Robert Jefferson, an Albuquerque nuclear engineer and consultant who supports the Yucca Mountain project. Jefferson says that health effects from an attack would be ''very localized and pretty minimal.''

If a shipping cask had burned in the five-day fire that ravaged a Baltimore railway tunnel last July, cesium would have contaminated 32 square miles, says Robert Halstead, a consultant for Nevada. Failure to clean it up -- for $13.7 billion -- would ''cause 4,000 to 28,000 cancer deaths over the next 50 years.''

Such calculations are rattling Las Vegas, 100 miles southeast of Yucca Mountain. The city has made it a criminal offense to carry high-level nuclear wastes through town. Mayor Oscar Goodman vows to arrest any offending trucker.

Nevada has no nuclear power plants. Fearing a blow to tourism, its officials have been trying since 1982 to dodge what they call a ''dump'' that would serve other states. That year, Congress ordered deep disposal of spent fuel from commercial reactors, navy ships and university research facilities, as well as surplus bomb-making plutonium. Congress selected Yucca Mountain in 1987 after eight other locations in states with more population and political clout had been studied.

President Bush approved the project in February. Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn, a Republican, then exercised an option to veto it. The issue landed in Congress. Majorities overriding Guinn's veto in both houses are needed to revive the project. The House of Representatives voted in May to support the project.

The Energy Department has mapped possible highway, rail and barge corridors that pass 109 cities of 100,000 population or more.

The Environmental Working Group, a watchdog organization based in Washington, D.C., last week created a Web site ( enabling anyone to type an address and see a map showing that spot's proximity to the suggested routes.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, the lobbying arm of the nuclear power industry, says there have been eight accidents but no radioactivity releases in more than 3,000 shipments of spent fuel since 1964. Halstead, the consultant for Nevada, says that shipping accidents in 1960 and 1962 caused radioactive releases requiring cleanup.

Even if Yucca Mountain opens, it won't solve the nuclear waste problem unless Congress expands the site's capacity. Nuclear plants pile 2,000 tons of waste a year. In 2034, 42,400 tons of waste still would be at power plants, compared with today's 43,500 tons.