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
* 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
''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
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
The Energy Department has mapped possible highway, rail and
barge corridors that pass 109 cities of 100,000 population or
The Environmental Working Group, a watchdog organization
based in Washington, D.C., last week created a Web site
(www.mapscience.org) enabling anyone to type an address and
see a map showing that spot's proximity to the suggested
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.