Deadly decisions

Asheville? Nuclear waste? Why worry that Asheville City Council declined to pass a measure that would have sent federal planners the message “Don’t come through here” with these deadly wastes?

Taken in a larger context, this nonaction by City Council may be vitally important. Folks have a right to know about some very local nuclear history and the potential for future impacts on Asheville residents’ safety and welfare.

Does the name Sandy Mush mean anything to you?

About 25 years ago, a federal agency was studying Sandy Mush—a rural area in Leicester, about 20 miles from City Hall—as a potential site for a permanent high-level nuclear waste dump. Were you part of the citizen action that helped block it?

I only recently learned, however, that back in 1986, Congress did not eliminate the Sandy Mush site from future consideration. Instead, the attempt to site a second, eastern dump was merely shelved when Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada was targeted as the nation’s lone dump site for high-level nuclear waste. And the news that Sandy Mush is merely “on hold” changes the frame on City Council’s failing to assert local jurisdictional authority to oppose or prohibit the transport of high-level nuclear waste through Asheville.

Let’s be clear: The waste in question isn’t on the roads today; it’s sitting at the various nuclear-power plants and nuclear-weapons sites where it was created, and so far, that’s still the best plan. But once it has a destination, there will be decades of federal shipments—thousands, possibly tens of thousands of enormous containers full of high-level radioactive waste—traveling by truck, rail, boat or a combination of these. Extremely concentrated and immediately deadly, this waste (aka “spent fuel,” primarily from commercial nuclear-power plants) will not be simple to move safely.

In effect, the penetrating gamma rays would make this akin to an X-ray machine going down the road. Shielding the material sufficiently to prevent this radiation exposure would make the loads so heavy that shipping would be impossible. So federal standards allow a specified radiation level at the container’s surface—equivalent to receiving 10 chest X-rays per hour. Even without an accident, these shipments constitute a hazard.

Inevitably, however, there will be accidents, ranging from fender-benders to the worst-case scenarios. And even harmless incidents can cause significant disruption, as it can take much time to confirm that there was no release of hazardous material.

But in a bad accident involving both crushing forces and a fire, if even a fraction of the waste were lofted into the smoke plume and off the accident site, it could result in “sacrifice zones” that could never be fully cleaned up. Unlike chlorine spills, residents evacuated from these areas do not go home again, because the area is either permanently off-limits or the “cleanup” involves demolition and even scraping the earth.

On Nov. 25, Asheville City Council heard but didn’t act on a locally proposed ordinance (based on a Las Vegas statute) that would have prohibited the transport of this type of waste through the city. Council also declined to draft a nonbinding resolution opposing these shipments. And apparently—with one exception—they didn’t even read the reports submitted to them concerning this vital issue.

On Dec. 9, Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman sent a report to Congress stating that even if the proposed Yucca Mountain Repository eventually opens, a second dump will be needed. Why? Because by 2010, the waste already generated will have exceeded Yucca’s capacity. By law, however, the second repository is to be east of the Mississippi River. So WNC beware: Will a few politicians single-handedly decide our future for us? The report also claims that Yucca Mountain’s legal capacity could be expanded, but in fact, this is not technically feasible.

The Nevada site was a political choice; geologically speaking, it would be hard to find a worse place for a waste dump. The combination of volcanic activity in the area and chemically corrosive, fractured rock means it is doomed to fail. People across the U.S. oppose Yucca Mountain both on technical grounds and because it’s a sacred Shoshone Indian site.

Because this is such a complex matter, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service and WNC Physicians for Social Responsibility are planning a public forum for sometime early in 2009 where we hope a variety of views will be shared.

Both groups are active in Common Sense at the Nuclear Crossroads, the local educational campaign that offered the proposed draft ordinance to City Council. I have the great good fortune to work with citizen activists nationwide on nuclear issues, and Asheville is exceptionally lucky to have such a vibrant, dedicated and, indeed, prescient band of professionals-turned-activists. CSNC has met regularly since 2004, the year the possibility of sending this waste to South Carolina for so-called “recycling” was announced.

Make no mistake: Only about 1 percent of the waste is actually reused, and the process is very dirty, dangerous and results in massive air pollution. Common Sense also educates people about the local impacts of other federal plans, including the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (www.gnep.energy.gov).

CSNC has produced two reports on the transport of nuclear material. The second—“More Than a Tad” by John Sticpewich—specifically concerns the transport of high-level radioactive waste in the Carolinas. These documents are available at www.nuclearcrossroads.com. Now imagine if this waste were going to Sandy Mush!

The next meeting of Common Sense at the Nuclear Crossroads is Monday, Feb. 9, at 6:30 p.m., in a downstairs classroom at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Asheville on Edwin Place.

[Mary Olson is the southeast regional coordinator for the Nuclear Information and Resource Service.]

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