Asheville area environmental nonprofits sound alarm on transport of liquid nuclear waste

Several local environmental nonprofits sent a letter to North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper on Jan. 11 outlining concerns about the proposed shipment of liquid nuclear waste from Ontario, Canada to the U.S. Department of Energy Savannah River waste processing facility in Georgia. The signers are: Clean Water for N.C., Environmentalists, Inc., Dogwood Alliance, MountainTrue, NC WARN, Nuclear Information and Resource Service, WNC Physicians for Social Responsibility and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (N.C.):


This letter is a public ALERT for your office from the undersigned groups about a safety and security challenge that we are aware of to our Great State of North Carolina. This new year may see the incursion of shipments of the most highly radioactive nuclear waste or material ever to be shipped on public roadways, through North Carolina.

The US Department of Energy and its counterpart in Canada have decided to ship highly radioactive liquid from Ontario, Canada to South Carolina to be processed at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site. Previously similar liquid wastes have been processed, solidified and stored in Chalk River, Ontario. The change in plans will mean that trucks will be carrying this waste. Since this is unprecedented, a container designed for shipping solid waste is being modified in untested ways. The route has not been established, and indeed, one single route may not be used. North Carolina communities along I-77, I-40 and I-26 are likely to see trucks. The DOE projects 150 or more shipments, all by truck, in 2017 and beyond.

Since nuclear shipments are routed in “real time” by the federal agencies that hold jurisdiction on the day the truck is to leave, none of the routes will be “set” in advance. Nonetheless, the regulatory requirements make it likely that I-81 will be the preferred route towards North Carolina; the same regulations suggest that trucks will not traverse the urban center of Metro Charlotte (I-81 to I-77 to SC), thus the Asheville interstate exchanges are at high risk. All of the organizations signed here are based or active in WNC. As you know, the WNC economy is heavily tied to our local food and beverage production, and the status of the mountains as a place for health. A nuclear accident in this area could decimate the economy based on health and visitors seeking outdoor recreation.

Nonetheless, the release of even a tiny portion of the waste on one of these hundred-plus shipments could mean a very expensive, likely disruptive statewide outcome for North Carolina, let alone personal harm to health or property of individuals.   The radioactive waste is an extremely radioactive stew of isotopes, including plutonium, cesium-137, strontium-90, and other dangerous products that must be kept from becoming airborne or waterborne.

Regulators of nuclear waste transport use a reference fire scenario of 30 minutes duration at the temperature of a flaming house. The fact that the waste in these trucks is highly radioactive liquid requires consideration of outcomes of serious accidents different than solid material. In such a fire, radionuclides would be released from burning and heating the liquid radioactive waste differently than the solid waste that the transport containers were designed to hold. The section on thermal matters in the safety evaluation report (“SER”) written by the federal regulator for the proposed shipping cask was redacted for proprietary reasons, and so it is not possible for scientists and the informed public to review the calculations by NAC, the container maker, that were accepted by the regulator for these unique liquid shipments.

A strong physical impact could result in the retro-fitting of the shipping container for liquid contents to fail. The container, designed for solids, will hold four jugs or canisters of liquid. These inner containers are designed to hold the waste, and also to ensure that a carefully calculated concentration of fissile nuclear material is maintained. If this segregation of the material into smaller volumes is lost, there is a risk that has not been evaluated by the regulators in either US or Canada: that the material could begin a spontaneous, uncontrolled fission reaction. Fission releases heat, radioactive gases and creates a field of lethal-levels of gamma and neutron radiation. In other words, this would be a very dangerous accident consequence.

Fire is a compounding variable in this scenario since it could cause melting, warping and failure of seals even if the container walls were not crushed. Unlike solid wastes, loss of seals means release of liquid waste, particularly if the liquid itself is heated by the fire. The ledger of actual truck accident fires includes hotter and much longer times than the 30-minute “reference fire” used by regulators to judge “acceptable risk.”

Attached to this letter is sworn testimony from expert Dr. Marvin Resnikoff that supports the information shared above and the affidavit from Dr. Gordon Edwards explains what level of public health risk could result from a credible accident scenario. Both of these are in the legal record of an intervention filed in federal court by seven civil society organizations (including some of the undersigned) seeking a full environmental review of this plan with public participation which has not been done. Please do not hesitate to request[2] a briefing for you, or your staff, on public health, economic, and security dimensions of this challenge to our state. The alternative to shipments is for the waste to be processed, solidified and stored in Ontario, Canada, as has been the practice for some time.

There is no precedent for shipping such waste in liquid form, but, given current proposals from leading nuclear corporations (GE Hitachi) these shipments could set a precedent, in which case, it is ever more important that a full environmental review be conducted. In addition to the non-government organizations, in 2016 the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution calling for a Homeland Security Review prior to DOE launching these highly radioactive trucks into US urban centers, farmlands and across waterways used by millions of Americans.

It is our hope that you, Governor, will add your voice to these reasonable requests. Please contact us for more information, or, send your own inquiry to the Department of Energy before these inherently dangerous and potentially costly trucks begin to roll.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.




Hope  Taylor, MSPH

Executive Director

Clean Water for North Carolina

Asheville and Durham, North Carolina


Ruth Thomas,

Environmentalist, Inc.

Columbus, North Carolina


Adam Macon, Our Forests Aren’t Fuel Campaign Director

Dogwood Alliance

Asheville, NC


Julie Mayfield, Co-Director


Asheville, North Carolina


Jim Warren, Executive Director


Durham, North Carolina


Tim Judson, Executive Director

Mary Olson, Southeast Coordinator

Nuclear Information and Resource Service

Takoma Park, Maryland and Asheville, North Carolina


Terry Clark, M.D. Chairperson

Western North Carolina Chapter

Physicians for Social Responsibility


Ellen Thomas
Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, North Carolina Chapter

Disarm/End Wars Co-Chair
Tryon, North Carolina


Email sent by:


Mary Olson

Nuclear Information and Resource Service, Southeast

About Virginia Daffron
Managing editor, lover of mountains, native of WNC. Follow me @virginiadaffron

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